FDR signs the Social Security Act.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935.

(Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

We Need an Economic Bill of Rights to Save American Democracy

The time has come for our many progressive organizations and resurgent labor unions to create a grand progressive and social-democratic coalition that will press the Democratic Party to redeem FDR’s 1944 call.

We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children. – Henry Demarest Lloyd

After nearly 50 years of corporate, conservative, and neoliberal assaults on the progressive achievements of the long “Age of Roosevelt” from the 1930s to the early 1970s—assaults that have stripped workers, women, and people of color of their hard-won rights, engendered unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power, and devastated the lives of millions—the American political system, indeed, American democratic life is in jeopardy. The time has come to do what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did. The time has come to make America progressive, indeed, radical again. The time has come to renew the fight for an Economic Bill of Rights for All Americans.

Public faith in government “to do the right thing” cratered over a decade ago and has remained low. Most feel that money perverts our elections, resulting in policies that favor the rich over the average person. (They are right on both counts.) Scandals and innuendo receive more coverage than legislation and policy. Partisan squabbling dominates the national dialogue. Blocking the opposition takes precedence over pursuing a positive program. And to top it all off, the Republican Party is poised to re-nominate Donald Trump for President, even though mountains of evidence show that he broke his oath to uphold the Constitution in attempting to reverse the result of the 2020 presidential election. Moreover, he has good chance of winning in 2024—which would be not just terribly tragic, but also perversely ironic in light of the fact that the American people support democracy overwhelmingly and avidly.

But as President Franklin Roosevelt warned 85 years ago, popular support is not enough:

As of today, Fascism and Communism—and old-line Tory Republicanism—are not threats to the continuation of our form of government. But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land….

Sure, communism is moribund. But fascism is resurgent.

So, what are we to do? We should start by taking hold of our history and remembering what Republicans don’t want us to remember and too many Democrats have either forgotten or would just as soon keep us from remembering. We should remember how FDR and those whom we call the Greatest Generation saved America from economic ruin and political oblivion and turned it into the strongest and most prosperous country on Earth by not simply taking up the labors and struggles of the New Deal and the War Effort, but also making the United States progressively, indeed, radically freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.

Appreciating how earlier generations had confronted and prevailed over mortal national crises in the 1770s and 1860s by radically transforming America, Roosevelt told a friend two years before he was to run for the presidency: “There is no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for at least one generation.” And in his ensuing 1932 “New Deal” campaign, he promised Americans not only a vast array of progressive policies and initiatives that would empower them to overcome the Great Depression, rebuild America and themselves, assure greater economic security and opportunities, and finally bring an end to the persistent Gilded Age power structure that had brought about the worst economic and social catastrophe in U.S. history. He also proposed an “economic declaration of rights” to redeem and renew the revolutionary promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

We have both the history of what Roosevelt and the generation he led sought to achieve and solid reason to believe that our fellow citizens already fundamentally embrace his vision of economic rights.

Encouraged by FDR, Americans did more than take up the labors of the New Deal. They pushed Roosevelt to go even further than he may ever have planned on going—and together president and people initiated revolutionary changes in American government and public life.

They subjected capital to public account and regulation; empowered government to address the needs of working people and the poor; organized labor unions, consumer campaigns, and civil rights organizations to fight for their rights and broaden and level the “we” in “we the people;” established a social security system; built schools, libraries, post offices, parks, and playgrounds; vastly expanded the nation’s public infrastructure with new roads, bridges, tunnels, and dams; dramatically improved the American landscape and environment; and energetically cultivated the arts and refashioned popular culture.

Undeniably, they left much undone, especially regarding questions of racial justice and inequality. But Americans in all their diversity imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes, and aspirations. And when the second crisis struck, they did not stop. Inspired by FDR’s projection in 1941 of a postwar United States committed to pursuing the “Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Worship, Freedom from Want and Fear,” they not only went “All Out!” to defeat fascism, but also subjected the economy to even greater public control; continued to expand the labor, consumer, and civil rights movements; reduced poverty and inequality from the bottom up; and further transformed the “we” in “we the people.” Moreover, diverse national polls showed that what they had accomplished in the New Deal and ongoing War Effort had made them ever more determined to keep building and moving the country in a more progressive and social-democratic direction at war’s end.

