EIGHTY YEARS AGO on New Year’s Day, the country was anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. A crushing economic depression showed no sign of abating. Americans had elected a new president in November but had to wait until early March of 1933 to see what he would, or could, do about it. When Inauguration Day finally came, the new chief got quickly to the point. He proclaimed his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The words are old now, somewhat tired from repetition, and they weren’t entirely true when spoken. There was a lot more to be feared than fear itself: drought, disease, hunger, economic failure, Hitler. But Franklin D. Roosevelt, in addition to lifting the country’s spirits, had hit on an important point about the American character in that inaugural address, one that was essential to recovery. It was the idea that fear, the sort of paralytic, debilitating fear he had in mind, discourages people from action and dims their hopes. It strikes not only at the economy but at America’s most essential quality: its basic and enduring optimism.
If there is truly an American “exceptionalism,” it’s less likely to be found in concepts of limited government and divided powers than in the belief of the people, from the very first days, that things can always be made better. It was the refusal to acquiesce in fatalism and resign oneself to acceptance that created the New World and that has kept this republic going for well over two centuries.
Today FDR’s words may be more true than they were 80 years ago, when the country did face truly catastrophic conditions. Our problems as the new year begins are not insuperable; they are manageable but greatly exacerbated by fear, much of it created and nurtured by people who make a good living off it. Whether it is the fear that one’s pension will be cut, guns restricted, income taxed too heavily or medical care infringed, it is often exaggerated and dishonest. There are difficult questions to be dealt with in every matter involving economic progress and the best distribution of public resources, but they can be answered by rational and well-informed discussion. Fear, unreasoning, unjustified fear, has no useful place in it, then or now.