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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Freedom, Politics and Government: A Summary of the “Freedom Forum” So far

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on April 30, 2010.
For those who have been following the Demos/TDS forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” and for those just tuning in, I’d like to offer some observations about the discussion as it is unfolding, and about points of convergence and disagreement among our distinguished group of essayists.
John Schwarz’s introductory essay was based on two core convictions: that “freedom” is a very powerful concept in American politics which conservatives have come to “own” and identify with their own “negative liberty” ideology; and that a positive progressive vision of freedom can and must be aggressively articulated just as the Founders, Lincoln, FDR, and–until recently–Barack Obama did.
There’s some disagreement among our essayists about the first argument: that, as Lew Daly puts it, “the meaning of American freedom is being hijacked by the right.” Matt Yglesias argues that the right’s freedom-rhetoric is transparently empty and hypocritical, and is not terribly important to contemporary political battles. The erosion in the faith in government that’s become so prevalent of late is, Yglesias suggests, mainly attributable to the country’s economic problems, and is likely to abate if and when the economy revives. The immediate challege for progressives is to expose the agenda of conservatism “in all its splendor and horror,” and arguments over the true nature of freedom do not necessarily contribute to that task.
Mark Schmitt also doubts debates over “freedom” will have immediate political resonance, but thinks it’s worth talking about for a more fundamental reason:

[E]ven 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.

John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira come at Schwarz’ hypothesis from a different angle: they contend, based on their own research, that robust majorities of Americans actually do embrace a progressive definition of “freedom,” but deeply mistrust government as an effective instrument for pursuing it. It’s this mistrust that progressives need to do something about most urgently:

They must take far more aggressive and sustained steps to defend government itself, despite its currently unpopularity, and make clear to people exactly how government enables individual freedom and the common good.

Will Marshall accepts the political salience of freedom, but argues that to be credible progressives must admit that their goals do involve the balancing of freedom with other values of equal importance to Americans. Instead of “rebranding” freedom in congruence with progressive policy aims, he suggests a pragmatic approach that acknowledges the validity of public concerns about overreaching government and focuses on “expanding opportunity rather than government.”
Hilary Bok weighs in on the side of those who think it’s important and achievable to contest conservative freedom-rhetoric:

[W]hile people’s views of political parties don’t change as quickly as I’d like, they do change eventually. Republicans have already forfeited their reputation for competence and fiscal discipline. I suspect that they are in the process of losing much of the credibility they once had with the military, though I expect this to take a while. If there is any justice in the world, their claim to support liberty will eventually become as obviously risible as their claim to be responsible stewards of the economy. Since I care about liberty, I want to do whatever I can to help this process along.

She also argues that the distinction between “positive” and “negative” concepts of freedom can be misleading, since government action is sometimes essential to enhance freedom generally, even in such simple forms as traffic laws. Beyond that:

[M]any programs that liberals support arguably increase our liberty – our freedom to decide what kind of life we should lead from among a reasonable set of alternatives, and to have a good shot at living a decent life if we are willing to work hard and play by the rules.

Schwarz’ second main theme, which lays out a distinctive progressive vision of freedom, has also attracted some commentary. Yglesias, Marshall and Schmitt all emphasize the importance of certain “negative” freedoms that progressives are far more likely to defend than do conservatives.
Mark Schmitt offers a broader definition of the freedom progressives should fight for, particularly as it relates to issues that go beyond the pocket-book, and argues for “an optimistic, bright vision of human possibility and fulfillment in all dimensions of life–material and non-material,” as opposed to the “narrow, dark vision of freedom from an oppressive government” that conservative so often present.
Will Marshall is more skeptical than other essayists about the political salience of a “positive freedom” agenda that involves expansion of government, and also argues that progressives should reclaim their own legacy of promoting freedom internationally.
All seven essays offer distinctive perspectives from a common starting-point, and provide serious food for thought, not just by professional “thinkers” but by people engaged in practical politics and government who must deal with the consequences of both progressive and conservative freedom-rhetoric.
We anticipate new essays next week from Paul Starr and Orlando Patterson and perhaps others, and will then work towards distilling the discussion to draw out points of consensus.

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