Opinion | When Their Idea of Liberty Is Your Idea of Death

At the heart of the American ethos is the contested idea of freedom.

In the video announcing his 2024 re-election bid — pointedly called “Freedom” — President Biden staked out his vision, declaring:

Around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take on bedrock freedoms, cutting Social Security that you’ve paid for your entire life, while cutting taxes from the very wealthy, dictating what health care decisions women can make, banning books and telling people who they can love all while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote.

“The question we’re facing,” Biden told viewers, “is whether in the years ahead, we will have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer,” adding:

Every generation of Americans will face the moment when they have to defend democracy. Stand up for our personal freedom. Stand up for the right to vote and our civil rights. And this is our moment.

The 2024 election shows every sign of becoming a partisan battle to claim ownership of the ideal of freedom, with each side determined to persuade voters that the opposition’s assertions are not just false but a threat to individual and group rights.

This dispute is possible because freedom as an abstraction is fraught with multiple and often conflicting meanings. The debate over where to draw the lines between freedom, liberty, rights, democracy, responsibility, autonomy, obligation, justice, fairness and citizenship has been going on for centuries, but has steadily intensified with the success of the liberation movements of the past seven decades — the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual rights revolutions.

In sharp contrast to Biden, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, in “The Courage to Be Free” — his campaign book, published in February — warns that “the threat to freedom is not limited to the actions of governments, but also includes a lot of aggressive, powerful institutions hellbent on imposing a woke agenda on our country.”

The enemies of freedom, DeSantis contends, are “entrenched elites that have driven our nation into the ground,” elites that “control the federal bureaucracy, lobby shops on K Street, corporate media, Big Tech companies and universities.”

These privileged few, DeSantis argues, “use undemocratic means to foist everything from environmental, social, and governance (E.S.G.) policies on corporations, forcing as well critical race theory on public schools, in what the Florida governor calls “an attempt to impose ruling class ideology on society.”

This debate fits into a larger context famously described by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 Oxford University speech, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:

If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.

Positive freedom, Berlin continued,

derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object.

Jefferson Cowie, a history professor at Vanderbilt, captured the intensity and depth of division over freedom during the civil rights movement in his book “Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for history this week.

Cowie wrote that the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, in his “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” inaugural speech, on Jan. 14, 1963,

invoked “freedom” 25 times — more than Martin Luther King Jr. used the term later that year in his “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington. “Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us,” Wallace told his audience, “and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.”

For Wallace, in other words, the right to maintain segregation was a form of freedom.

The dichotomy between the notions of freedom promulgated by George Wallace and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues to polarize the nation today.

Rogers M. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote by email in response to my inquiry about the contest over freedom:

Biden stands in the liberal tradition going back to F.D.R. which holds that to be truly free, people have to be able to meet their material needs, so that they have opportunities for their diverse pursuits of happiness; and they also need democratic institutions giving them a share in shaping their collective destinies.

Ronald Reagan, according to Smith, “thought freedom meant being largely free of government interference in people’s lives, whether through regulation or assistance. He did believe in freedom as democratic self-governance.”

For Trump and DeSantis, Smith argued, freedom is more constrained and restrictive. For these two:

Freedom means having governmental policies that protect the ways of life they favor against those they don’t. Their notion of freedom is the narrowest: in fact, it is primarily an argument for using coercive governmental power, and in Trump’s case private violence, against all who they see as threats to their preferred ways of life. They support democracy as long as, but only as long as, it produces the results they want.

Jack Citrin, a political scientist at Berkeley, pointed out in his email that different types of freedom can impinge on each other as well as create different winners and losers:

Negative liberty is freedom from external constraints, particularly from the government. This is the dominant idea, I think, in the Bill of Rights. It is linked to individualism and libertarianism. So I am free to carry a gun on the right, free to have an abortion or change my sex on the left. Positive liberty means the freedom to act to provide collective goods so it is easy to see that there can be a tension between the two.

As with many political concepts, Citrin continued:

There is an elasticity in this term that allows competing parties to stake a claim for their version of freedom. Biden paints Trump as a threat to one’s freedom to have an abortion or to vote; Trump claims the deep state is a threat to your privacy or legal rights. In addition, one group’s freedom constrains another’s.

On April 29, Conor Friedersdorf published “Ron DeSantis’s Orwellian Redefinition of Freedom” in The Atlantic. As its headline suggests, the essay is a wide-ranging critique of the policies adopted under the DeSantis administration in Florida.

