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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Power of Freedom: A Response

This item is by John E. Schwarz, who wrote the introductory essay for the Demos/TDS online forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom.” It is his response to the other essays submitted to the forum, and was originally published on May 7, 2010.
Let me say how impressed I am with the many different angles of this important topic that the respondents have spoken to and the thoughtfulness of the responses. Summarizing the forum, Ed Kilgore points out that two kinds of issues have been dominant. I’d like to take up each of the two issue areas and the respondents’ comments about them in turn.
The first general area has to do with how significant freedom actually is. One issue, voiced by Mark Schmitt, is that focusing on freedom amounts mainly to simple “reframing by naming,” that is, it is little more than merely rebottling the same product. I see the purpose very differently, not as cosmetic but as absolutely essential. At bottom, the purpose is to identify the foundational value that progressives actually believe in; to recognize what that crucial value means and requires, reaching back to the Founders; and, to advance that basic value against false libertarian representations of it. On that basis, it also serves as an umbrella transforming what now is a series of different and discrete individual policy elements into an overarching, coherent, and inspiring vision.
An allied concern, raised by Will Marshall, is that the progressive ideal of freedom has only limited political salience because Americans don’t and never will understand freedom in the expansive way that progressives do. In this view, the conservative notion of freedom as small government and free enterprise is encoded in our DNA. Yet, the introductory essay (and Halpin and Teixeira as well) cite strong evidence contesting this conclusion and indicating, to the contrary, that a sizeable majority of Americans in fact do instinctively support the progressive ideal of freedom (see Center for American Progress, “The State of American Political Ideology 2009: A Study of Values and Beliefs,” p. 41).
Even so, Halpin and Teixeira and also Hilary Bok raise the problem that the progressive ideal of freedom, with its call for governmental activism in the economy, is seriously weakened to the extent that Americans distrust government. They contend it is crucial to address the substantial misgivings that many Americans presently have about government. I agree.
There are a number of approaches to build on which in combination can move successfully toward that more favorable attitude. Effectively articulating the goals of programs in terms of protecting and expanding our freedom (and the security that comes with freedom), rooted in the thinking of the Founders, should moderate the feeling that government is going far beyond its proper bounds, which is a major component of today’s misgivings about government. It is also a way to show how and why progressives care about getting budgets under control—and have the record, relative to conservatives, to prove it.

