Daily Digest - September 2: The U.S. Economy Needs Immigrant Workers to Thrive

Sep 2, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Just Who Did Build America? (Melissa Harris-Perry)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Just Who Did Build America? (Melissa Harris-Perry)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren says that if the Republican Party is to survive, it needs to accept that immigrants continue to be key players in U.S. economic success.

Want Better, Smaller Government? Hire Another Million Federal Bureaucrats. (WaPo)

John J. Dilulio Jr. writes that the "Leviathan by proxy," the immense bureaucracies administered by state government, contractors, and nonprofits, just can't work as effectively as more federal hires.

What Happens When Health Plans Compete (NYT)

A new study shows that premiums drop when competition increases on the health insurance exchanges, writes Austin Frakt. He says the challenge is luring in those competitors.

What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like? (Notes on a Theory)

David Kaib suggests two options for truly worker-friendly policies that could be attached to the name "right to work" instead of the anti-union free rider laws currently referred to as such.

Happy Labor Day. Are Unions Dead? (TNR)

Jonathan Cohn speaks to labor strategist and researcher Rich Yeselson about today's challenges for organized labor. Yeselson points out that union contracts don't stifle innovation; some companies just aren't innovating.

At Market Basket, the Benevolent Boss Is Back. Should We Cheer? (In These Times)

Julia Wong questions the labor-focused narrative of the recent Market Basket strikes. A manager-led strike doesn't guarantee that average workers will maintain their good wages and benefits.

Columbia University E-mail Reveals Disdain for Anti-Rape Campus Movement (The Nation)

George Joseph shares an email from the Columbia University Title IX compliance officer which demonstrates just how difficult it is for campus activists to be seen as equal partners.

  • Roosevelt Take: Campus Network members Hannah Zhang and Hayley Brundige have both called for student involvement in setting rape prevention policies on campus.

Fast Food Workers Plan Biggest U.S. Strike to Date Over Minimum Wage (The Guardian)

Thursday's strike will be the largest yet. Dominic Rushe ties the strike to lawsuits defining McDonalds as a joint employer with its franchisees, which would make unionizing easier.

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Leadership Wanted: The College Access Crisis Needs You, Mayor de Blasio

Jul 31, 2014Kevin Stump

Focusing on programs that help at-risk college students achieve doesn't get them in the door, so the mayor must put more energy and funding into college access.

Focusing on programs that help at-risk college students achieve doesn't get them in the door, so the mayor must put more energy and funding into college access.

This time a year ago, New York City residents were knee-deep in sorting through the promising rhetoric offered by hopeful bureaucrats vying to become the next Mayor of New York City. "The Tale of Two Cities" – the signature campaign phrase that helped propel Bill de Blasio into becoming the next chief executive of America’s largest city – speaks to the severity of the economic inequality that exists in New York City and across the country.

Mayor de Blasio’s election was an overnight mandate for progressive reform, which greatly emphasized increasing resources for New York City’s schools. This year’s final New York City 2014 budget did take steps in the right direction by investing more in the City University of New York (CUNY) and programs like the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs and the Black Male Initiative to help the most at-risk students succeed while at college. These investments are necessary – especially given that 42 percent of CUNY community college students experience housing insecurity, 39 percent experience food insecurity, and 65 percent come from households with incomes less than $30,000.

However, let's be clear: the mayor is not placing equal priority on college access, a choice that is dangerously shortsighted and will be much more costly in the end. The programs and opportunities that at-risk New York City high school students have available to help them access college are just as important as the programs that help students after admission.

While most New York City high school students know that a high school diploma is no longer good enough, and acknowledge the need for a college degree, almost 70 percent of students believed that a high school diploma alone would adequately prepare them for college-level coursework. Yet only 25 percent of students are graduating college ready in New York City. Just 29 percent of high school graduates in the class of 2012 had test scores high enough to avoid remedial courses at the City’s public schools. What’s worse is that 74 percent of first-time freshmen entering CUNY community colleges needed remedial coursework in math, up 15 percent from 2002. Nearly three out of four high school students are either failing to graduate on time or lack the basic academic skills needed to hit the ground running at CUNY.

It is clear that the City should be doing more to help the most at-risk communities access college while simultaneously injecting the CUNY system with enough resources to effectively meet the demand.

