Commentary: The Fight for American Democracy Is Here

Jan. 6 is etched in our nation’s history. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, the day is full of meaning.

This month, we reflect on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In some ways, the world has changed since that momentous day, but in many ways, it hasn’t changed at all – again, often a matter of your political perspective.

Remarkably, 82 years ago on Jan. 6, 1941, with the world at war and America still on the sidelines, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave one of the most important speeches a president has ever given – his State of the Union address, now commonly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, which later, Norman Rockwell amplified with his series of four oil paintings. Replicas of these adorned the wall near the White House press office when I served on President Clinton’s White House staff.

Roosevelt’s 1941 speech remains a powerful expression of why democracy matters to Americans and what we need to do to protect our way of life. It has a straightforward structure – grabs the audience’s attention by laying out the problem, explains the consequences of not solving that problem, shares a solution and calls for specific action.

It’s a speech that you could see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky citing as he and his nation show the world what it means to fight for democracy. To put lives on the line. To live and die for freedom.

Roosevelt laid out the problem at hand:

“Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world,” he said.

He outlined our obligation as a nation – and as citizens:

“We express our determination that the democratic cause shall prevail.”

He invigorated the audience with a shared sense of purpose.

“Let us say to the democracies: ‘We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom.’”

He stressed that freedom is not a birthright.

“The nation takes great satisfaction and much strength from the things which have been done to make its people conscious of their individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America.”

Roosevelt cogently explained to the American people, many of whom were reticent about joining the conflict, why it mattered. We would need to be active participants in our own destiny. We couldn’t take for granted that the War would not find its way to our shores. Not only that, but America had a vital interest in supporting its allies to maintain and/or achieve freedom around the world.

What solution did he outline? Roosevelt articulated the direct, clear connection between an overseas war and life in America.

“That is why the future of all American Republics is today in serious danger.” We face “great responsibility – and great accountability.”

He also warned of bad actors – those who don’t have the interest of their citizens at heart.

“We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”

After laying out the problem, describing America’s vital interest in it and prescribing critical needs for a coming war effort, including the sacrifices Americans would need to make, he appealed to a desire for individual freedoms, central to the American way of life:

“In the future days, which we we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” 

Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way.

His rhetoric soared as he brought the momentous speech to a close.

“This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. … Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

In the years after the speech, America and our allies fought a war to protect our way of life and the lives of millions around the world. Millions made the ultimate sacrifice. Millions more came together in ways large and small to preserve freedom.

Roosevelt warned Americans to take democracy seriously. His focus was the world beyond our borders. He could not have known that one day, his admonition and urging would resound within our borders.

In 1941, Roosevelt feared losing Europe and Asia to non-democratic regimes.

Today, the fight for democracy is not just in foreign lands. It is not knocking at our door. The fight is here; it is now. The “Four Freedoms” speech reminds us that democracy is fragile and needs to be tended. It is not good enough to be a passive observer. It is worth fighting for.

Now, Congress has fulfilled its obligation to select a Speaker of the House in the very chamber central to the events of Jan. 6, which we can view as either evidence of our democracy in action or a bastardization of it. November’s elections either reinforced America’s democratic foundations or weakened them.

Whether you believe that the events of Jan. 6, 2021, were a vicious attack on our democracy or an example of democracy in action, it was a historic day for our nation – a high or low water mark, depending again on your outlook.

Roosevelt’s Jan. 6 speech helped save our democracy and the world as we know it by reminding Americans what we love about our nation and what we had to lose. Its lessons are as valuable today as they were 82 years ago.

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