Address to The
Roosevelt Institution

by Katrina vanden Heuvel

Address to The Roosevelt Institution, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, April 26, 2006, by Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher of The Nation magazine. The Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center is proud to reprint Katrina vanden Heuvel's address to The Roosevelt Institution.
Fifty years ago, a 25 year old William Buckley sparked a rightwing crusade – against universities, against an affirmative government – with his 1951 God and Man at Yale. Tonight I'd like to suggest that even Wiliam Buckley knows the conservative movement today is in disarray, perhaps even in crisis. And I'd like to take a brief moment to pay tribute to a man of God, Yale's former Chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, who graced the University for more than a decade of often stormy times. Times like these. He was one of America's most eloquent and prophetic 20th century voices and his passionate calls for peace and social justice continue to challenge our nation's conscience.

I’m always introduced as the editor and publisher of The Nation, and sometimes I’m introduced as a commentator. But I want to say a special thanks tonight for not introducing me as a pundit. As you approach the end of reading week, I realize that the word “pundit” takes on special meaning for unsuspecting and weary students and librarians in Sterling and CCL (Cross Campus Library).

Good God – am I the only person who just got a mental image of Rush Limbaugh running naked through the stacks, tossing out candy?

Rush managed to show both his wit and his compassion earlier this year when he referred to the disaster in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel. (That was about the same time he said that the torture at Abu Ghraib was no different that what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation.) I promised him that the next time the earth opens up and swallows a huge tract of land, I’d think of him.

If you want to ruin a nice evening, spend a few minutes with some of the guests on shows like Hardball. Every time I do, I come away fearing a little bit for our future. But then, there are things that restore my faith.

When I come to events like this one, and see that the future of our democracy is in good hands after all.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to that ridiculous view that the young should be seen and not heard. In our magazine's newsroom alone, I think we have about two interns for every reporter/editor. I’m pleased to say that we’ve had more than our fair share of Yale graduates over the years, including my current intern Simon Apter of Corvallis, Oregon — as well as a slew of students from across the nation. But as ideas go, I think The Roosevelt Institution is one of the best that I’ve ever heard.

I’ve seen the ideas that come out of the Heritage Foundation. I’ve seen the ideas that come out of the Democratic Leadership Council. I’ve seen the ideas that come out of the Cato Institute. I would stack the ideas that I’ve read in the Roosevelt Review — and heard tonight — up against them any day of the week.

Some people have been led to believe that none of this work we do matters; that we’ve entered a long, dark period in our nation’s history, with our politics even more dominated by money, our inequality increasing, our environment even more threatened, our foreign polices even more reckless, immoral and destructive....And, yes, no question, we've lost political ground over the past generation. But I don’t believe our work, our ideas don't matter — and I know you don’t, either. In fact, I believe progressives can make real and significant advances in our politics over the next years. My optimism is fueled partly by this Administration's reckless extremism, overreaching, by how this country has turned against this disastrous war, and done so with virtually no political leadership; partly because not just we, but the general public is fed up with the terrible morality and slash-and-burn economic of the corporate agenda, a corporate class which has CEOs making some $400,000 in compensation a day, while workers lose benefits, and health care and a future. And, finally, the conservative agenda itself , indeed its philosophy, is in trouble, in disarray — even, I might venture, in crisis. There is, as columnist Paul Krugman wrote the other day, a "great revulsion" against conservative policies that have ravaged the middle class and have failed to address the challenges of the 21st century.

So, however dark this moment, and there is much work to be done, I believe we have more favorable conditions for the power of progressive ideas and the Democratic Left than we have seen in a very long time, probably since George W. Bush was a student here, and maybe even since his father was here. What we need to do is take advantage of this opportunity. We need to make the case for the necessity of recapturing the idea of the public and the importance of public institutions. For example, American universities — among the country's great public institutions — are the envy of the world but they have increasingly become the preserve of those who can afford the stunning fees with a consequent alarming reduction in social mobility. They must be reclaimed. This University has gone some distance toward doing that. But social mobility is a public interest which is being lost, corrupted. And as part of this recreating of public interest politics, begin, again, to contest the ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. And to make the case with focus, conviction and confidence.

I see all of you at The Roosevelt Institution as an important part of that effort. Your ideas, your leadership, your energy are crucial to the future of progressive politics in this country. And that’s what I’d like to talk about for a few minutes here tonight.