There’s no debate: public higher education, while not perfect, is a proven and successful model to help socially and economically prepare young people to become life-long contributing citizens. However, the critical four years leading up to a young person's path to college can make or break a student’s college attainment. The Mayor should seize the opportunity and lead the nation’s cities and the people of New York to address this issue head on by jump-starting an inclusive public policy process that will lay out an aggressive plan for other cities across America to follow.

In addition to the obvious players like the NYC Department of Education, New York State Education Department, and CUNY, the Mayor must bring to the policy table local stakeholders like the College Access Consortium of New York and groups like the Goddard Riverside Community Center as well as national models such as College Track and key stakeholders like the Lumina Foundation to put New York City on a collaborative path to increasing college attainment and by doing so, tackling economic inequality.

To start, initial conversations should include how to best leverage existing government infrastructure and systems to think collaboratively and across agencies about policy solutions. For example, we could analyze programs offered by the New York City Department of Housing to integrate effective and proven programs in public housing facilities. The issue of college access is an intersectional problem and requires intersectional solutions. This issue requires Mayor de Blasio to employ a policy process that is inclusive, grounded in research and analysis, utilizes all the resources we have available, and injects even more resources to change this much-talked about but greatly under-addressed issue of college access or the lack thereof.  

Kevin Stump is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Leadership Director.

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Lifelong Roosevelt Connections Help Students Lead Policy Change

Jul 22, 2014Madelyn Schorr

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network model of students creating policy change has impact beyond the college years.

The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network model of students creating policy change has impact beyond the college years.

In 2004, when college students first started organizing under the Roosevelt name, I was still in elementary school. While they were busy working on national healthcare reform, I was busy watching The West Wing past my bedtime. Little did I know that ten years later I would be successfully starting a chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network at The University of Alabama, while my predecessors are pursuing careers all over the country and the world.

As Special Initiatives Fellow for the Campus Network, I recently spent a weekend with a group of alumni in New York City to discuss how to build our alumni program. I was amazed at how these alums – some of whom have been away from Roosevelt for years – are still dedicated to our founding principle that young peoples’ ideas matter.

I know how big of an impact alumni can make in the work chapters across the network produce. Students benefit from connecting with alumni because not so long ago our alumni were students, too. We have similar values, and believe that young people are capable of producing solid policy ideas. When our students and alumni connect it creates something truly spectacular: a group of people, spread all over the world in different fields of work, willing to collaborate and facilitate discussion around current policy issues, then working with their communities to come up with innovative solutions.

I loved getting to meet these alums and see the different things they are doing with their lives. They are working at nonprofits, going to law school, working on political campaigns, and more. Our alumni are found in every level of government from the U.S. Capitol and the White House to state legislatures to mayoral offices. They are still fighting to make the change they want to see in the world. And now, they're mentoring the new generation of Campus Network students and organizing their own policy projects.

The Campus Network has grown a lot since it was founded. What started as two chapters has expanded into over a hundred. We now run Summer Academies in four cities, and in the past six years our publications have reached half a million people. This new generation of Roosevelt students is looking at local policy issues to create an impact in their communities. By avoiding the constant congressional gridlock my generation has grown accustomed to, and focusing on local community development, we are better able to turn our ideas into action.

With almost ten years of change-making under our belt, the Campus Network is working to find new and unique ways to make being a Roosevelter a lasting affiliation. We have thousands of alumni and it is so exciting to build out a framework and vision that will help me stay involved far beyond graduation.

From the long laughs during our regional team calls every month to building a thriving chapter on my campus, I will always appreciate the relationships I have formed through this amazing organization. This organization is like a second family to me; it’s hard to imagine not engaging with the Campus Network and all of the people I have met in it after I graduate. If you have recently graduated, or are looking to reengage, email me.

Madelyn Schorr is the Special Initiative Intern for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and the Southern Regional Coordinator.

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Daily Digest - July 18: BRICS Bank Shifts Balance of Power in the Global Economy

Jul 18, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz Hails New BRICS Bank Challenging U.S.-Dominated World Bank & IMF (Democracy Now)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz Hails New BRICS Bank Challenging U.S.-Dominated World Bank & IMF (Democracy Now)

Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz says this bank will support the developing world's needs, and reflects fundamental shifts in global economic power.

Port Trucking Industry Rips Off Drivers, Responsible Employers, and Taxpayers (The Hill)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch looks at the port truck drivers' strike in California as evidence of the need for stronger policy on independent contractors.

Help a City, Write Its Budget (Bloomberg View)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford endorses participatory budgeting as one of the best ways to build strong civic engagement, and says technology can help.

