Which Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders and FDR's Second Bill of Rights
It’s a moment that comes like clockwork every time I teach a course on 20th Century American history. I have seen it happen in the Midwest, the South, the Northeast, as well as in Australia. Placing the text of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address on the board, I turn on audio of Roosevelt delivering it to the wartime nation. As students listen to Roosevelt enumerate his “Second Bill of Rights,” deep surprise is registered on their faces. Hearing an American president—one whom they can listen to speak no less—suggest that the meaning of not just the war, but the American project as a whole was the creation of essential rights to housing, a good education, an adequate living, recreation, health care, old age security, a job, and basic welfare registers, from the perspective of the 21st Century, as a complete shock.
This is not the America they have known in the first two decades of the new millennium. Nor is the political pursuit of these goals as inalienable rights—as the basic backbone of the constitutional guarantee of the right to the pursuit of happiness—what the Democratic Party has stood for in their lifetimes.
Perhaps even more important than the battle for the Democratic nomination between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has been a broad historical and analytic argument lurking beneath the surface on the part of their supporters. On the one side are those who chalk up the defeats the party has suffered to an overwhelming conservative onslaught. For such people, the party’s retreat from egalitarianism, its frequent posture of militaristic belligerence around the world, its close connection to the interests of Wall Street and large corporations, and its continual acceptance of the racist and anti-working class policies of leading party officials like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was and remains the only way to counter the organizational and financial strength of an undeniably terrifying Republican Party.
"Perhaps even more important than the battle for the Democratic nomination between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has been a broad historical and analytic argument lurking beneath the surface on the part of their supporters."
On the other side are those who believe that the capitulations that gained steam well before Jimmy Carter’s presidency, preceded at pace through the 1980s, took new heights during Bill Clinton’s decimation of the welfare state and the run up to the second Iraq Invasion, and continued, albeit at a lesser pace, through Barack Obama’s two terms are the precise problem. In a continual fear of irrelevance and the possibility of far right governance, the Democratic Party begat its own transformation into a party of lesser evils—lesser corporate and elite tax breaks, slightly more covert imperialism, attacks on the welfare state and base level economic rights in the name of efficiency rather than long discredited social Darwinism or direct appeals to racism. Along the way, the Party made sure to be only a decade or two (unlike it’s truly prehistoric rival) behind the curve of the legal, social, and cultural victories of movements like feminism and gay liberation. In this analysis, the egalitarian and universalistic impulses of Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights crashed on the shoals of what can only be described as the modern American version of political appeasement.
I am firmly in the camp of the latter interpretation of the past four decades of Democratic Party history. This of course is precisely why Bernie Sanders’ campaign has been so energizing to myself and the millions of people who went beyond the passive step of the base level of democratic participation (voting) or the subbasement level (tweeting or Facebook posting) and gave money and time to the campaign. Lots of very smart people support the former interpretation of course. The litany of reasons why the Democratic Party must support or even champion this decimation of a social right, must not argue that health care, education, and living wages should be rights because American are naturally and intrinsically conservative, must allow big donors to have undue influence, must bomb this or that country, or overthrow this or that democratically elected government has always been long, and in some individual cases, somewhat reasonable devoid of larger historical context. Looking at the forest through the trees though the pattern becomes clear: as a whole, the Democratic Party for decades has ceased to offer an effective bulwark in defense of the program and vision outlined by Roosevelt more than seven decades ago. Furthermore, it has acquiesced and often led the charge for a foreign policy that has killed thousands and denied millions the right to self-determination.
To become relevant to my students, to the millions of Americans who are swimming in debt and decimated by low wages, unaffordable health care, and rising housing costs the Democratic Party must unequivocally reclaim the mantle of the Second Bill of Rights.
"To become relevant to my students, to the millions of Americans who are swimming in debt and decimated by low wages, unaffordable health care, and rising housing costs the Democratic Party must unequivocally reclaim the mantle of the Second Bill of Rights."
As an American living abroad I see first hand that for the United States to become a true force for good around the world, the Democratic Party must lead the charge in fighting against an American chauvinism that puts little value on the lives of people who are innocent bystanders to our supposed economic and military interests.
Up until the previous year, many were skeptical that the Democratic Party could ever return to these principles. The successes of the Sanders campaign have given some of us a glimmer of hope that the party can be reclaimed from its seemingly inexorable drift to the party of lesser inequality and dislocation. The campaign’s victories have pointed to something that many have always suspected: when you bring Americans together around universal common interests like a right to education, health care, and a decent and remunerative job you are much more likely to beat back the forces of conservative reaction in the long term than by aping and appeasing the reactionaries.
So even as Bernie Sanders has a narrower and narrower chance to achieve the nomination, it’s incumbent on those of us his campaign has inspired to ratchet up our political participation and take this fight to the Democratic Party in any way we can. We must continue to fight for health care, living wages, and education as rights for all Americans, to demand that overwhelming corporate influence has no place in a democratic party, to demand that politicians that throw teachers, victims of police violence, and working Americans under the bus are not welcome in a democratic party. To paraphrase the late Senator Paul Wellstone, to be relevant in a 21st Century increasingly defined by a deep inequality between the haves and the have nots, “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” must reclaim the party from those who have sold outs its values for a large donation or their own political expediency.