What FDR Can Teach Us About Comey, Putin, and National Unity

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By David B. Woolner |

In the wake of the most divisive national election in modern memory, President Obama has stressed that the president-elect and others in positions of power must send out “signals of unity” to maintain “the norms of a functioning democracy,” including the norms of “civility, tolerance, and a commitment to reason…facts and analysis.” But evidence of electoral interference by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and hackers working for the Russian government has raised important questions about our ability to adhere to these norms and even about the health of our democracy.

Roughly three quarters of a century ago, when the United States faced similar divisions about the extent to which dissension at home and fascism abroad threatened America, Franklin Roosevelt observed that the words “national unity” should never be allowed to become a mere “high-sounding phrase,” because in a very real and deep sense, national unity is “the fundamental safeguard of our democracy.” Indeed, he went on:

Doctrines that set group against group, faith against faith, race against race, class against class, fanning the fires of hatred in men too despondent, too desperate to think for themselves, were used as rabble-rousing slogans on which dictators could ride to power… 

This is the danger to which we in America must begin to be more alert. For the apologists for foreign aggressors, and equally those selfish and partisan groups at home who wrap themselves in a false mantle of Americanism to promote their own economic, financial or political advantage, are now trying European tricks upon us, seeking to muddy the stream of our national thinking, weakening us in the face of danger, by trying to set our own people to fighting among themselves. We must combat them, as we would the plague, if American integrity and American security are to be preserved. We cannot afford to face the future as a disunited people.

All Americans should be deeply concerned about the growing evidence that the 2016 election might have been swayed by the politicization of a criminal investigation and/or the actions of a hostile foreign power. Yet the response among those in positions of leadership has been anything but unified.

It is now widely acknowledged, for example, that the unprecedented decision of FBI Director James Comey to release a letter announcing that the Bureau was reopening its probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server just 11 days before the election had, as the highly respected pollster Nate Silver recently put it, “a large measurable impact on the race” and “almost certainly” cost Secretary Clinton the election. Comey’s defenders insist that he had no choice but to release this information. But, as the noted FBI historian Douglas Charles has written, Comey’s dilemma was largely of his own making. He could have followed Justice Department policy and the past FBI practice of not commenting on the nature of a criminal investigation. Instead, he made frequent public references to the case and took the highly unusual step of offering his own opinions, characterizing Secretary Clinton’s actions as exhibiting “great carelessness.” It was this politicization of a criminal investigation—coupled with the ongoing leaks that plagued his department in the fall—that led Comey to conclude he must send his October letter to Congress, even though it represented a clear violation of Justice Department policy and there was no indication—as the release of the FBI warrant in the case yesterday demonstrates—that the so-called “new evidence” would contain any information that might alter the FBI’s previous judgment.

The majority of Americans who supported Hillary Clinton are justifiably upset by these revelations, and if the past were any guide, one might expect that this outcry would generate an equally determined effort on the part of Congress to try to ensure that such a development would not happen again. This brings us back to FDR. It was the perceived political influence of a federal agency—the Works Progress Administration under the leadership of Harry Hopkins—in the 1938 midterm elections that led Congress to pass the Hatch Act in 1939. Sponsored by a Democrat and ultimately signed into law by FDR, the Hatch Act not only stipulates that persons working below the policy level in the executive branch of the government must refrain from political practices that would be illegal for any ordinary citizen, but also stipulates that they must abstain from taking “any active part” in political campaigns.

Even though this legislation was sponsored by the conservative opposition to FDR—and as such was not particularly welcomed by the president—he eventually came to recognize its value and, when signing it into law, expressed the view that it would prove an “effective instrument of good government.” Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that today’s Congress might follow the example of past leaders.

This same lack of leadership is evident in the shocking revelation that the Russian government ran a covert operation to help install Donald J. Trump as our next president. As The Economist recently observed, in the past any disclosure that a foreign power was engaged in an attack on the U.S. electoral process would elicit “powerful, bipartisan immune responses” generated by “love of country.” Yet again, there has been no unified reaction by those in power. The president-elect has dismissed the CIA’s analysis as “ridiculous,” and senior Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have signaled that they favor a far less aggressive examination of the issue than their Democratic counterparts. This must be regarded as further evidence of the extent to which the poisonous political climate has eroded the fundamentals of American democracy.

This can also be seen in the reaction of the American public to these developments. As President Obama noted in his last press conference, well over a third of Republican voters approve of President Putin in spite of reports from the American intelligence community that he was personally involved in the cyber attacks. This lack of respect for expert analysis and scientific inquiry—which has been encouraged by the tendency of the president-elect to substitute opinion for fact—represents an even greater threat to our democracy than the covert intervention of a foreign power and, as FDR said decades ago, must be guarded against as if it were a plague.

It is for this reason that Congress should launch an inquiry into both these developments as soon as possible. Not so much for the purpose of overturning the election, but rather as an exercise of leadership, as a means to restore and maintain the credibility of our nation’s key institutions, and in so doing, the public’s faith in the sanctity of the democratic process. It is the height of irresponsibility for members on either side of the aisle not to join hands to do so. As President Obama recently said in words that echo those of FDR, we should never forget “that what makes us American is not where we come from, what we look like, or what faith we practice , but the ideals to which we pledge our allegiance. It’s about our capacity to live up to the creed as old as our founding: ‘E Pluribus Unum’— that out of many, we are one.”

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian of the Roosevelt Institute, Senior Fellow of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, and Associate Professor of History at Marist College. He most recently published the edited volume Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future.