The Economy’s Big Mystery: Why Workers are Disappearing From the Job Market (WaPo)

Zachary Goldfarb looks at two theories from the White House Council of Economic Advisors that attempt to explain the drop in labor force participation since the recession began.

Stop the Tax Inversions of Free-Riding Corporations (AJAM)

By failing to pass laws that prevent companies from reincorporating aboard to avoid taxes, David Cay Johnston says Congress is supporting their shirking of responsibility.

What Happens When Detroit Shuts Off the Water of 100,000 People (The Atlantic)

Rose Hackman writes that Detroit residents have been forced to pay bills beyond their means or turn to illegal means to access water. The UN has declared this a human rights violation.

States with Better 'Business Climates' Also Have Higher Inequality (CityLab)

A new study finds an unfortunate connection between policies that encourage business and economic growth and rising inequality, writes Richard Florida.

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Fighting Bad Science in the Senate

Jul 17, 2014Andrea Flynn

The Senate hearing for the Women's Health Protection Act shows just how important it is for women's health advocates to push for the facts.

The Senate hearing for the Women's Health Protection Act shows just how important it is for women's health advocates to push for the facts.

The propensity of anti-choice advocates to eulogize false science was on full display on Tuesday’s Senate hearing on the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA). That bill is a bold measure that would counter the relentless barrage of anti-choice legislation that has made abortion – a constitutionally protected medical procedure – all together inaccessible for many U.S. women.

The bill was introduced last year by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Tammy Baldwin and Representatives Judy Chu, Lois Frankel and Marcia Fudge. It prohibits states from applying regulations to reproductive health care centers and providers that do not also apply to other low-risk medical procedures. It would, essentially, remove politicians from decisions that – for every other medical issue – remain between individuals and their providers.

The WHPA is long overdue. For the past three years, conservative lawmakers have used the guise of protecting women’s health to pass more than 200 state laws that have closed clinics, eliminated abortion services, and left women across the country without access to critical reproductive health care. The WHPA would reverse many of those policies and prevent others from being passed.

Tuesday's hearing was representative of the broader debate over abortion rights. Those in favor of the bill argued that securing guaranteeing unfettered access to reproductive health care, including abortion, is critical to the health and lives of U.S. women and their families.

Those in opposition used familiar canards about abortion to argue the law would be calamitous for U.S. women. Representative Diane Black of Tennessee had the gall to make the abortion-leads-to-breast cancer claim, one that has been disproven many times over. Others repeatedly cited the horrific cases of Kermit Gosnell, insinuating that all abortion providers (abortionists, in their lingo) are predatory and that late term abortions are a common occurrence. In fact, if women had access to safe, comprehensive and intimidation-free care, Kermit Gosnell would have never been in business. Given the opposition’s testimony, you’d never know that late term abortion is actually a rarity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 90 percent of all abortions occur before 13 weeks gestation, with just over 1 percent taking place past 21 weeks.

At one point Representative Black argued that abortion is actually not health care. The one in three U.S. women who have undergone the procedure would surely argue otherwise.

Perhaps the most ironic testimony against the WHPA – and in favor of abortion restrictions – came from Senator Ted Cruz, who hails from Texas, a state with so many abortion restrictions that women are now risking their health and lives by self-inducing abortions or crossing the border to get care in Mexico. Senator Cruz attempted to validate U.S. abortion restrictions by referencing a handful of European countries with gestational restrictions on abortions. This was a popular argument during the hearing for Texas’ HB2 – the bill responsible for shuttering the majority of clinics in that state.

Cruz wins the prize for cherry picking facts to best support his argument. When citing our European counterparts, he conveniently ignored that such abortion restrictions are entrenched in progressive public health systems that enable all individuals to access quality, affordable (often free) health care, including comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Senator Cruz and his colleagues have adamantly opposed similar policies in the U.S., particularly the Affordable Care Act’s provisions for contraceptive coverage and Medicaid expansion. On the one hand conservatives lean on European policies to argue for stricter abortion restrictions at home, and on the other they claim those policies are antithetical to the moral fabric of the United States.

Would Cruz support France’s policies that enable women to be fully reimbursed for the cost of their abortion and that guarantees girls ages 15 to 18 free birth control? Or Belgium’s policy that enables young people to be reimbursed for the cost of emergency contraception? Or the broad exceptions both countries make for cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment, to preserve woman’s physical or mental health, and for social or economic reasons? He absolutely would not.