It was 66 years ago next month that Franklin Roosevelt gave an address to students at the University of Virginia that still resonates today. He looked out at a world that was changing rapidly, and he said this:

Every generation of young men and women in America has questions to ask the world. Most of the time they are the simple but nevertheless difficult questions: questions of work to do, opportunities to find, ambitions to satisfy.

But every now and again in the history of the Republic a different kind of question presents itself — a question that asks, not about the future of an individual or even of a generation, but about the future of the country, the future of the American people.

There was such a time at the beginning of our nation, President Roosevelt said. And again during the Civil War. And again at the start of World War II. “Today,” FDR said, “the young men and the young women of America ask themselves with earnestness and with deep concern this same question: ‘What is to become of the country we know?’”

Almost seven decades later, we’re asking the same question, with equal urgency and perhaps slightly more anxiety. As in 1940, much of that urgency is being driven by challenges from outside our country – extraordinary changes in the world economy that (together with the ascendancy of a strain of economic philosophy that puts the freedom of capital above the interests of society) has placed enormous strains on the postwar social contracts of all western countries, resulting in stagnating wages, greater insecurity and levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the early 1900s.And on top of it all, we are told we will be in a war without end. In the face of all these challenges, what is to become of the country we know?

But this time, there is something different. For the first time in history, those challenges to our way of life are coming not just from outside our county, but from inside our country, from the people who are supposed to be leading this country into the future.

There have been other periods in American history when habeas corpus has been suspended; when innocent civilians have been imprisoned; when secret prisons were created; when due process has been denied; when torture has been committed; when private records have been subpoenaed; when illegal domestic spying has been approved; when the President of the United States has repeatedly and consistently broken the law.

But they have never all happened at the same time. They have never all happened under the watch of the same Administration. They have never come with the promise that this song will remain the same for the rest of our natural lives. After all, if the war on terror is a war without end, are these abuses also without end? If we ignore them, do they become permanent parts of our democracy? If so, what is to become of the country and the rights and the freedoms that we know?

I am sometimes asked if I have one dominant emotion watching all that has transpired in this country the past five years. It is outrage. This administration has done so many things that are fundamentally wrong — and illegal — that you don't know where to look first. At least I don't — after reading five papers before 8 a.m. most mornings. But sometimes one finds a nugget of humor or insight that puts legitimate outrage in perspective — like the photo of a grandmother holding a poster at an anti-war rally that reads: "Give him a blowjob, so we can impeach him."

It’s important to remember that this Administration is not the result of five years of careful planning. This is the logical end of four decades of ideas, developed and funded by right-wing think tanks, publications, politicians and grass-roots campaigns.

People like Ralph Reed didn’t appear on the conservative scene by chance. Grover Norquist didn’t decide yesterday that government is best if it’s small enough to be drowned in a bathtub. It’s no accident that people with contempt for government are now in charge of government.

Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Friends have been on the conservative assembly line since they were your age. Since the 1970s, the conservative movement has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting ideas with a far-reaching message machine, underwriting right-wing newspapers on college campuses. It has paid and paid well for conservative speakers. It has provided leadership training to young Republicans. It has paved the way for tens of thousands of college students to get cushy internships in Washington; to turn those internships into staff positions on the Hill; and to turn their experiences on the Hill into residencies at think tanks, where they can come up with the next Big Idea, or posts in the House of Representatives, statehouses, or the White House, where they can put their next Big Idea into action.

For years, we’ve read the articles about how efficient and disciplined the conservative machine is. We’ve listened to liberal columnists — and even some liberal politicians — bemoan the dearth of ideas, the lack of coordination among progressives. People say, we only hear gripes coming from the left. Gripes, but no solutions. No new ideas. Wrong.

I have some news for them. When I visit this campus — and campuses across the nation — and meet with people across this nation, activists, people of decency, sanity, I see people with good ideas, some new, some not so new but informed by contemporary realities and insights. When I read the Roosevelt Review and other progressive student publications, I find ideas just as fresh and relevant than most being offered by our downsized politics. And I am not alone in recognizing the tremendous resource college students like you are. Today, after decades of lagging behind the Right in cultivating ideas and leaders on college campuses, progressives have taken a page from the conservative playbook — without losing our values or integrity, of course and without emulating the Right's tactics of distortion and division. And the rumblings are already being felt.

