Here’s one thing you’ve got to hand to the modern American Right: these people can sell. Maybe it’s the presence of so many shameless TV preachers and corporate bosses within their movement. Maybe it’s the “message discipline” that comes more easily with being a mostly top-down movement. But whatever the root cause, there’s no denying that conservatives are often much better at packaging their ideas for public consumption than progressives.
For a classic case in point, consider the Right’s dogged, destructive and often successful effort to appropriate and pervert the word “freedom.” For decades now, conservatives have sought to package virtually every policy stance on their agenda as a defense of “freedom” and/or its close cousin, “liberty.” This is especially true in and around red, white and blue holidays like Memorial Day.
If one goes down the list of issues, you can almost hear the right-wing propaganda rap.
We need to cut taxes in order to put more dollars in the pockets of North Carolinians so they’ll have more freedom to spend it however they choose.
Parents and students need more freedom of choice when it comes to selecting their schools.
We need to get government out of the health care system so that consumers will have more freedom to choose the doctors and services that are right for them.
We need to get rid of burdensome government regulations that hinder business and, instead, unleash the freedom of the private sector to create wealth and opportunity.
Any effort to regulate guns is an assault on freedom and liberty.
And so it goes. Message managers on the right are so good at this that they’ve even attempted to portray policies predicated on exclusion and the denial of rights as somehow being about freedom and liberty. Hence, the shameless claims that providing reproductive health care to women employees via employer-provided health insurance and marriage equality to the LGBT community violate the “religious freedom” of those who don’t like those things. (As an aside, this is the same argument that many defenders of racial segregation made a half-century ago.)
And then there are the self-adopted, “would be funny if they weren’t serious” labels like the late Jerry Falwell’s “Liberty University.” Here in North Carolina, conservative financier Art Pope’s two main outfits – the John Locke Foundation and Civitas Institute – play the same game. The former claims to be “making North Carolina first in freedom,” while the latter says that it “fights to remove barriers to freedom so that all North Carolinians can enjoy a better life.”
A perversion of important words
Strangely and frustratingly, progressives have mostly shied away from doing battle for ownership of these powerful words. Part of this has to do, one suspects, with the natural inclination of those of the left to be put off by jingoistic displays of patriotism and the idea of using them for ideological gain. Another part probably stems from an aversion to pushing simplistic, black and white solutions to complex problems that involve a lot of gray areas.
Whatever the explanation, however, it’s clear that ceding the words “freedom” and “liberty” to the Right has been a tragic tactical mistake and is just plain wrong. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to actually promoting real world freedom and liberty, progressive policies are vastly superior to their right-wing alternatives on virtually every issue.
Take the current healthcare debate for example. Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are currently proposing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a law that would cause 23 million Americans to lose their health insurance. How in the world does this promote freedom and liberty? For most Americans the loss of health insurance is a one way ticket to fear, uncertainty and even desperation. For thousands, it literally constitutes a death sentence.
It’s true that many of the nation’s wealthiest citizens would realize a large tax cut under the plan. As NPR reported in March:
“According to the Tax Policy Center, the top 20 percent of earners would receive 64 percent of the savings and the top 1 percent of earners (those making more than $772,000 in 2022) would receive 40 percent of the savings.”
But even for these people, how would their freedom and liberty really be enhanced by a windfall of several thousand dollars? What could they buy? Another vacation home? More gold-plated bathroom fixtures?
Even most wealthy people have employees and friends and family members who would suffer. All would be impacted by the generalized societal pain. As the residents of Mexico City or Moscow or Lagos can attest, there is decidedly less freedom – even for the very wealthy — when societal conditions feature a vast and growing chasm between the rich and everyone else. As things grow more and more desperate for average citizens, the rich must wall themselves off more and more into gated communities and exclusive private schools and employ ever larger security teams just to protect themselves. Indeed, unless they immigrate to happier and healthier countries, they find themselves, in effect, prisoners of their own wealth.
The pattern repeats
The pattern holds on issue after issue. Think of the burst of freedom and liberty that North Carolina lawmakers could promote for millions of people by guaranteeing every citizen access to affordable public education from birth through college.
With access to quality and affordable childcare, millions of parents would be empowered to find work and better their lives without the dread that often accompanies finding such care and paying for it.
With access to affordable higher education, hundreds of thousands of adults would be freed from the ball and chain of debilitating student loans.
Or think of the gift of freedom and liberty state leaders could provide to everyone by changing course and embracing policies that would preserve our natural environment. Is the “freedom” that a developer wins to bulldoze stream buffers or that a utility company obtains to burn more coal really more valuable? As things stand now, every North Carolinian pays a hidden tax of thousands of dollars per year to address the destructive environmental and health effects of fossil fuel combustion. What if they could be relieved of that burden as well as the fear and dread for the wellbeing of their children and grandchildren that accompanies the existential questions we currently face about the planet’s health?
The superiority of the progressive position in securing freedom and liberty is similarly evident when it comes to a long list of other issues – whether one is talking voting rights, LGBTQ equality, reproductive health, consumer rights, immigrant rights, the social safety net, marijuana legalization or even guns (where freedom from fear and the right to bear arms could be secured for millions through the enactment of sane laws that regulate guns just as we regulate, for instance, automobiles).
The bottom line
As was noted several years ago in this space when local conservatives were assailing a smoking ban in public restaurants as an “assault on freedom,” what the Right’s “freedom” and “liberty” talk is really about in most instances is not human rights, but property rights. They do not envision a society in which every human is genuinely and equally free; they envision a society in which the “freedom” to acquire and hold wealth and property is paramount. Hence the obsession with combating taxes at all costs – especially on wealth and property.
Fortunately for the cause of genuine freedom, the actions of North Carolina political leaders and their apologists in the conservative think tanks during the past seven years (not to mention the outrageous recent blunderings of the Trump junta) have served to unmask the true nature of this con game. While a shrinking number of true believers on the hard right are still falling for and promoting the scam, light bulbs are clicking on for millions of other people across the country who now rightfully see their freedom and liberty endangered by reactionary policies that undermine and weaken core public structures and services.
Next up for progressives: taking back these important and powerful words from those who wrongfully tried to make them their own. Let’s get to work.