“We are the party of freedom,” the Democratic U.S. congressman Eric Swalwell posted to Twitter on July 8. “Freedom to make your own health-care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. … Freedom for all.” It was a few days after his country’s Independence Day, when his fellow Democrat and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, took the unusual step of running a political advertisement in Florida—on the right-leaning Fox News Channel, no less—with a similar message. Floridians’ freedom was being threatened, Newsom said, under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who’s previously celebrated his state as “freedom’s vanguard” in America. Meanwhile, according to reporting by The Washington Post, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and ended the constitutional right to abortion in America, there appears to have been a “dramatic increase” in the use of the term freedom—a concept more commonly invoked for decades among Republicans—“in social media messaging of Democratic leaders and left-wing influencers and organizations.” Contestation over this term isn’t new, of course; it’s arguably as old in the United States of America as the country itself. But why is it reemerging now?

David Kusnet, an American communications strategist, was President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter during his 1992 presidential campaign and first term in office. Kusnet agrees with those who see a new opening for his party to talk about freedom, particularly with Americans generally opposing so many recent Republican restrictions in health care, voting, and education. As this opportunity creates new political debates, Kusnet understands these debates in part as reviving old ones about the kinds of freedom that America should prioritize—for instance, the freedom from government intrusion versus the freedom to live with opportunity and economic security. Yet he also understands today’s disputes about freedom as distinctive in important ways: They’re unfolding in an extraordinary political climate, influenced by populist ideas, and leading in uncertain directions—as Democrats, who are traditionally pro-union, increasingly return to emphasizing freedom for workers, while Republicans, who are traditionally pro-business, increasingly adopt new culture-war rhetoric targeting “woke” corporations dominated by progressive values as enemies of a free society.

Graham Vyse: Why do you think America’s Democrats started talking more about freedom?

David Kusnet: Democrats are talking more about freedom because so many of their voters and constituents—along with many Americans along the political spectrum and across the country—are perceiving alarming threats to it: the freedom to vote, the freedom to make your own decisions about your body and access health care, the freedom from the fear of gun violence, the freedom to teach, learn, and read in schools. These are all ways in which the idea of freedom is being activated among Democrats right now.

Vyse: Democrats are used to hearing about freedom from Republicans, often in criticism of Democratic policies. How do you see Democrats understanding the difference between freedom as they see it and freedom as Republicans see it?

Kusnet: Well, freedom has been one of the most contested ideas in political debate throughout American history—and certainly since the New Deal of the 1940s and the civil-rights and social movements of the 1960s. Democrats tend to see freedom as promoting self-expression, self-realization, and inclusion for groups of people excluded from the full measure of American liberty and opportunity. Democrats tend to believe that Republicans—and especially Republican base voters and Trump supporters—see freedom less as inclusion and more as impunity for people like them. Democrats tend to think of freedom in Republicans’ minds as the freedom of people like them to own assault weapons, not to take precautions during a pandemic, and do whatever they want in businesses they own—regardless of labor, health, safety, and anti-discrimination laws.

There’s clearly debate these days among some liberals and progressives about the proper scope of free speech, with some progressives ceding the idea to Republicans, but I believe most of them want free speech for everyone—just as they want everyone to be able to vote and have their votes counted.

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