Given the House of Representatives seems to be more motivated by suing the President than by voting on – let alone passing – laws that will actually improve the health and lives of their constituents, it’s highly unlikely the WHPA will become law. But Tuesday's debate – and the bill itself – is significant and shows a willingness among pro-choice advocates to go on the offense after too many years of playing defense.

Bills such as the WHPA – even if they face a slim chance of being passed by a gridlocked Congress – provide an opportunity to call out conservatives' use of bad science in their attempts to convince women that lawmakers know best when it comes to their personal medical decisions. And they allow us to remind lawmakers and citizens that despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary, abortion is a common, safe and constitutionally protected medical procedure, and that regulating it into extinction will only force women into back-alley practices like those run by Gosnell, costing them their health and their lives.

Those in support of the WHPA showed anti-choice lawmakers that the days of make a sport of trampling women’s health and rights are numbered.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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In Defense of Public Service: Roosevelt Honors Commitment to Common Good

Jul 14, 2014Tim Price

Honorees at the 2014 FDR Distinguished Public Service Awards felt vindicated -- but why does public service need vindicating?

Honorees at the 2014 FDR Distinguished Public Service Awards felt vindicated -- but why does public service need vindicating?

Outside of election night victory speeches, it’s rare to see America’s elected officials express much happiness in public. In a political culture dominated by partisan rancor, personal attacks, and donor-friendly positioning, governing seems a joyless affair. Nor are the American people pleased with their leaders’ performance; polls reflect widespread dissatisfaction with all levels of government. So it was inspiring, refreshing, and a little surprising to see the sense of pride and achievement on display last Thursday evening in Washington as the Roosevelt Institute honored Vice President Joe Biden, Congressman George Miller, Senator Tom Harkin, and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro at the 2014 FDR Distinguished Public Service Awards.

Presented annually, the Distinguished Public Service Awards recognize and celebrate individuals who carry forward the spirit of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by devoting their lives to the public good. During this year’s ceremony, the audience heard from the four honorees as well as presenters including Dr. Jill Biden, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Al Franken, and former Senator Christopher Dodd. The speakers reflected on the honorees’ long list of policy achievements, from fighting for higher wages and paid family leave to passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. There was a smattering of amusing anecdotes (Senator Harkin’s ’70s-era polyester suits were evidently considered both an electoral liability and a fire hazard). And everyone who stood at the podium found a way to talk about their distinct but deeply felt personal connections to the Roosevelt legacy. Above all, they seemed genuinely moved to be celebrated rather than insulted for their work.

The most striking speech of the night was delivered by Vice President Biden. He received the Roosevelt Institute’s highest honor, the Freedom Medal, for promoting the vision of worldwide democracy and human rights that FDR famously expressed in his 1941 Four Freedoms Address. The Vice President spoke of his award as a “vindication” of a career spent in public service; and about his long-held belief that, setting aside their individual political views and policy preferences, all elected leaders got to be where they are because their constituents “saw something good in them,” and because they in turn wanted to do some good for their constituents.

It’s a nice thought. In practice, there is plenty of cause for cynicism, especially in light of the flawed or absent policy response to the Great Recession and the ongoing crisis of inequality in the U.S. And when politicians do fail to uphold the public good, they should be held accountable. But there is also no doubt that a great deal of America’s anti-government culture, and of the political dysfunction that keeps government from working effectively, has been created and nurtured by right-wing ideologues who view government as a problem in and of itself. If public servants as a category are in need of vindication, it is largely because of this conservative effort to denigrate the very idea of working through government to achieve common goals.

Thursday’s awards were a welcome reminder that not everyone has given in to this cynicism – that the term “career politician” can be an affirmation and not just an epithet. It was obvious from listening to these men and women speak that they have felt a powerful call to serve, and have made a leap of faith that progress is possible through long years of hard work and dedication. That was what Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt believed as well, and they proved it with bold and ambitious New Deal programs that built the American middle class from the ground up, reshaping the U.S. forever. By honoring those who continue their work today, maybe we can encourage all Americans to make that leap once again.

Tim Price is the Communications Manager for the Roosevelt Institute.

Photos: (Top) Congressman Miller, Congresswoman DeLauro, and Senator Harkin with Roosevelt Institute Board Chair Anna E. Roosevelt. (Bottom) Vice President Biden accepting his award accompanied by wife Jill. Credit: Crystal Vander Weit.