For too long, we’ve loved college students only for your bodies. We’ve sent you door-to-door on campaigns, got you to collect signatures on petitions and asked you to staff phone banks before big bill signings. Whatever we asked you to do, you did well, and we’ve been very grateful. But we didn’t ask enough of you. We didn’t use your brains. Now, thanks to the efforts of students like you, that’s changing. There is a growing understanding that you are the mother lode—the untapped vein of new insights and creative thinking that progressive politics needs right now more than ever. So, with you, we’re building a formidable idea incubator of our own.

In the past few years, some of the leading progressive think tanks and organizations in the country have created college programs, to nurture and disseminate your ideas nationwide. To find ways to take your ideas and idealism, your commitment and energy and turn the mosaic of organizations and issues into a movement that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Campus Progress, the college project of the Center for American Progress, is currently funding 31 progressive student publications on college campuses around the country. They’ve also established a progressive speakers’ bureau for campus organizers, and a fund to support activists and thinkers, and last year, they convened their inaugural National Student Conference in Washington, where hundreds of students traded ideas and strategies for change.

The People for the American Way has started a campus program of its own — called Young People For, to nurture student leaders. There are a slew of other progressive groups and networks working this fertile terrain — Democracy Matters, Wellstone Action, Rockthe Vote, SNAP (Students for a New American Politics.)

The magazine I edit, The Nation, is excited about hosting our first-ever student journalism conference this June 2 , bringing together a new generation of editors, journalists, muckrakers, thnkers, writers. These are the people who will expose, propose, truth tell, hold officials accountable. This is the work that is needed now more than ever as this White House wages war against a free and critical media. And of course, there is The Roosevelt Institution. Some 50 Chapters at colleges across this country, in under two years. That’s an astonishing accomplishment. And you are reaching out to student thinkers and activists working in arenas given too little attention in our current politics --poverty, inequality, public health, justice for disenfranchised, real security.

This is not just about left versus right, about us and them. We need a strong progressive movement in this country not just to counter the wrongheaded ideas of the conservative right. We need a strong progressive movement brimming with ideas to serve as a countervailing force, a check on a one party government, on overweening official and corporate power. And while we build our ideas, I hope there will be a respect for pluralism, for healthy debate and disagreement that sharpens and hones our ideas because unlike the right, "small d" democrats respect diversity of opinions. We don't need to march in lockstep.

We all talk about how the changes — exciting and daunting — that we’re seeing in the world right now — in our economy, in the momentum of the immigration rights movement, in challenges and threats to civil rights and liberties, reproductive rights — these are the biggest changes this country has seen in a generation. But it is also important to remember that this country has weathered previous challenges, dangers of perhaps even greater magnitude..our Civil War, the Great Depression, the Revolutionary period, World War II.Indeed, a recent survey of eminent historians made a compelling case that these were times different from our own in that the survival of the nation as we know it was in question. But we survived as nation without *forever* violating and shredding the principles which form the strengths of this nation.Let's not succumb to the manipulation of fear which has been so masterfully abused by this Administration. As FDR said at an equally dangerous moment in our country's history, as we confronted a Great Depression, "there is nothing to fear but fear itself."

Of course, there are many challenges unique to our age — ones we are still trying to sort through. I'll admit that these are complex times, and while the magazine I edit has stayed true to its animating principles--a fierce independence, a commitment to social and economic justice, a preference for non-military solutions, an abiding belief in civil rights and liberties--there are still mornings when I awake with many questions and too few answers about how to proceed in the face of some of the great moral and political challenges confronting us, your generation.

How do we rebuild our shredded democratic social contract?

How do we combat the lies and secrecy polluting our democracy?

How do we end the plutocratic system of elections in this nation? How do we ensure that all votes are counted, fairly, and our districts proportioned differently so we have a real representation of the diverse and rich range of views in this nation?

If you favor universal health care like me and millions of Americans, how do we make the transition, and how do we pay for it?

How do we nurture a media that serves the public interest? How do we ensure that the internet isn't colonized by the Murdochized, conglomeratized multinationals?How do we address the digital divide in our country?

And how do we strengthen the social movements — essential to rebuilding our democracy from the ground up?

With millions of Americans losing their pensions every month, how do we make pensions portable, so people have a decent retirement?

