How the wisdom of FDR matters for our democracy today

By Mark Poloncarz

Since it became clear Donald Trump will be our next president it seems like I am asked daily by at least one person my views on his incoming administration and what it means for our country. Many ask me this question as supporters of President Obama who are worried that current policies and laws, such as the Affordable Care Act or the Obama Power Plan, will be reversed. Others who supported the president-elect ask me the same question, as if they are seeking validation from me that their choice of Mr. Trump was a good one.

I have told all that have asked, while I hope for the best, I cannot in good conscience say it will work out. To those who support the current administration’s policies, or wish they were further to the left on the political spectrum, I am disheartened by President-Elect Donald Trump’s recent choices for cabinet secretaries and other high ranking officials. His choices do not instill any confidence in me that we will end his term in office with a more equal, just or fair nation. In fact, his appointees are those whom I believe will set our nation back decades.

When Donald Trump said he was going to “Make America Great Again,” to his average supporter that meant returning to a day when good paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful and Washington, D.C. worked for us. While there certainly were Trump supporters who voted for him based on fear and anger, I believe the vast majority of his supporters, including many blue collar democrats and people I know, voted for him because they felt he would be their president.

However, looking at the list of his appointees, it now seems clear when Trump said he was going to Make America Great Again he was referring to the age of the robber barons when J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others ruled both Wall Street and Washington.

For example, if you believe government should protect individuals from the predatory schemes of Wall Street then you must be dismayed by Trump’s choice of former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary. If you think the Department of Labor should protect workers’ rights, while still supporting an equitable relationship with business owners, then Trump’s pick of fast food tycoon Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary is dispiriting. If you believe in the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is an affront to everything you hold dear. The list goes on and on.

To top it off, after our intelligence community briefed Congress on their belief that Russia deliberately interfered in our election and Republican Senators are even calling for an investigation, yesterday President-Elect Trump announced his appointment of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be our next Secretary of State. While Tillerson’s lack of diplomatic experience is not in itself disqualifying, his close ties to the Russians as ExxonMobil’s CEO should give anyone pause. Our founders believed the secretary of state was the second most important job in our government, following the president, which in many ways is still the case. The secretary of state needs to be our chief diplomat and there must be no question as to where his or her allegiance lies. It is fair to say Tillerson’s close ties to the Russians and especially Vladimir Putin should be a concern to all.

Yet, President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the accusations the Russians deliberately interfered in our election to help him win and his professed aversion to daily intelligence briefings is most disconcerting. Russian interference in our Presidential election is nothing more than an attack on our democracy. However, instead of joining others from both parties who have called for an investigation into the matter, or remaining silent on the topic, Trump again chose to attack, calling the allegations politicized and showing contempt for the same intelligence agencies he must rely on as President. At least he should rely on them, but he claims he does not need a daily intelligence agency briefing because, as he stated, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

This statement is not only incredulous on its face, but dangerous for our country. Our president faces some of the most difficult decisions any human can make. To make those decisions without facts and advice from our intelligence community, especially at a time when the Russians have shown they will interfere in our domestic affairs, would be as President Obama just said, like a pilot “flying blind.” We deserve a president who will read these reports regardless of whether he wants to do so; there can be no alternative.

So how did we get here, with a president-elect who does not want to read intelligence reports, rejects allegations of foreign meddling in our elections without even seeing the facts, appoints the latest version of robber barons to run our nation, and who just happened to lose the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 votes? All because many good people in a few swing states voted for him and his promise of a greater America.

While I may not believe the Trump presidency will be good for our country, especially after his recent actions, only time will tell whether the Trump presidency affects what is most cherished in our nation: our democracy. While some scoff at the thought his presidency could negatively impact our democratic institutions, I am reminded of the words of the president who faced more adversity that any other during the 20th Century: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During his fireside chat in April 1938, FDR spoke on the institution of democracy in words that still ring true today:

“Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations-not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion and government weakness through lack of leadership in government. Finally, in desperation, they chose to sacrifice liberty in the hope of getting something to eat. We in America know that our own democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need to act together, to meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people.”

“There is placed on all of us the duty of self-restraint. . . . That is the discipline of a democracy. Every patriotic citizen must say to himself or herself, that immoderate statement, appeals to prejudice, the creation of unkindness, are offenses not against an individual or individuals, but offenses against the whole population of the United States. . . .Self-restraint implies restraint by articulate public opinion, trained to distinguish fact from falsehood, trained to believe that bitterness is never a useful instrument in public affairs. There can be no dictatorship by an individual or by a group in this Nation, save through division fostered by hate. Such division there must never be.”

Though nearly eighty years have passed since Roosevelt spoke those words, we would be wise to heed his advice because a democracy is a work in progress that requires its citizens and their government to work together for the greater good. As such, we must strive to create a better nation for all and reject falsehoods that would cut at the core of our democratic institutions. We must not blindly reject facts that do not fit into our own narrative. We must call out those who seek to divide us, and reject those who engage in the spread of hate. We must work together when necessary, yet be active in opposition to policies that would destroy the bedrock principles that form our nation and its laws. We must all engage in acts of self-restraint, especially in today’s age of instant social media gratification.

We must all be advocates for the American Democracy, and it starts at the top.

Mark Poloncarz is the County Executive of Erie County, New York.
Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, 2016