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Detroit's Revitalization Funds Could Re-Empower Residents, Too

Jul 9, 2014Dominic Russel

Through participatory budgeting, Detroit could bring its resident's hyper-local expertise to the revitalization process.

Through participatory budgeting, Detroit could bring its resident's hyper-local expertise to the revitalization process.

The city of Detroit is suffering. It has the highest unemployment rate of the nation’s largest cities at 23 percent, the highest poverty rate at 36.4 percent, and has been listed by Forbes as America’s most dangerous city for five years in a row. As a result of its shrinking population, the city needs $850 million worth of blight removal and cleanup. On top of this, Detroit had an estimated $18 billion in debt in 2013, which caused the state of Michigan to essentially force the city to declare bankruptcy in a desperate attempt to save it.

Detroit urgently needs funding for any revitalization efforts. One source that the city receives each year is in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the federal government. The grant is one part of the funding that the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) distributes to metropolitan cities. The CDBG is the portion that must go to community development projects, including the rehabilitation of residential and non-residential buildings, the construction of public facilities and improvements, and more. CDBG budgeting also must include a mechanism for citizen participation.

Detroit’s current method for allocating CDBG funds is broken, as evidenced by both their inability to completely distribute funding and the lack of citizen involvement in the process. Each year from 2010 to 2012 the city failed to spend a portion of their CDBGs, nearly causing the federal government to recapture money and diminish future grants. Again in 2014, the city is making a last-minute amendment to their CBDG plan, reallocating $12 million to avoid a recapture. This was necessary, in part, because the city allocated funds to programs that no longer exist. The main citizen participation program is the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF), in which service organizations apply for funding from the CDBG. This process, however, is limited to organizations and leaves no outlet for individual residents. In fact, individuals have only one public hearing annually for the entire HUD program. The interests of residents are not effectively being channeled into spending. All of this adds up to a system in need of reform.

Detroit has the opportunity to use CDBGs to develop a more citizen-involved allocation process. This can be achieved by creating a participatory budgeting (PB) program, which empowers citizens to allocate a portion of their own government resources and has been recognized by the United Nations as a “best practice” for local governance. A Detroit model could be based off programs in Chicago and New York City. These programs include a series of workshops where residents brainstorm ideas and elect community representatives who turn the ideas into full proposals. Residents then vote on the proposals, and the winning projects are put into action.

In Detroit, the city’s Planning and Development Department can ensure projects conform to HUD guidelines and lead outreach. The department would target traditionally underrepresented viewpoints by aiming outreach at neighborhoods with low- and moderate-income residents, using public schools for outreach to students and parents, and locating meetings and voting stations in areas that are accessible for underrepresented groups. A PB process has the potential to engage Detroit residents and better utilize their hyper-local knowledge to allocate CDBG funding.

On the night Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was elected in 2013 he said, “Detroit’s turnaround will not occur until everyday Detroiters are involved in this effort.” He has the opportunity to create a clear path to this community involvement for all Detroiters by using participatory budgeting to determine how to spend a portion of the city’s federal grants. Not only would this make Duggan’s dream a reality, but it would reform an antiquated allocation process that has nearly cost the city millions of dollars.

Dominic Russel, a Michigan native, is a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan and is a Summer Academy Fellow interning at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network as the Leadership Strategy Intern.  

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Daily Digest - July 7: In Corporate America, Pay Comes Before Patriotism

Jul 7, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

On This Fourth of July, Meet Your Unpatriotic Corporations (The Nation)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

On This Fourth of July, Meet Your Unpatriotic Corporations (The Nation)

Greed comes far before patriotism for companies that reincorporate abroad to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, writes Roosevelt Institute board member Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Students Joining Battle to Upend Laws on Voter ID (NYT)

In North Carolina, college students are challenging the state's strict voter ID law on the grounds of age discrimination, reports Matt Apuzzo. This is the very first case of its kind.

American CEOs: In a Class All by Themselves (Truthout)

Sam Pizzigati points out that discussions of executive pay in the U.S. tend to leave out international comparisons, which demonstrate just how extreme American CEO pay can be.

  • Roosevelt Take: White papers from William Lazonick and Roosevelt Institute Fellow and Director of Research Susan Holmberg look at the problems created by high CEO pay, and steps to fix it.

Moaning Moguls (The New Yorker)

James Surowiecki looks at why America's wealthiest complain so much about their supposed mistreatment by society, and why those complaints lack merit.

