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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Challenge of Connecting Freedom to Government Action

This item, the fourth in the TDS/Demos forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” is by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, senior fellows at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Teixeira is also a Founder and Co-Editor of The Democratic Strategist.
John Schwarz’s introductory essay provides many important insights about the philosophical framework of contemporary politics and offers a compelling overview of the continuity of progressive and liberal notions of freedom from Jefferson and Lincoln to FDR and Obama. We wholeheartedly agree with his assessment that the White House and progressives need to make this worldview a centerpiece of their public education and communications efforts. This is sound advice and the clear ideological markers laid out in the President’s speech on the economy at Georgetown would be a good place to start.
We disagree with Schwarz’s conception of the political challenge, however. Looking at the data, progressives do not have a problem with public resistance to their conception of freedom. Despite all the hype around the tea parties, extreme libertarian individualism is a much tougher sell in this country than FDR’s deeper conception of liberty as consisting of freedom of speech and religion coupled with freedom from want and fear.
Our research on political ideology last year found that by a 19-point margin, Americans agree more with a progressive vision of freedom similar to the one outlined in the essay over a more libertarian ideal put forth by Ayn Rand, Glenn Beck, and the tea partiers: 57 percent of Americans agreed that, “Freedom requires economic opportunity and minimum measures of security, such as food, housing, medical care, and old age protection,” versus 38 percent who believed that, “Freedom requires that individuals be left alone to pursue their lives as they please and to deal with the consequences of their actions on their own.” In numerous public polls and our own work, Americans also express a clear desire for tolerant policies that treat people equally and allow for diversity of thought, lifestyle and worship. They do not want the agenda of social conservatives. And even with the hostility to Obama and progressives that emerged over the course of the past year, the American public still believes in the core aspects of progressive government—regulation of the economy, support for the vulnerable, and public investments in education, infrastructure, health care, defense, research and energy transformation—although, in some cases, at lower levels than existed at the beginning of the Obama presidency.
The problem for progressives is not their conception of freedom as encompassing robust government actions to increase economic opportunity and social protections for people. The real problem for progressives lies in the severe public distrust that government can actually perform effectively and accomplish what Americans want it to do.
The recent Pew finding showing only 22 percent of Americans trusting the federal government—one of the lowest marks in half a century according to their analysis—is broadly indicative of this challenge and part of a larger issue of eroding public trust in large institutions ranging from Wall Street to the media. Looking at the data more closely, the stated reasons for this distrust are instructive. First, the massive divide between conservatives/Republicans and liberals/Democrats over the size and function of government presents an unavoidable reality. Progressives must accept that they are in titanic battle with conservatives over the proper role of the state and the individual in society and the economy—a battle that has been going on more or less for a century and is not likely to subside anytime soon given the internal structure of conservative politics and the asymmetry between conservative and progressive media.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Pew finds that majorities of Americans—across party lines—believe it is a major problem that the federal government is often wasteful and inefficient, does too little for average Americans, and has policies that unfairly benefit some groups. This is the deeper and more difficult challenge for progressives.
In order for a fuller conception of liberty to take hold—one that encompasses both negative freedom from undue coercion and effective freedom to live a full and materially secure life as John Dewey and FDR postulated—progressives must undertake a more elaborate project. They must take far more aggressive and sustained steps to defend government itself, despite its current unpopularity, and make clear to people exactly how government enables individual freedom and the common good. They must deliver on their promises and ensure that expanded government action measurably improves the lives of working- and middle-class citizens and leads to growth and shared prosperity. They must get far more serious about purging corporate influence in government and reforming the political system so that government actually works for the people in an equitable manner. And they must systematically challenge the selfish and hollow conservative notion of freedom that amounts to little more than helping rich people avoid paying taxes and allowing corporations to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences for the nation.
Put simply, progressives need to constantly argue that government plays a vital role in promoting human freedom and advancing national prosperity. Individuals are capable of making tremendous advances in their own lives. But they cannot stop financial markets from crashing. They cannot stop jobs from being eliminated or wages from being cut. They cannot stand up to health insurers on their own. They cannot direct national resources to key public needs like education, infrastructure, defense, and energy production. Americans need an advocate and a supporter and a means to express their voice in key debates and in support of common purposes. The private sector needs a public counterbalance and communities need mechanisms to advance larger goals and aspirations. This is why we have government. In order to promote genuine human freedom and opportunity, government must perform its role properly by ensuring full and equal rights for all people, defending the nation, guarding against undue corporate influence in policymaking, protecting people from market failures, and investing in public goods. This is the time-honored American vision of freedom and government that dates to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If progressives articulate the case for government clearly and confidently, and ensure that their actions and policies live up these principles in practice, they will be successful. If conservative anti-government ideology goes unchallenged, and reform efforts stall or get turned into half measures, the hopes of building a long term political environment conducive to progressive policies and expansive notions of human freedom outlined so well by Schwarz will be severely diminished.

One comment on “The Challenge of Connecting Freedom to Government Action

  1. David Moffat on

    Americans need to recognize that both the anti-government propaganda and the government behavior that we dislike come from the same source: corporations. So the very first item on the progressive agenda is to diminish corporate power and restore the government to it’s intended pro-citizen stance.


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