Americans’ surging democratic aspirations and energies gave FDR the confidence to declare in his 1944 State of the Union Message:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men...” In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

And returning to his proposal of 1932, he proceeded to call for nothing less than a Second Bill of Rights—an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans that would guarantee, among other things, a useful job at a living wage, universal healthcare, a good education, food security, a decent home, and opportunities for recreation.

FDR’s Message thrilled the democratic left and labor unionists. And almost immediately the AFL and CIO labor federations, the National Farmers Union, and a newly organized National Citizens Political Action Committee (which was filled with celebrity liberals and progressives) launched campaigns to promote the idea and help secure Roosevelt’s election to a fourth presidential term.

And yet, as popular as his call was, Roosevelt did not assume it would be easy going forward. With corporate bosses, Republican conservatives, and white supremacist Southern Democrats in mind, he not only spoke of the likelihood of fierce “rightist reaction,” but also warned, in words that should speak loudly to us today: “if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920's—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”

FDR won re-election that year but passed away in the spring of 1945. And yet, the idea of an Economic Bill of Rights did not die. It directly informed the now-legendary GI Bill of Rights. It propelled the ensuing Truman administration to try to secure national healthcare. It led the Democratic Party to structure its 1960 platform around it. It encouraged Lyndon Johnson to pursue a host of Great Society and War on Poverty programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. It inspired labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph to advance a “Freedom Budget: To Achieve Freedom from Want” (1966) (which garnered the endorsement of 150 the most prominent academic, foundation, labor, and religious leaders in America). And it moved the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr to echo FDR in calling for an Economic Bill of Rights in 1968.

More recently, both democratic-socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Masss.) renewed FDR’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights in their 2020 presidential campaigns; Marianne Williamson is championing the idea in her 2024 presidential campaign; and, while Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has cited it in speeches and writings, many of his congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues have advanced bills in that spirit. Actions are underway in the states, too: The Democratic parties of Massachusetts and Arizona have officially embraced the idea of an Economic Bill of Rights; progressive legislators in Wisconsin have proposed an Economic Bill of Rights (though action on it is blocked by the GOP senate and assembly majorities); and in New Hampshire such a bill has just been advanced in the statehouse. Not to mention, the pages of liberal, progressive, and democratic-socialist periodicals and websites regularly speak of redeeming FDR’s vision.

But most critically, perhaps, even if most Americans do not remember the history recounted here, national polls show that the great majority of them still aspire to secure the makings of what would constitute an Economic Bill of Rights.

So, what are we to do? The time has come to do what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did. Admittedly, we don’t have an FDR as President—one who will call for overthrowing the power of the “economic royalists,” seek to empower and engage working people in democratically transforming the prevailing political and economic order, and inspire us by proclaiming the likes of the Four Freedoms and projecting an Economic Bill of Rights. But we have both the history of what Roosevelt and the generation he led sought to achieve and solid reason to believe that our fellow citizens already fundamentally embrace his vision of economic rights.

The time has come for our many progressive organizations and resurgent labor unions to create a grand progressive and social-democratic coalition that will press the Democratic Party to redeem FDR’s 1944 call and join in rallying working people to fight for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights that will guarantee to all Americans:

  1. A useful job that pays a living wage.
  2. A voice in the workplace through a union and collective bargaining.
  3. Comprehensive quality healthcare.
  4. Complete cost-free public education and access to broadband internet.
  5. Decent, safe, affordable housing.
  6. A clean environment and a healthy planet.
  7. A meaningful endowment of resources at birth, and a secure retirement.
  8. Sound banking and financial services.
  9. An equitable and economically fair justice system
  10. Recreation and participation in civic and democratic life.

The time has come to save American democratic life by progressively, indeed, radically enhancing it.

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