Democracy’s Survival: Past and Future

By Haven Lerner

An ailing economy, widespread worry regarding the fate of American democracy, and a government willing and wanting to take drastic action to address both. This combination of trends characterized the nation as both Joe Biden and FDR rose to power (albeit with some distinctions given that their presidencies were, after all, nearly a century apart). As journalist and FDR chronicler Jonathan Alter wrote, “Both….won in large part because of disgust with their Republican predecessors….who mismanaged the crisis of the day. Both came to office when democracy was at grave risk….and saw themselves as called to bolster it.” Given these parallels, some suspect that the FDR administration could provide insight into how to unify the country and restore faith in American democracy today.

An obvious starting point for analysis is the New Deal, the signature domestic initiative of FDR’s first term. When FDR came to power, fissures in American society still known to us today had sapped the strength of America’s democracy. Historian Jill Lepore writes that at this time, “American democracy… [was] weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation.” After the public pilloried his predecessor Herbert Hoover for failing to slow the rapidly worsening economy, FDR feared that if he too fell short, the consequences could be dire. As historian Eric Rauchway writes:

“[Roosevelt] thought that….a great deal depended on his success in providing relief to troubled workers….Too many of them could neither afford a decent life nor find a job….They knew something had gone badly wrong somehow. They knew also that Roosevelt had promised a program of relief. He had given them hope, which he understood was a dangerous thing, telling an aide that ‘disappointed hope’ caused destructive revolutions.”

Critically, it isn’t just that FDR’s interventions slowed the economy’s precipitous slide. They also emphasized “involving Americans in the process of their own recovery,” fostering greater support for the government by providing vivid examples of how it was addressing the problems afflicting its citizens. With the New Deal still a “live part of our political imagination” and with the country reeling from comparable crises today, can President Biden and the Democrat-controlled Congress follow the path laid by FDR? Alter writes that it’s imperative that Biden “do amid the pandemic what Mr. Roosevelt did amid the Depression: restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”

However, the circumstances aren’t exactly aligned as while the New Deal fended off a crisis of confidence in our government, today we must also overcome an actual attack, the harrowing assault on our Capitol perpetrated on Jan 6. Without acknowledging the insurrectionary riot head on, how can we as a nation move past it? Historian Heather Cox Richardson has eloquently described the task collectively before us, imploring our nation to ask:

“Is what happened on January 6th and leading up to it and perhaps coming out of it okay for a democracy? Is it okay for our elected officials to undermine the outcome of an election that has been inspected, challenged in court, certified, and counted? That is at the end of the day why this matters…We have never put a period at the end of this to say… ‘No, this is not the way a democracy happens.’

 In conjunction with large governmental action, a common understanding of the events surrounding Jan 6th would serve to define those anti-democratic aspirations as outside of the American experiment. Or as historian Joanne Freeman said, “…having that moment where basically congress says to the country….“we have to pause in our normal course of duty and investigate this because it’s not allowable, it’s not part of the democratic tradition of how our process should be operating, so let’s act.”  A riot on the Capitol is not normal; thus, we emphatically must state that it should not part of the American experiment. However, both a pursuit of FDR’s legacy of renewal through governmental action and confronting our own unique challenges to democracy run into the challenge of a polarized media.

Today’s media is so diffuse and so polarized that the possibility for collective action or collective understanding on certain issues has been diminished by the undermining of a consensus among the people. Our world views have been shaped by the polarized media we consume to such an extent that it often seems like those on different sides of the aisle view reality entirely differently. This was not always the case: RDI Advisor Anne Applebaum writes that “In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.” Fox News has already encouraged doubt around the COVID-19 vaccines and One America News downplayed a hearing held by the committee investigating the events on Jan 6. With such intense division shrinking opportunities for building consensus, bold action alone may not be enough to unify our nation: it will take all of us, listening, understanding, and empathizing with each other; recognizing that regardless of who our friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans vote for we are often striving for the same things.

Title Image Credit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/