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Freedom From Fear, Redux

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In his January, 1941, State of the Union Speech, President Roosevelt introduced his Four Freedoms--Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. In the context of a world plunging into war, the Four Freedoms constituted FDR's preface to recanting America's non-interventionist policies in support of U.S. allies imperiled abroad. Freedom from fear, then, meant freedom from fear of foreign enemies. Today, we need to re-purpose Roosevelt's Freedom from Fear to push back against internal interests waging a divide-and-conquer uncivil war of political and social obstructionism.

A recent Alternet column suggested we should be wary of a private-sector/government collaboration to induce fear. But that would only account for the fear of an outside threat, building on the post-9/11 deceitful drumbeat that got us into Iraq, fueled the War on Terror, and grew the Department of Homeland Security from the purloined seeds of nearly two dozen federal agencies overnight. Frankly, I don't think that fear is what is gripping America today. Our fear is that we are becoming afraid of each other, a fear manifesting itself as absolute resistance to change, compromise, or contrary ideologies. The word 'no' reigns; the word 'yes' has been swept into the dustbin of lost opportunities.

A friend of mine called me the other night and asked if I'd seen an article in the Washington Post about a town hall meeting held by North Carolina Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry whose constituents, as quoted in the Post article, "...have no desire to see conciliation on gridlocked Capitol Hill, unless it comes from President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats."

Our nation's political parties have always been fractious. Historians would be hard-pressed to point out an election--from local to national--absent some measure of rancor elevated in temperature by claims of calumny leveled against one party or the other. There have been canings, fisticuffs, and expletive-deleted insults tossed in the sacred chambers of the Capitol. Kites of every political persuasion fly on the steady breeze of contretemps between the White House and the Congress. Yet legislative deal-brokering, often unsatisfying and occasionally vile, lurched forward on the ego-grinding gears of compromise. And all that was fine until it wasn't anymore.

Compromise fell out of favor; to get along by going along--attributed to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, but a well-practiced mantra long before his day--turned from a pragmatically successful strategy to a pejorative label branded deep into the political flesh of any legislator who dared shake hands across an aisle. Suddenly, compromise was out, take-no-prisoners combat was in. Mean-spiritedness and dam-building against the flow of progress now ride on the current conservative refrain, "No, no, no." If that is the case, we have much to be afraid of.

Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick, and a GOP 2014 primary contender for the Wyoming Senate seat currently held by Republican Mike Enzi, suggests the worst thing a Republican could do is get along with the White House. In a July 17 Washington Examiner article, Cheney said, "I'm running because I know ... as a patriot that we can no longer afford simply to go along to get along."

Are we now redefining patriotism as obstructionism? Apparently. Representative Mike Kelly (R-Pa), in a press conference earlier this month, said of Democrats who accuse Republicans of obstructionism, "We can sit back and watch this unraveling and think, 'You know what, you guys are obstructionists.' [But] if I can stop this great country from unraveling, then I want to be an obstructionist. I want to stand for people."

Reasonable people are not obstructionists; reasonable Americans value and encourage dialogue over monologue. Coming together from disparate points of view is our heritage. Thomas Jefferson did not write the Declaration of Independence alone; his colleagues in the Continental Congress fought--often bitterly and at risk for their lives--for every line, almost to the word, in that document, as they did for the Constitution and Bill of Rights that followed. There was dissent, but, ultimately a nation emerged.

There is almost nothing to which a person aspires that can be gained without compromise. The American people do not need to be made afraid of contrariness, or impassioned dissent, or of cooperation. That is a fear that will surely scuttle our democracy from within.