Beyond this, we can usefully build upon present attitudes. For example, most Americans already have a positive view of government in numerous areas, such as the military, the police, firefighters, garbage and recycling disposal, water utilities, weights and measures, food safety, roads, national parks, Medicare, and Social Security, among many examples–all of them government operations and all of them viewed as competently run. Words like “public institutions” (as opposed to “bureaucracy” and even “government”), “majority rule,” and “revenues” (as opposed to “taxes”) all have positive connotations in the public mind.
In addition, Americans today positively embrace the need for government to protect us from unaccountable private power and the unbridled greed of others. There are also excellent analogies and metaphors, for example the need for forceful traffic regulations to make traveling freely on the road even possible, as Hilary Bok pointed out. Regulations are not necessarily opposed to individual freedom but often instead are necessary for that freedom. There are many fruitful approaches available to build upon, indeed. And, if the public wants government to work effectively and deserve their faith, is it not crucial to select people for office who fundamentally believe in government, unlike today’s conservatives and the “Brownies” of this world– people who recognize a proper need for government and the importance of competent, disciplined, and responsible government?
Whatever success takes place in this area, it remains true as two of the respondents suggest that how effectively the economy is doing—rather than an ideal or vision– is likely to be the most direct determinant of outcomes in upcoming elections. Nonetheless, a strong theory or narrative is still necessary in order to make any promise of continuing economic success plausible, let alone credible, in the eyes of the public. The conservative idea of freedom as simply small government contains within it the libertarian assertion that less regulation and taxation will boost economic growth and general prosperity. That basic proposition has attracted many adherents. There is no similar theory or narrative at the moment showing how governmental activism along progressive lines is essential to promote more powerful economic growth and prosperity. That places progressives at a disadvantage. The introductory essay attempts to set forth a theory and narrative to this effect, built from the progressive ideal of freedom, along with an understanding as to how and why its application is indispensable to the economic advance of a substantial majority of Americans, including the broad middle-class. That theory and narrative then stands in sharp contrast to the three-decade long economic disaster wrought upon ordinary Americans by the ascendancy of the libertarian notion of freedom.
A final argument about the utility of focusing on freedom contends that conservatives themselves don’t really believe in freedom (as their call for big government in the personal lives of Americans demonstrates). Instead, Matt Yglesias argues, conservatives support the dominant economic and ethno-cultural groups in the country. In this view, the real debate between progressives and conservatives isn’t actually about liberty at all.
Even though conservatives clearly do emphasize a libertarian notion of freedom regarding economic matters, Yglesias’s concern obviously has some truth it. Yet, as Hilary Bok has responded, the fact that conservatives couch their positions in terms of freedom and liberty gives their views considerably greater power. Freedom and liberty, because they are what this country is about, achieve a very powerful political resonance. Detailed polls of American beliefs and opinion carried out by different research organizations confirm this conclusion. (See Center for Policy Alternatives, “Findings from a Nationwide Survey,” Lake Research Partners, pp.31-32; Center for American Progress, 2009, p. 40)
A second broad area of respondents’ concerns deals with the meaning and content of the progressive value of freedom. Mark Schmitt suggests that the ideal of freedom as described in the introductory essay is too weak, that it is thin and doesn’t go very far. I respectfully disagree.
One basic requirement of the value, the availability of sufficient opportunity for all, enables individuals who do their part not simply to reach at least a customary level of well-being (which is substantially greater than subsistence, as Schmitt interprets it). It also enables them to fulfill the dreams they have for their standard of living grounded upon their own efforts and improved productivity.
As the introductory essay extensively documents, all of that stands a long distance from contemporary reality in our nation, far removed from what has actually been possible for many years now for most average, let alone poor, Americans. The same value goes substantially beyond economic matters, as well. It involves a robust understanding of all the personal rights and civil liberties to which Schmitt refers. The introductory essay does not discuss those personal rights and liberties solely because it was focused on the economy.
The progressive ideal of freedom– of being able to live a life of fulfillment, as each individual defines it—extends to both the material and non-material sides of our lives. Indeed, freedom is the indispensable operating principle behind the progressive call for activist government in economic matters conjoined with small government related to our personal beliefs and how we lead our personal lives. Governmental activism is essential to assure sufficient opportunity, protection from wrongful harm, and the promotion of common goods. That, combined with small government in our personal beliefs and lives, is what lets freedom thrive. Being able to make this key distinction, in turn, brings the indefensible conservative contradiction of big government in our personal lives yet de-regulation in our economic lives into greatest relief.
Another potential limitation of freedom for advancing progressive causes, Will Marshall suggests, is that the meaning of freedom would seem to be opposed to both equality and social justice in the sense that they are essentially zero-sum objectives. One must be sacrificed in order to be able to gain the other. The introductory essay and Hilary Bok in her response argue otherwise. To give an example, the assurance of sufficient economic opportunity for every individual is an essential element of freedom, equality, and social justice, all at the same time. The progressive ideal of freedom embraces equality and social justice on many levels as an essential part of freedom itself– sufficient economic opportunity, equal standing under the law, and an equal vote are but a few illustrations. The same meaning of freedom also identifies limits and boundaries to equality that nearly all progressives embrace. For example, there is no call for complete equality of wealth for every individual.
One final consideration Marshall points to is the question of whether progressive policies are too diverse in their application to fit into a recognizable paradigm. After describing a series of policies and programs (health-care reform under Obama, TARP, energy and climate change– including nuclear energy and off-shore drilling– and, under Clinton, health care, crime prevention, college aid, charter schools, and balancing the budget), Marshall suggests that there is no paradigm that can be found that spans this great array of actions. But I believe there is. Most of the programs he identifies fit the progressive ideal of freedom outlined in the article. That is, they are intended either to assure the availability of sufficient opportunity for individuals or to protect against external harms done to individuals, utilizing government in order to attain those ends. In doing so, they tend to seek the lowest level of direct governmental control and public cost consistent with successfully attaining the ends while endeavoring to secure revenues for them and practice effective and appropriate budgetary discipline over the long term.

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