By: Margaret Rung, Professor of History & Director, Center for New Deal Studies
What can a POTUS and FLOTUS from the 1% teach us about the American Dream? A great deal, it turns out.
Facing a global depression that left over one quarter of the work force unemployed, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House at a time when the dream had turned into a nightmare for millions of Americans. Despite their own aristocratic backgrounds, the president and first lady committed themselves to restoring upward mobility for a people brought to their knees by the Great Depression.
The Roosevelts’ optimism and commitment to equal economic opportunity helped the nation rewrite its social contract in the form of a New Deal. Premised on the idea that government could, and should, alleviate the worst excesses of capitalism, the New Deal provided work relief, regulated the economy, built a welfare state and reformed public and private institutions so that they benefitted all the people, not just a privileged few.
With that social contract, FDR and ER illustrated that individual opportunity could not be preserved without a belief in the shared bonds of community.
They also recognized the interdependence of economic and political freedom. During World War II, ER argued that economic insecurity threatened democracy by feeding fascism. Consequently, she said, the nation was fighting not simply for political liberties, but for the right of “every man and woman who desires to work, an opportunity to work.”
FDR committed himself to this principle in 1941 by articulating the Four Freedoms as the cornerstones beneath the fight against fascism. To freedom of expression, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear, he added, “Freedom from want, everywhere in the world.”
Three years later, he introduced his Second Bill of Rights “under which,” he stated, “a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.” Among those rights were “the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation” and “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”
As perhaps few other political leaders since, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt perceived the fragility of the American Dream. They realized that it would remain unfulfilled for millions of Americans unless the government — which they defined as the people — played a vital role in the economy and protected political as well as economic rights.
While their vision is currently threatened, it also offers hope. It illuminates a path forward for a nation in which so many find the American Dream an elusive reality.
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