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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Freedom Is More Than a Frame

This item, the sixth in the Demos/TDS forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” is by Mark Schmitt, executive editor of The American Prospect.
While I’m often impatient with a progressive conversation about “values,” abstracted from practice (I’ve sat through enough meetings where half the time gets spent filling a whiteboard with lists of our shared values and nothing of actual value gets done) in this case this forum’s long opening essay by John Schwarz gets well beyond the vacuousness common to such exercises, and it will provoke an important conversation with its claim that “mention of freedom has nearly disappeared from the speeches of most Democrats, except when the issue is civil liberties.”
Matthew Yglesias, in the first substantive response in the forum, points out that attempting to reclaim the word “freedom” from the right wouldn’t necessarily have any value in electoral politics, because the right’s use of the word was never meant to be taken literally – it has about as much meaning as “the American Way.” And of course, there is a deep strain of authoritarianism in the Tea Party right – it’s the freedom of states to deny health coverage or welfare, or of parents to spank their kids, that they would protect. But even if a liberal claim on the word won’t suddenly make the right shut up and go home, it’s worth thinking about whether a richer language of freedom would give a stronger sense of purpose to liberalism, not just for political reasons, but because we actually care about it.
Schwarz’s main argument, bolstered by a thorough reading of American political rhetoric with a particular emphasis on Lincoln, is a classic defense of “positive liberty” – the familiar concept that real liberty requires not just the absence of state interference, but a minimum set of goods that get one to the starting line of life – basic sustenance, shelter, education, and, in Schwarz’s proposal, job retraining – to ensure “that satisfactory economic opportunity will be available to every person who is willing to work and act responsibly.” Schwarz calls it “a community of equal liberty,” which he contrasts with “individualistic liberty.” In this sense, the document is of a piece with “communitarian” critiques of rights-based liberalism, such as Michael Sandel’s, which were valuable correctives in the 1990s.
As a political strategy, what this amounts to, then, is mostly reframing by renaming – make basic minimal egalitarianism more politically acceptable by calling it freedom, rather than letting the right call it socialism. That’s accurate, of course, just as the principles and metaphors that stem from it – such as that government should guarantee equality of opportunity but not of result, or the image of an even starting line – are generally agreeable, comfortable aspects of both conservative and liberal rhetoric. But they don’t make political problems or conflicts go away – there’s rarely agreement about where “opportunity” ends and “results” begin, or where in life the “starting line” is found.
It’s also a surprisingly thin vision of freedom, casually setting aside much “individualized freedom” in favor of “mutual obligation and shared sacrifice” and minimal economic equality. Schwarz says that liberals don’t talk about freedom “except when the subject is civil liberties,” but how much falls into that poignant “except”? Freedom of expression, freedom to love who you want to love, freedom from unjust imprisonment, privacy rights, the right to leave an oppressive marriage, the right to worship as you please or not at all– these are “individualistic” forms of freedom, to be sure. (They are also “negative freedoms,” in that they are infinite – everyone can possess them without choices about allocating resources.) But they are absolutely central to any progressive vision of freedom, just as they are to a political party that has built its coalition on individuals whose first claim was to freedom, on waves of immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking freedom and often had to fight for it, and on women’s rights. A robust vision of “freedom” has to build on those individual rights, and show a passion for them, in the manner of the Four Freedoms, not just dismiss them and replace them with a common economic vision.
The real opportunity to take the language of freedom back from the far right is to recognize the distinction between an optimistic, bright vision of human possibility and fulfillment in all dimensions of life – material and non-material – versus the narrow, dark vision of freedom from an oppressive government. The right’s language of “freedom,” in their fight against the modest Obama agenda, is all the dark side – “freedom from” government rather than the Reaganite vision of vast human possibility. The progressive alternative, then, is not a comparable small vision of freedom from economic scarcity and desperation, but a bigger, optimistic vision of what people can achieve – individually and together – when their rights and dignity are protected, and with a base of security that allows them to take risks. (As a text for this vision, consider John Maynard Keynes’ lovely and eccentric 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” which is really not about economic possibilities at all, but the possibility that a future generation might have enough abundance to get beyond the problem of scarcity and “to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
As recently as a few years ago, conservatives tried to draw a contrast with liberalism in which they stood for opportunity while liberalism stood only for security — liberalism was for society’s losers, the people who needed protection, while conservatism was for winners, who took chances and dreamed big. Social Security privatization was their most aggressive bet at putting this contrast into political practice, but it’s failure in 2005 showed that voters were smart enough to understand that a certain measure of security was essential to creating opportunity.
Now the right has fallen back on a cramped, fear-based vision of freedom in which takes refuge in the security of the status quo. However much we dislike what we have, this rationale goes, whatever government offers can only be worse. This fear-based vision of freedom creates an opening for liberals to reclaim a vision of freedom that is not based on blind optimism – hard to sustain at this moment anyway – but a clear vision of economic growth and opportunity for individuals to make the most of their talents and dreams, protected both by rights and by public goods that help everyone, not just the very poor.
Real positive liberty isn’t just a guarantee of a safety net for the poor. My old boss, Senator Bill Bradley, used to quote in almost every speech a line from D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature: “It is never freedom until you find something you positively want to be” – a vision of freedom that’s not just about minimal economic well-being, but about aspiration and purpose. Lawrence may have been as eccentric as Keynes, and neither one is as American as Lincoln, but theirs is the appropriate language for the left in American politics, not just because freedom is a political winner, but because we actually care about it.

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