Friedersdorf cited a recent DeSantis speech — “I don’t think you have a truly free state just because you have low taxes, low regulation, and no Covid restrictions, if the left is able to impose its agenda through the education system, through the business sphere, through all these others. A free state means you’re protecting your people from the left’s pathologies across the board” — which, Friedersdorf remarks, he would describe instead “as an anti-woke nanny state, not a state that values and protects freedom.”

Friedersdorf does not, however, limit his critique to the conservative governor and quite likely presidential candidate, pointedly noting that in his own state of California, a Democratic bastion,

Our dearth of freedom to build new dwellings has burdened us with punishing housing costs and immiserating homelessness. Our dearth of educational freedom consigns kids from poor families to failing schools. Our higher-than-average taxes do not yield better-than-average public services or assistance. And during the coronavirus pandemic, far from being a refuge of sanity, California responded with a lot of unscientific overzealousness, like the needless closure of beaches and parks.

In practice, neither the left or right has clean hands on the question of freedom.

Conservative Republicans, including but not limited to DeSantis, have enacted restrictions on teaching about race and sex in public schools, have banned books in public libraries, barred cities from passing ordinances on the minimum wage, paid sick leave, firearms policy, plastic bags and marijuana decriminalization, and purposefully sought to suppress voting by minorities and college students.

While certainly not equivalent, left-leaning students and faculty have led the charge in seeking to “cancel” professors and public figures who violate progressive orthodoxy; in disrupting conservative speakers on campuses; and in seeking to bar or restrict teaching material considered hurtful or harmful to marginalized groups.

Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, proposed in an email that Biden and the Democratic Party are well positioned to claim the freedom mantle:

I want to suggest two reasons why this focus may not only be warranted but also have great appeal. The first is the battle over abortion rights. The second is the new attitude of Republicans toward the business community.

On abortion, she continued, “I would argue that the ability to choose whether or not to have a child is a fundamental right,” adding her belief that:

Before the Dobbs decision, we had found a workable compromise on this issue: no or limited abortions after fetal viability around 24 weeks. But the kind of six-week limit that is now the law in Florida and Georgia, not to mention the total ban in 14 other states, is an almost complete abrogation of the rights of women.

On the treatment of business, Sawhill wrote: “Republicans have always been the party of corporate America, dedicated to limiting regulation and keeping taxes low. Gov. DeSantis’s attack on Disney and other so-called ‘woke’ companies is beginning to undermine the party’s reputation.”

The bottom line, she concluded, was that “when Democrats talk about freedom, it’s not just rhetoric. There is substance behind the message.”

Francis Fukuyama, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, makes the case that the threats to freedom from the right are far more dangerous than those from the left.

In an April 24 essay, “When Conservatives Used to be Liberals,” he argues that traditionally American conservatives differed from their European counterparts in “their emphasis on individual liberty, a small state, property rights and a vigorous private sector.” These principles, he continued, “defined the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, which wanted lower taxes, deregulation, federalism and multiple limits on state power.”

This understanding of conservatism, Fukuyama writes, “has been upended with the rise of Trumpist populism.”

The result: “American conservatives are now talking more like older European ones,” older ones “like Spain’s Francisco Franco or Portugal’s Antonio Salazar who were happy to see democracy abolished in their countries altogether.”

Fukuyama acknowledged that

There is plenty to criticize on the woke left, but this new type of conservative is not talking about rolling back particular policies; they are challenging the very premises of the liberal state and toying with outright authoritarianism. They are not simply deluded by lies about the 2020 election, but willing to accept nondemocratic outcomes to get their way.

How, Fukuyama asks, could such a dire situation occur in this period of American history?

The new illiberal conservatives talk about an “existential” crisis in American life: how the United States as traditionally understood will simply disappear under pressure from the woke Left, which then justifies extreme measures in response.

In fact, Fukuyama counters:

It is hard to think of a time when the United States has been more free than it is in 2023. The much-feared tyranny of the woke left exists only in certain limited sectors of U.S. society — universities, Hollywood, and other cultural spaces, and it only touches on certain issues related to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity. It can be bad in these spaces, but most Americans don’t live there.

