Democracy Demands Change

Democracy is not a static principle but a perpetu­ally evolving adjustment between freedom and justice, indi­vidual rights and the demands of society.

Crowd outside and atop the US Capitol for the inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. March 4, 1905. Photo by George V. BuckEverett Collection/ShutterstockEditor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece from July 1949 is by Raymond Fosdick, who was president of the Rockefeller Foundation whose mission since its founding in 1913 is to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.

When the last glacier retreated from what is now Connecticut it left behind great boulders. Several of them are on my farm and for 15 years I have watched one of these rocks, weigh­ing many tons, fight a losing battle with an ash tree. The tree evidently started in a seed lodged in a tiny pocket in the rock. When I first saw it, it was a sturdy sapling that had made a comfortable crevice for its roots. Today its irresistible growth has torn the massive rock into frag­ments.

This is the law of life. The future belongs not to rigid absolutes but to the thing that can grow, whether it is a tree or a democracy.

It is strange that a principle as familiar as this should today need underscoring, but we are living in years of uncertainty and fear, and fear induces a kind of spiritual astigmatism. To be sure, in our generation we have reason for our fears, and every justification to resist the threat that creates them. But I am thinking of fear as an evil in itself and what it does to human emotions and reactions.

For one thing, fear breeds an instinctive hostility to growth. Growth means change, and in anxious hours men tend to cling to the shelter of the present or to put their faith in nostalgia for the past. But history’s current is sweeping us in to the future and the illusion that security is dependent upon the absence of change is perhaps the most danger­ous form of imbalance which plagues the minds of men.

Nothing is static in this world, least of all our ideas. Values change from age to age and the interpreta­tion of one generation is seldom the interpretation of the next. Even our conceptions of freedom and de­mocracy are not static principles. The Declaration of Independence was a broader definition of freedom than the Magna Carta. Today the conception of freedom is once again taking on a larger meaning. Our generation is thinking of the threat to freedom which comes from poverty and insecurity, from social and economic conditions in which human beings cannot be free. In many countries, including our own, this new conception of freedom is struggling to make itself articulate, and irresistible change in older points of view is taking place before our eyes.

Democracy likewise must be re­interpreted from generation to gen­eration. Its limits were not finally determined by the political concepts of the 18th century. Rather it is a growing, dynamic faith, a perpetu­ally evolving adjustment between freedom and justice, between indi­vidual rights and the demands of society. This adjustment, however, is never perfectly and finally attained; it remains a problem which mankind must solve again and again.

This familiar concept needs to be re-emphasized today because our current fear of Communism is driving some of us to believe that change is somehow subversive, and that anyone who advocates new ideas is probably a fellow traveler who should be watched. If you favor fair employment practices or are concerned about civil liberties, if you oppose religious prejudice and Jim Crow-ism, you are likely to be suspected as a knowing participant in the Communist Front, or at least as a witless dupe of Moscow. There is hardly a progressive organization or undertaking in the country to which the adjective “Communistic” has not been applied in the last few years—from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the YMCA. In many states teachers and college professors have been frightened into sterile silence, and even the pulpit has not been free from fear.

The tragedy is that this plays into the hands of the Communists. It identifies Russia with the process of social change.

There are plenty of arguments against Communism. It is a facade for a ruthless tyranny. It is a brutal hoax by which millions of confused and hungry people are persuaded or coerced to sign away their freedom in exchange for utopian promises. But to paste a label of Communism on the yearnings of men everywhere for a better life, to classify as sub­versive those goals of equality and human service toward which our democracy is moving, is to concede to the Communists all the best arguments and make a mockery of the faith that sustains us.

I do not underestimate the neces­sity of keeping the Communists clear of our Government and root­ing out treachery wherever it may be found. Split loyalties or loyalties that respond to strings pulled in Moscow cannot be tolerated. We must know who our enemies are. But if in an attempt to exorcise evil we proscribe the good as well, the damage will be irreparable. We must not act as if the term Communism covers all the plans and dreams of men for making this world an inviting home to live in instead of a place to freeze and fight and starve in.

It is undoubtedly part of Communist strategy to frighten us into a position which seems to identify America with outmoded patterns of social thinking. In our concern over what Com­munism may do to democracy we have overlooked the danger of what we ourselves may do to democracy under the stimulus of fear. Chal­lenged by authoritarianism men begin to build an authoritarianism of their own; they answer heresy-­hunting with heresy-hunting; they become like the thing they fight. Fighting fire with fire is an easy but misleading slogan which has be­trayed more than one cause in the past. That is what fear does to people. If the tactics of the Soviets succeed in inducing us to try to stamp out dissent and to measure loyalty by conformity, then they have maneuvered us into retreating before the battle has begun.

Our democracy holds its pre­eminent place in the world because we have welcomed diversity of opinion. There has been no fixed creed to which our citizens have had to subscribe, no Siberia for our intel­lectual and spiritual nonconformists. Our national life has been healthy and vigorous because dissenters have been encouraged to think critically of the political, social, and economic order in which we live.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” the Supreme Court has said, “it is that no official, high or petty, can pre­scribe what shall be orthodox in politics, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

It is this philosophy of growth that gives us assurance in the present crisis. Communism, by encasing itself in an ironclad orthodoxy, is sealing its own ultimate doom. Com­munists taunt us for being the sup­porters of a crumbling status quo, but it is they who are looking back­ward. They who are trying to build a status quo far more rigid and absolute than anything the world has ever seen.

Stalin boasts of his “new order.” We have a new order based on the capacity of each generation to ex­perience what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” In the evolution of democracy we have a world that is perpetually young. It is only free-men who dare to think. And it is only through free thought, freely expressed, that the soul of a people can be kept alive.

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Raymond B. Fosdick
Raymond Blaine Fosdick (1883-1972) was a lawyer, public administrator, and author who served as the president of the Rockefeller Foundation for twelve years (1936-1948). A prolific writer, he spent his life after retirement documenting the history of the foundation and the life of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.