We can and must recapture freedom

Posted on November 29, 2023

Over the past 40 years, conservatives have tried to equate their policies with freedom, from economics to military policy. But the MAGA wing has made a huge mistake, trying to use the word freedom to mean the very opposite.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.

Surely, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, we should have all been saying the F-word with regularity. No, no, I mean freedom. Abortion rights is a question of individual freedom, and Americans get it!

MAGA can also be attacked for:

  • Banning books, for heaven’s sake!
  • Preventing teachers from talking about facts that conservatives don’t appreciate, like sexism, racism, and even slavery.
  • Enacting state and local laws to shut down peaceful protests.
  • Discriminating against LGBTQ+ people.
  • Blocking information about COVID and vaccines.
  • Trying to make it a felony for people to help others travel out-of-state for an abortion.
  • And, of course, trying to prevent Americans from voting and even trying to overturn elections.

These are all attacks on our freedoms. The right wing is trying to use the power of government to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Shades of George Orwell’s 1984!

So, why don’t we just say so?

Some progressive groups are highlighting freedom, and it helped in the 2023 elections. These include: at least part of the Ohio referendum effort which framed the issue as reproductive freedom, and a progressive Freedom Virginia organization.

But aside from President Biden who made freedom the cornerstone of his campaign kickoff speech, discussed in this IdeaLog column, our side still mostly avoids the word.

Why? Maybe because we don’t quite know when to use it. But this we should all understand—we are fighting for freedom when we defend our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties, including the right to vote (which is, of course, fundamental to a democracy).

Put another way, progressives defend freedom in situations where government has no proper role because the use of public power would violate individual rights. In this definition, freedom is the absence of legal interference with freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; the right to equal protection under the law; and the right of all citizens to vote.

The abortion issue has changed the political dynamic on freedom. It has become clear to persuadable voters that conservatives are pretty strongly against freedom. Using this word is excellent politics. Besides, we have a solemn responsibility to guard our rights to freedom. We must shout from the rooftops that freedom is one of our most cherished values. We must remind Americans that Clarence Darrow was correct when he said, “You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can be free only if I am free.”

Joe Biden is right in elevating freedom; we should follow his lead.