With every country from China to India working today to win the race to develop new forms of alternative energy, to kick the oil habit, what does America need to do to lead?

If millions of jobs are being outsourced overseas, how do we halt that and create the next wave of high-paying jobs to take their place?

And what about all those issues of intellectual property and bioethics raised by genetic research, like stem cells. Who gets to decide?

And how the hell do we get out of Iraq — which we must, and avert another war, with Iran, which will create a conflagration in an already instable region?

How do we promote democracy and human rights and sustainable development ...not by military invasion and neocon fantasies, for sure.

So far, our elected officials, our political system hasn’t produced enough good answers to these questions. Since so many of you are going to be the ones who do most of the living, deciding, and leading in the 21st Century; since you are the ones who are going to live with the consequences of our action or inaction over the next six or seven decades; you deserve a seat at the table today as much as anyone. We don’t just want your ideas – we desperately need them. And we should listen to you, engage in a true listening tour, some genuine participatory democratic listening.

Hatching new ideas, though, is only half our mission. The more some things in our world change – the more some things should stay the same. We shouldn’t just be creating new ideas. We must also breathe life into old ideals — and honor the intellectual traditions that the progressive movement is built upon. That’s why you’ve named this The Roosevelt Institution, after all — to make progressivism as important and as relevant as ever. When people tell me that the New Deal is a historic relic, I have a quick reply, or two. One is to make clear that history is to a nation what memory is to a person. (Gore Vidal sometimes like to say we are the U.S. of Amnesia.) The other is to point out that the New Deal was so much more than simply a vehicle for providing economic relief to people in need. It gave Americans a sense of social solidarity, a new social contract.

There can be no doubt that the time is ripe for this work in the field of ideas. Americans have compassionate conservatism fatigue. As SEIU President Andy Stern has said, most Americans are willing to accept that the guys in charge are getting a better deal than they do. But why does that mean everybody else should get a raw deal? When CEO salaries go up more than 400 percent, when Exxon's CEO makes $144,573 a day, when the stock market goes up more than 400 percent, when worker productivity goes up 68 percent – as they have since 1980 — and wages stay exactly the same, people know it’s a raw deal. When family bankruptcies go up by more than 2,000 percent in less than a decade at the same time politicians who have full coverage refuse to do anything to stop it, people know it’s a raw deal. When sons and daughters, husbands and wives, of poor families are shipped off to Iraq for two, three tours of duty, people know it's a raw deal.

Americans are more aware today than they have been in years of something Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1944 State of the Union: “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Roosevelt had an antidote to this. He called it the Economic Bill of Rights. They included the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, and sickness, and accident and unemployment; and the right to a good education.

Now, if a Democrat stood up and read that bill of rights in today’s Congress, he’d be chased into the halls, caricatured by Ann Coulter, and eaten for dinner by Karl Rove. He’d be called a radical. But take a look at the economic climate out there — listen to what Andy Stern is saying — and you see how relevant Roosevelt’s ideas are.

We need to retrieve the spirit of the economic bill of rights — to empower and impassion people seeking bold ideas. We need to build on our historical legacy to show people that progressivism is as alive and necessary as ever.

Yes, a generation of economic decline and failed government response as well as the relentless demonization of government has left people deeply wary of government, but it has also left them quite open to a practical progressive agenda – if it is put before them with focus, passion and conviction. Poll after poll, after all, has found Americans largely in support of progressive solutions to public problems, even as Democratic party support for these ideas have dwindled. You'd never know watching the Sunday talk shows, for example, that a majority of Americans believe we should set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, that by a two to one margin, Americans believe we should guarantee health insurance for all, or that a majority of Americans would join a union if they had a chance.

I’m a great believer in a Studs Terkel quote I heard in an interview not long ago, that action engenders hope. As an editor and a journalist, I'd add that I believe the reporting of positive action engenders hope. With all this darkness over the land, you wouldn’t know how many sweet, victories progressives have had lately — on college campuses and off. Progressives, for example, are reclaiming the idea of federalism — as gridlock, figurative and literal — reigns inside the beltway. States are once again becoming what Justice Brandeis liked to call, " the laboratories of democracy." Indeed, at beginning of this new millenium, we're in some ways in a position not unlike progressives at the beginning of the last century. We don't yet have the new deal that will be needed--by whatever term we wish to give it--but the route to that nationally probably runs more through local and state government than DC.

