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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Does “Freedom” Matter To Progressives?

This item, the second in the TDS/Demos forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” is by Demos Senior Fellow Lew Daly, the co-editor of this forum. It is intended to raise questions of immediate interest to progressives about the “Ideal of Freedom” as it affects practical politics.
The national elections of 2006 and 2008 suggested a powerful political realignment and raised hopes for a revival of progressive ideas about government and society. War-weary, disengaging from the culture wars, and reeling from economic collapse, the American electorate voted decisively against the failed conservative policies and incompetent governance of the George W. Bush years. Yet today, an explosive combination of media and activist engagement on the right has defined the terms of key national debates in ways that have made it difficult if not impossible to advance progressive policies in Washington. There may be rosier edges to this scenario in the distance, given deeper voting trends driven by demography and cultural change, but the political process for achieving strong progressive policy goals seems very much in disarray.
Among several key reasons for this, from the faltering economic recovery, to ever-more blatant lobbying influence, to Senate voting rules, far too little attention is being paid to thematic and ideological dynamics and how these dynamics shape political identification and public opinion on issues and policies. Today more than ever, with so many major challenges confronting us, we should be paying closer attention to the thematic and ideological dynamics that are shaping our politics and indeed distorting our politics in dangerous ways.
It has always been the case, and it remains so today: the central theme in the ideological dynamics of American politics is freedom. Yet the political struggle for freedom is completely one-sided today: Conservatives—and especially free-market conservatives—own the term, and their definition of the idea is dominant. They deploy it tirelessly and in unison with political leaders; and they are all working in concert on a polarization strategy that hinges on branding progressive policies and those who support them as enemies of freedom.
Yet, the truth is that progressives, not conservatives, stand closer, much closer, to the vision of freedom held by America’s founders and developed by the two greatest presidents who followed them, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Progressives, not conservatives, understand and seek to advance American freedom, as traditionally understood.
Even though the meaning of American freedom is being hijacked by the right, little is being done to expose their distortion of values or to revive the truth about freedom and what it requires. We have developed this online forum to help progressive thought- leaders, strategists, and activists address this problem and change the political environment into one in which progressives once again own this most powerful thematic and ideological ground.
We hope that participants can help address several questions of immediate importance to progressives:
1. How does the progressive “freedom” theme fit in with other progressive themes such as “a common national purpose,” “equality,” and “fairness”?
2. Is this progressive concept of freedom resonant with the public’s understanding of freedom?
3. (A) Is a progressive “freedom” agenda particularly appealing to constituencies and to major voting blocs (such as the white working class) that are particularly up for grabs? (B) Is the progressive “freedom” theme consistent or inconsistent with a progressive “populist” message? (C) Can the “freedom” agenda effectively challenge the current conservative populist backlash?
4. What are two or three banner areas of domestic policy in which progressives can most emphatically identify themselves with the defense of freedom?
5. What concept of the proper role of government is most consistent with a systematic progressive concept of freedom? What are the most effective ways of communicating that concept of government to the public?

We hope to have a lively discussion on these and other topics.

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