Obama Calls for a New Crackdown on Wall Street (Mother Jones)

Erika Eichelberger says that the President is calling for further reforms, but has not presented any specific plans, and it isn't clear how he would get anything through Congress.

New on Next New Deal

Where Does $2 Trillion in Subsidies for the Wealthiest Hide in Plain Sight? Capital Gains Tax Breaks.

Preferential tax rates and loopholes for investment income make economic inequality worse, writes Harry Stein, who explains the necessity of reforms proposed in Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz's recent white paper.

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What the History of the World Wars Can Tell Us About the Deeper Struggles at Work in Iraq

Jun 19, 2014David B. Woolner

Spreading democracy abroad requires more than military power, as history has shown from the two World Wars.

The very philosophy of the Axis powers is based on a profound contempt for the human race. If, in the formation of our future policy, we were guided by the same cynical contempt, then we should be surrendering to the philosophy of our enemies, and our victory would turn to defeat.

Spreading democracy abroad requires more than military power, as history has shown from the two World Wars.

The very philosophy of the Axis powers is based on a profound contempt for the human race. If, in the formation of our future policy, we were guided by the same cynical contempt, then we should be surrendering to the philosophy of our enemies, and our victory would turn to defeat.

The issue of this war is the basic issue between those who believe in mankind and those who do not—the ancient issue between those who put their faith in the people and those who put their faith in dictators and tyrants. There have always been those who did not believe in the people, who attempted to block their forward movement across history, to force them back to servility and suffering and silence.—Franklin D. Roosevelt 1943

As Franklin Roosevelt realized all too well, victory in the Second World War required much more than military power; it also involved the defeat of the extremist ideology of fascism that brought death and destruction to millions. Viewed from this perspective, the six-year struggle between 1939 and 1945 was as much a battle of ideas as it was a military conflict, and throughout the long years of fighting, FDR put as much effort into winning the peace as he did into winning the war.

Moreover, this determination did not just occur overnight. It came from a deep understanding of history and long years of experience, including the experience of having lived through America’s first major engagement as a global power—our entrance into the First World War, a move which President Wilson claimed was driven by America’s desire “to make the world safe for democracy.”  

The tragic events unfolding in Iraq today are not all that dissimilar to what took place in the 1930s and 40s. Once again we face an extremist ideology that is bent on conquest and has little respect for human life. Once again we face an adversary that rejects the core set of values that stand at the root of Western civilization, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

To counter this threat, senior American policy-makers often speak—as former Vice President Dick Cheney did yesterday in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal—of the need to defend and secure America’s “freedom,” in part through the promotion of “freedom” abroad.

In recent years, the best and most dynamic example of this modern-day attempt “to make the world safe for democracy” can be seen in the 2003 invasion of Iraq—a war of choice which was launched under the false assumption that the “Iraqi people” would respond to “freedom” in a manner similar to what happened in Japan and Germany after the Second World War. Hence, American strategy in this exercise in regime change was based on the idea that the people of Iraq would embrace democracy and Western values—forgetting of course that Iraq—unlike Germany or westernized Japan in 1945—was most emphatically not part of the West and that most of the Iraqi people had very little experience or interest in building a modern pluralistic state.

All of this points to a fundamental flaw that existed—and still exists—in the thinking of those like Vice President Cheney who base America’s security on the promotion of what some recent analysts have termed “hard Wilsonianism”—the idea that the in the post Cold War world the United States can use its overwhelming military superiority to enforce a liberal international order.

It is true that what is happening in Iraq and Syria is a major international crisis. It is also true—as Vice President Cheney and others have argued—that America’s withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 has helped precipitate this crisis. What is largely missing from the current debate over Iraq and Syria—as well as the equally dangerous crisis in Ukraine—is the overwhelming need for American policy-makers and the American public to pay greater attention to the religious and ideological forces at work in these crises and the one tool perhaps more than any other that can help us avoid these sorts of catastrophes in the future: the study of history.

A rudimentary understanding of Iraq’s history, for example, would have made clear that Iraq was carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in a secret treaty between the British and the French at the height of the First World War, and that modern Iraq is really three nations, one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurdish, held together in its initial years by the British Empire and for the rest of the 20th century by the brutal hand of dictators like Saddam Hussein.