We are seeing victories in the arenas of health care, campaign financing; there are a passel of living wage initiatives that have passed or are on the ballot this year; there is investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency; even smarter education funding.

Two hundred and twenty four — frustrated with federal environmental inaction — created their own Kyoto compliance standards, promoting efficient and renewable energy projects. (Check out www.coolcities.us)

Last year, students at Harvard successfully rallied for the University to divest millions of dollars of investments in businesses that deal with the genocidal Sudanese government. the anti-sweatshop movement at dozens of colleges nationwide. The Apollo Alliance and Energy Action have teamed up in an effort to reform campus energy policies — mobilizing steps to use clean, "green" power and promoting a culture of conservation on campuses.

Students at more than 50 colleges are now engaged in anti-sweatshop activism, to get their universities to sign apparel contracts with responsible factories. Students at Williams are engaged in an energy-saving competition in honor of Earth Day. Students at the University of Miami today are going on hunger strikes along with janitors to support their drive for a livable wage. Here at Yale, you have finally convinced President Levin to eliminate tuition for families making less than $45,000 a year—something he said he’d never do. That is a victory for class justice.Congratulations.

Off campus, living wages have been passed in more than 130 cities, even while the federal minimum wage sits at the same rate for a decade. Cities for Peace have organized 76 municipalities to pass resolutions calling for withdrawal from Iraq. There are also resolutions from labor, including labor councils, and some big wins – like the 5,000 janitors SEIU recently organized in Houston, in one of the worst states to organize in America.

There are a slew of new community-based organizations working – whether in Miami among new immigrants or in Colorado or San Diego, and even Mississippi – to build multiracial coalitions in cities. Marginalized groups in the poorest communities are joining forces to improve their conditions and win local electoral victories,and, in many cases, beat back the Right’s initiatives or candidates. New groups have formed to counter the Right’s powerhouse the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). A new network of progressive mayors has formed in the last year. There are groups recruiting left and progressive candidates for local and state politics, --including Progressive Majority, Progressive Democrats of America, and a new group, Voters for Peace, which was inspired by the Nation’s cover editorial last November to mobilize voters to support only candidates who oppose the war and support a speedy exit.

And in case you’re wondering, that grumbling you hear in the background is the sound of tens of millions of Americans waking up to the reality of the recent law limiting choice in South Dakota, and what that might mean for Roe versus Wade. Combine that with the millions who turned out to oppose draconian immigration legislation a few weeks ago, and it’s easy to see the beginning of new social movements — with progressive roots — taking shape.

Between a much more lively labor movement, the coordination possibilities of the Internet, a new generation of activists like all of you, and a robust investigative press, The beginnings of a new progressive media infrastructure – there is much reason to hope.

Let me talk about the press for one moment, since that, of course, is my particular obsession.

The Nation, and many publications like yours, share your commitment to not just talk about why America is imperiled, but to explore ways to make it better. To engage in a Democracy Reconstruction project, to find ways to break through the over-hyped red-blue divide and build an electoral system that allows the full range of views in this great land to be fully and fairly represented.

We publish an alternative state of the union issue each year with 20 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, proposing alternative solutions from education to health care to reining in overweening and often predatory corporate power to supporting renewable energy. Not long ago, we published an issue with leading progressive economists, from Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, to JamieE Galbraith to Jeff Faux, providing ideas on how the US could reshape both capitalism and globalization in democratic ways that build a new social contract.

At The Nation, we don’t think citizens should be passive spectators, but rather active participants in our democracy – people who can make informed decisions and wise choices because they have good, honest information about their leaders, their policies, and the veracity of public statements. After all, how can wrongs be corrected without first being exposed? At a time when the mass media is Murdochized, conglomeratized, sensationalized, the need for an independent voice has never been greater. And we are using it to pull back the curtain on government secrecy and abuses, raising the tough questions that need to be asked in a democracy, advocating alternatives and reporting the news missing from the mainstream media.

America has never had a greater need for engaged and informed citizens of all ages than it does today.

Speaking truth to power and holding our elected officials accountable has never been more important to making this democracy we all love even stronger. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. This new institution, The Roosevelt Institution, gives me great faith in the future. All of you give me great faith in the future.

 
 
 
   
 
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