Fukuyama is correct in citing the right’s exaggerated fears of the “woke” political agenda to justify authoritarian assaults on democracy, but he underestimates the adverse consequences of what many voters view as the freedom-threatening excesses of unrestrained liberalism.

These include progressive policies that support the release of potentially violent criminals without bail; progressive prosecutors who refuse to press gun cases; the presence of homeless camps with open drug dealing on the sidewalks of Democratic cities; and the mentally ill roaming urban neighborhoods.

For many voters, the consequences of these policies and situations are experienced as infringing on their own freedom to conduct their lives in a safe and secure environment, protected from crime, disease and harassment.

Homelessness has become the subject of an ongoing debate over the meaning of freedom, a debate taking place now in New York City where Mayor Eric Adams provoked angry protests — even before the chokehold death of a homeless man, Jordan Neely, by a passenger on an F train in Manhattan on May 1 — with his call to “involuntarily hospitalize people” who are a danger to themselves.

In city centers large and small across the country, homeless advocates argue that street people without homes should be allowed to live and camp in public places, while others argue that the state should be empowered to close camps that pose alleged threats to sanitation and public health — with no resolution in sight.

William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, argues in a 2005 essay “Taking Liberty,” that “for much of the 20th century, progressives took the lead in both defining freedom and advancing its borders.”

From Teddy Roosevelt’s expansion of “the 19th century laissez-faire conception of freedom to include the liberties of workers and entrepreneurs to get ahead in the world,” to F.D.R.’s redefinition “to include social protection from the ills of want and fear,” to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal to a “civil and political freedom that included all Americans,” Galston maintains that liberals have successfully argued that freedom often can “be advanced only through the vigorous actions of government.”

Liberals began to lose command of freedom in the 1960s, Galston concludes, when

What began honorably in the early 1960s as the effort to expand freedom of speech and self-fulfillment was transformed just a decade later into an antinomian conception of freedom as liberation from all restraint. Enthusiasts could no longer distinguish between liberty and license, and so lost touch with the moral concerns of average citizens, especially parents struggling to raise their children in what they saw as a culture increasingly inhospitable to decency and self-restraint.

“As progressives abandoned the discourse of freedom,” Galston writes, “conservatives were more than ready to claim it.”

I asked Galston whether he stood by what he wrote 18 years ago. He replied by email:

Mostly, but some of it is dated. I did not anticipate that a commitment to fairness and equality of results would morph into a culture of intolerance on college campuses and other areas where a critical mass of progressives has been reached.

Looking toward Election Day, Nov. 5, 2024, there are conflicting signs favoring both left and right in the competition to determine which side is a more effective proponent of freedom.

On the right, conservatives can point to two positive developments, both reflected in polls.

The first was the May 7 ABC News/Washington Post survey that suggested Biden is more vulnerable than previously recognized. Both Trump and DeSantis led Biden — Trump by 45 percent to 38 percent, DeSantis by 42 percent to 37 percent.

The second survey was a May 5 Washington Post-KFF poll showing that “Clear majorities of Americans support restrictions affecting transgender children” and “Most Americans (57 percent) don’t believe it’s even possible to be a gender that differs from that assigned at birth.”

By nearly two-to-one margins, respondents said, “trans women and girls should not be allowed to compete in sports with other women and girls” — in high school sports, 66 percent to 34 percent, and in college sports, 65 percent to 34 percent.

These data points are politically significant because Biden is a strong proponent of trans rights, committed to protecting the “fundamental rights and freedoms of trans Americans,” including challenges to state laws barring transgender students from “playing on sports teams” consistent with their gender identity.

Conversely, there is no question that Republican state legislators and governors have initiated concerted attacks on freedoms supported by liberals, and that many of these freedoms have wide backing among the public at large.

These attacks include book banning, opposed by at least four to one Americans, and bans on abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy. A Wall Street Journal poll in September 2022 found that “62 percent opposed an abortion ban at 6 weeks of pregnancy that only included an exception for the health of the mother, and 57 percent opposed a ban at 15 weeks with an exception only for the health of the mother.”

The outcome of the election will determine, at least for a brief period, the direction in which the nation is moving on freedom and liberty. Given the near parity between Republicans and Democrats, neither side appears to be equipped to inflict a knockout blow. But the ABC/Washington Post survey showing both Trump and DeSantis easily beating Biden is a clear warning signal to the Democratic Party and to liberals generally that they cannot — and should not — take anything for granted.

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