“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.
Vyse: There is that debate on the left, though, and Republicans seem keenly aware of it. Donald Trump may not be a great free-speech champion, but he clearly sees an opportunity in raising the issue: When he described his political opponents recently, he said, “They believe in censorship, cancel culture, intolerance, and rigid conformity. We believe in free thought, free assembly, free expression, and a little thing called free speech.”
Kusnet: I’d like American progressives—and American society at large—to err on the side of freedom, but I appreciate the fact that power relations are at issue in these debates. The left-wing argument against some exercises of free speech is that they allow people with power—those who have historically been privileged—to humiliate those without power and privilege. I don’t always agree with that argument, but I can understand it, and there are situations in which I’m in favor of limited restrictions on what you could call free speech. I agree, for instance, with the National Labor Relations Act, which says that, when workers are trying to organize a union, their employer doesn’t have the right to hold a mandatory meeting and threaten their jobs. That’s an issue of power relations. If you have an overwhelmingly white workplace with a few Black workers, neither the white workers nor their white boss has the right to make racist statements to Black workers. Power relations figure in debates about freedom.
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.
Vyse: You describe a Democrat’s ideas of a Republican’s idea of freedom as being about “impunity.” How would you describe Republicans’ ideas about freedom in their own terms?
Kusnet: Republicans tend to see freedom as an absence of subjection to certain forms of government intrusion—freedom from public-health mandates, to take an important recent example, or from taxation, regulation, and even some social services. From the 1930s, conservative Republicans were against government initiatives like Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Conservatives have long tended to focus on “freedom from,” whereas progressives have tended also to focus on “freedom to”—even if they’ve tolerated certain kinds of government intrusion, such as restrictions on abortion rights, when “freedom from” has conflicted with other core moral commitments. Some southern, white conservatives supported Jim Crow laws, which were certainly a government intrusion into people’s lives. There’s always selectivity about the kinds of government intrusions the right opposes.
Vyse: How does the present moment of contestation over the idea of freedom compare to other moments of contestation over this idea in American history?
Kusnet: Looking back at the 20th century in America, and into the start of the 21st, I see several dimensions of freedom that progressives have been more likely than conservatives to embrace. The first is freedom from excessive corporate power as well as excessive government power. In fact, that probably goes back to the growth of the labor movement in the 19th century. Then you had President Woodrow Wilson talking about “new freedom,” which included freedom from excessive corporate power. Another definition of freedom that progressives have tended to embrace more than conservatives have is the idea of “freedom for” as well as “freedom from”—the idea that you’re not truly free if you can’t develop your personal capacities. You see this in President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech back in 1941. Two of his freedoms were classic Bill of Rights freedoms—speech and worship—and then he added “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.”
We’ve heard this kind of language on both sides of the Atlantic. Consider the rhetoric British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock used when he was first running against Margaret Thatcher. Kinnock went through a litany of people he’d met in Thatcher’s Britain—people he described as having been held back by economic deprivation and a lack of opportunity and security—and he’d say they were citizens of a free society but they weren’t free. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton talked about meeting an immigrant worker in New York City, who told him about problems he was encountering in America—including a fear of crime. He said he’d come to the United States from an unfree country but then wasn’t entirely free in the U.S., either. He was describing freedom here in the sense of a “freedom to.”
Conservatives have long tended to focus on “freedom from,” whereas progressives have tended also to focus on “freedom to.”
In the 18th century, we had the American Civil War over succession and slavery, and we can remember that freedom is the opposite of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists really reintroduced the idea of freedom in American political debate, saying it wasn’t just a matter of the U.S. being independent of Britain, or just a matter of whose humanity and citizenship was initially recognized in this country. Rather, it was about including everyone in America’s promise. In the last line of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln invoked an idea of how the U.S. “shall have a new birth of freedom” that went along with this newly active definition of freedom.