In his criticism of the decision to withdraw all of America’s combat forces from Iraq, Vice President Cheney accused President Obama of being “willfully blind to the impact of his policies.” The recent history of Iraq indicates that President Bush and his advisors are equally guilty of this sin, if not more so. A deeper understanding of Iraqi as well as American history would have indicated to them that “wishful thinking about our adversaries,” as Vice President Cheney put it, is indeed “folly,” the sort of folly that led us to launch the 2003 invasion with far too few troops, based on the fatal assumption that U.S. forces would be universally welcomed in this deeply divided, semi-artificial state. Viewed from this perspective, the Bush administration’s decision to not only take out Saddam Hussein but also destroy—with a minimum of American force—Iraq’s bureaucracy and army borders on criminal negligence. For as we now know, the latter two moves, especially disbanding the Iraqi Army, were a grave mistake, releasing tens of thousands of armed men—mostly Sunni armed men, who were convinced they had little or no future in a Shia-dominated Iraq—into the general population. The result was near civil war and the need for a major surge of American troops, all of which made a mockery of President Bush’s claim on May 1, 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq” had ended.

Even if one believes that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was necessary, a closer reading of history might have led to a much more responsible and well-thought-out strategy: one that took cognizance of the deep ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq; understood—as General MacArthur and President Truman did when they ordered the Japanese Army to keep order in Japan until American occupation troops arrived—that the uncontrolled disbanding of a nation’s armed forces is a recipe for disaster; and recognized—as FDR did—that the development of Western-style democracy involves much more than the highly over-used and over-rated concept of “freedom” or the right to vote. It also requires tolerance, a respect for the rule of law, and a willingness to build the necessary institutions that make up a modern democratic state.

In a little-known comment near the end of the tumultuous 1920s—the decade which brought us a brutal civil war in Russia and a great deal of nationalist upheaval in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine—British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin reflected that what was really required in the wake of the First World War was not so much the determination “to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson argued, but rather the determination “to make democracy safe for the world.”

Franklin Roosevelt understood this. He recognized that it was the ideology of fascism—inspired in part by the frustrations of the First World War—that brought us the Second World War and all its concomitant horrors, including the Holocaust. As such, to win the military struggle—made so much easier today by the advent of technologies like the predator drone—was not enough. We also had to bring an end to the ideology of fascism, and to accomplish this we had to offer the people of the world not just “freedom” in the narrow sense of the word, but a much more expansive and all-inclusive concept, a definition of freedom that included, as FDR so eloquently put it, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four concepts together, along with the creation of such institutions as the United Nations and America’s willingness to embrace multilateralism, gave us the credibility to lead the world in the decades that followed. In this sense, FDR also learned from history, for having lived through the First World War and the failed peace that followed, he understood that our ultimate task was not so much to “make the world safe for democracy,” but rather “to make democracy safe for the world.” It is this lesson above all else that we need to embrace today if we are to entertain any hope of bringing an end to the crises in Iraq and Syria. 

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 


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Daily Digest - May 15: The Politics of Embracing Piketty

May 15, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Why Democrats Are Paying Attention to Piketty's Book on Inequality (Real News Network)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Tom Ferguson suggests Democrats are using Capital in the 21st Century to strengthen their inequality narrative for the midterm elections.

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Why Democrats Are Paying Attention to Piketty's Book on Inequality (Real News Network)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Tom Ferguson suggests Democrats are using Capital in the 21st Century to strengthen their inequality narrative for the midterm elections.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong says that Piketty and his peers are defining today's debate and opening new opportunities to push back on inequality.

Fast-Food Protests Spread Overseas (NYT)

Steven Greenhouse reports on today's fast food strikes in 150 U.S. cities, the largest yet, and why the organizers are working to build support and influence abroad as well.

The Merits of Participatory Budgeting (AJAM)

Bringing citizens into the decision-making process for local spending empowers them, says Hollie Russon Gilman, and builds their connection to politics more generally.

Paul Ryan's Approach To Poverty Is Straight Out Of The 19th Century (HuffPo)

Arthur Delaney looks at the anti-handout models of fighting poverty from the 1800s, which don't make sense given modern data, and finds strong similarities to Rep. Ryan's views.

The Neediest Americans Are Getting The Least Government Assistance (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert looks at forthcoming research that shows that since 1975, social safety net spending has shifted away from the poorest Americans to those who are more well off.

New on Next New Deal

Places for Hope in the Fight to Protect Women's Health and Rights

To push back against the constant barrage of bad news, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn shines a light on states that are taking proactive, positive steps on women's health.

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