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How Much Democracy Do We Want?

Eleanor’s position on racial, religious, and social justice was sharpened during World War II. The injustices perpetrated by the Nazis abroad highlighted the struggle for equal rights at home. The war and its aftermath also strengthened Eleanor’s belief that a true democracy must be inclusive and that it must secure the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. In her view, full democracy had not yet been achieved. There was an ongoing struggle to include different segments of the population in the political process. But freedom and equality— the moral basis of democracy—were not simply a matter of political rights. People were discriminated against and had their opportunities limited for a variety of reasons, including race, religion, or economic status. In the excerpt below from her wartime analysis “The Moral Basis of Democracy” (1940), Eleanor emphasizes the importance of equal opportunities and economic security for the strength of democracy.

We are slowly climbing out of the economic morass we fell into, but so long as we have the number of unemployed on our hands which we have today, we can be sure that our economic troubles are not over, and that we have not found the permanent solution to our problem.

Either we must make our economic system work to the satisfaction of all of our people, or we are going to find it extremely difficult to compete against the one which will be set upon the Continent of Europe.

We hear a good deal of loose talk about going to war. As a matter of fact we are already in a war —an economic war, and a war of philosophies.

Here, in this country, it seems to me that as the strongest nation in the battle today, we have to take an account of just what our condition is: how much Democracy we have, and how much we want to have.

It is often said that we are free, and then sneeringly it is added: “free to starve if we wish.” In some parts of our country, that is not idle jest. Moreover, no one can honestly claim that either the Indians or the Negroes of this country are free. These are obvious examples of conditions which are not compatible with the theory of Democracy. We have poverty which enslaves, and racial prejudice which does the same. There are other racial and religious groups among us who labor under certain discriminations, not quite so difficult as those we impose on the Negroes and the Indians, but still sufficient to show we do not completely practice the Democratic way of life.

It is quite obvious that we do not practice a Christ-like way of living in our relationship to submerged people, and here again we see that a kind of religion which gives us a sense of obligation about living with a deeper interest in the welfare of our neighbors is an essential to the success of Democracy.

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We are, of course, going through a type of revolution, and we are succeeding in bringing about a greater sense of social responsibility in the people as a whole. Through the recognition by our government of a responsibility for social conditions, much has been accomplished; but there is still much to be done before we are even prepared to accept some of the fundamental facts which will make it possible to fight as a unified nation against the new philosophies arrayed in opposition to Democracy.

It would seem clear that in a Democracy a minimum standard of security must at least be possible for every child in order to achieve the equality of opportunity which is one of the basic principles set forth as a fundamental of Democracy. This means achieving an economic level below which no one is permitted to fall, and keeping a fairly stable balance between that level and the cost of living. No one as yet seems to know just how to do this without an amount of planning which will be considered too restrictive for freedom. The line between domination and voluntary acquiescence in certain controls is a very difficult one to establish. Yet it is essential in a Democracy.1

Citations

  • 1 : Roosevelt, “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind, 80–81.

Audio Version

In this audio clip, an actor reads an excerpt from Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1940 work “The Moral Basis of Democracy,” which is featured in the resource book Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this clip, Roosevelt emphasizes the importance of equal opportunities and economic security for the strength of democracy. 

Connection Questions

  1. What, according the Eleanor, is the “moral basis of democracy”? What do you think of as the moral basis of democracy? 
  2. What is a minimum standard of economic security? Does providing a minimum standard of economic well-being come into conflict with freedom in a capitalist society? 
  3. In Eleanor’s opinion, what is essential for a democracy to work? Why is economic safety vital? What are the “new philosophies arrayed in opposition to Democracy,” and why are they important to consider in a discussion of America’s economic philosophy? 
  4. Who is Eleanor’s audience? What values does she emphasize to make her argument more persuasive? What does she mean by a “Christ-like way of living,” and what is her goal in using this imagery?

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