In the 1960s, the leading youth-activist group on the right was called Young Americans for Freedom, and Barry Goldwater and other conservatives talked a lot about freedom. On the other side, the civil-rights movement did, too. You had the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, and the slogan “Freedom Now.” Then you had an attempt to fuse the civil-rights and labor movements with an anti-poverty “Freedom Budget” that A. Philip Randolph introduced in 1965. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the word freedom appears 21 times, with “let freedom ring” as the concluding litany. The final words are, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
These historically progressive ideas of freedom—freedom from excessive corporate power as well as excessive government power, freedom for those in need of the opportunity to be who they can be, and freedom as the opposite of slavery, exclusion, and dehumanization—resonate in America today in different ways and to different degrees. The argument for reproductive rights tends not to be only a matter of opposing government intervention in people’s personal decisions; it tends also to be a matter of fully including women in modern life. In the debate over restrictions on gun ownership, opponents of restrictions see potential limits on their rights, but proponents will argue—recalling Roosevelt’s appeal for “freedom from fear” in the ‘40s—that Americans have the right to be free from the terror of gun violence. As we see debates about workers’ right to organize, environmental pollution, and any number of economic issues, progressives will tend to revive disagreements over whether freedom is simply about an absence of governmental abuse or also about protection from corporate abuse.
There are a number of words that have overlapping meanings but different resonances in American politics—freedom, liberty, democracy, republic, rights. These are all words people use to talk about a country like the United States, in distinguishing it from countries with varying degrees of authoritarianism such as Hungary, Russia, or North Korea. Democracy is the American system of government, though conservatives like to call it a republic. Liberty and rights can sound more individualistic than some of these other terms. Of all the words, freedom may be the most emotionally resonant and unifying—certainly for people who’re likely to vote Democratic.
Democrats have suffered from talking about programs when Republicans talk about principles. Whether it’s Ronald Reagan talking about “Morning in America” or Donald Trump talking about “American Carnage”—Nightmare in America, essentially—Republicans have spoken in headlines while Democrats have tended to speak in smaller type.
Vyse: Do you see Democrats as having suffered for their relative disengagement from the language of freedom in recent years—perhaps effectively ceding it to Republicans?
Kusnet: Progressives should never have stopped contesting the idea of freedom. In general, Democrats have suffered from talking about programs when Republicans talk about principles. Whether it’s Ronald Reagan talking about “Morning in America” or Donald Trump talking about “American Carnage”—Nightmare in America, essentially—Republicans have spoken in headlines while Democrats have tended to speak in smaller type.
Vyse: What other big ideas do you see competing with the idea of freedom in rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans these days?
Kusnet: Well, freedom intersects with populism, which you and I have discussed in the past. In right-wing and progressive understandings of populism, regular Americans are having their lives and livelihoods—including their freedom—impinged on by powerful forces. Right-wing populists are more likely to see freedom as being impinged on by the government and, implicitly or explicitly, by marginalized groups they see as being at odds with the majority of the people. Left-wing populists are more likely to see freedom as impinged on by abuses of economic power and by those holding back marginalized groups.
Vyse: There’s truth to that, but we’re also increasingly hearing an argument from the right that America is harmed not just by the government but by powerful, progressive—or “woke”—corporations and other societal institutions captured by the cultural left. I’m not sure they’re quite arguing that these institutions make citizens unfree, but the right no longer seems to be making the case that government is the main oppressor in American cultural conflict.
Kusnet: It’s a very interesting—and relatively recent—development that attacking corporations has become an applause line for the right. To find a comparison, you almost have to go back to the 1800s, when populism in the South went from being progressive and multiracial to being racist and, implicitly or explicitly, anti-Semitic. You’d have right-wing populists attacking Wall Street and bankers, which could be code for attacking Jews. Maybe this idea of “woke capital,” which is largely in the technology sector, is beginning to play the same role in right-wing rhetoric that Wall Street and bankers played in the South in the late 19th century.
Vyse: How do you imagine Democrats’ new rhetoric about freedom will affect this year’s U.S. midterm election campaigns?
Kusnet: Freedom is a core value for both sides of the political divide in the United States—a core value for all Americans. Yet they’re probably as divided over how to define that value now as they were in the 1960s or the 1860s. I happen to know the Democratic base better than I know the Republican base, and I can see Democrats’ stump speakers doing rhetorical litanies about freedom at get-out-the-vote rallies this fall: They can say, Your freedom to make your own health-care choices is on the ballot. Your freedom to join a union is on the ballot. Your freedom to vote—and have your vote counted—is on the ballot. Your freedom not to be discriminated against because of who you are, who you love, or how your worship is on the ballot. That would change the election from being a referendum on an incumbent president, which an incumbent president’s party will tend to lose, to being a referendum on the meaning of a core American value.