Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom

Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom

Since the ’70s, liberals and leftists have misidentified the source of conservatism’s appeal.


Conservatives often complain that they’ve been exiled from power, whether in the corridors of the Capitol or the pages of the New York Times. Yet conservative ideas have dominated American politics for thirty years. The centerpiece of that dominance is the notion that the market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom. Despite the Great Recession and election of Barack Obama, the most progressive candidate to win the presidency since 1964, that idea retains its hold. The ideological realignment we have been waiting for, in which that idea is repudiated, has yet to come.

One reason for the dominance of this idea is that since the ’70s, liberals and leftists have misidentified the source of conservatism’s appeal. Confident that no one short of a millionaire could endorse the right’s economic ideology, everyone from Clintonite centrists to radical populists has treated conservatism as essentially a politics of distraction and delusion. Conservatives, it’s said, are just good salespeople, wrapping their ugly wares in the pretty paper of the culture wars. The way to combat them is not to challenge their ideas or defend ours but to use prettier wrapping paper.

Instead of confronting the allure of the free market, as conservatives understand it, liberals have tried to co-opt the discourse of traditional values. Painting themselves as the new Victorians, they’ve claimed, We stand for thrift and family, God and country. We put people to work rather than on welfare. We don’t spend recklessly; we reduce the deficit. We provide security: not just the physical security of cops on the street, crooks behind bars and troops in Afghanistan but the economic security of shared risk and protection from risk. We stand for responsibilities over rights, safety over freedom, constraint rather than counterculture.

This strategy might have something to recommend it if it worked. But it hasn’t. When right-wing ideas dominate, we get right-wing policies. After the midterm elections in November, it seemed the most natural thing in the world—to the right, the media, Obama and parts of the Democratic Party—to freeze the pay of federal workers and extend the Bush tax cuts for two years. Incoherent as policy—the first presumes that the deficit is the greatest threat to the economy; the second, the lack of consumer spending—it makes sense as ideology. The best (and only) thing the government can do for you and the economy is to get out of your way.

There’s a second reason conservative ideas are still dominant. Many liberals have failed to overcome their sense that however much they might question the bona fides of the other side, they lack the intellectual wherewithal to manage the economy. Roosevelt’s Brain Trust had a self-confidence born of the widespread belief that the business class had discredited itself, and a conviction that it had the answers where the businessman did not. That will to power, rooted in ideas, is hard to find on the left today. When it comes to the economy, too many liberals agree in their heart of hearts with conservatives: let the men of money decide.

If there is to be a true realignment—not just of parties but of principles, not just of policy preferences or cognitive frames but of deep beliefs and ideas—we must confront conservatism’s political philosophy. That philosophy reflects more than a bloodless economics or narrow self-interest; it draws from and drives forward a distinctly moral vision of freedom, with deep roots in American political thought.

* * *

From Emerson and Douglass to Reagan and Goldwater, freedom has been the keyword of American politics. Every successful movement—abolition, feminism, civil rights, the New Deal—has claimed it. A freewheeling mix of elements—the willful assertion and reinvention of the self, the breaking of traditional bonds and constraints, the toppling of old orders and creation of new forms—freedom in the American vein combines what political theorists call negative liberty (the absence of external interference) and positive liberty (the ability to act). Where theorists dwell on these distinctions as incommensurable values, statesmen and activists unite them in a vision of emancipation that identifies freedom with the act of knocking down or hurtling past barriers.

The secret of conservatism’s success—as any reading of Reagan’s speeches and writings will attest—has been to locate this notion of freedom in the market. Conservative political economy envisions freedom as something more than a simple “don’t tread on me”; it celebrates the everyman entrepreneur, making his own destiny, imagining a world and then creating it. Speaking before Congress in April 1981, Reagan sold his package of tax and spending cuts with a line from Carl Sandburg, that emblematic voice of the Popular Front: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” The entrepreneur is the scion of freedom, the reincarnation of Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln; the welfare state, its most potent enemy, the successor to King George and the slaveholder.

We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.

We must, in other words, change the argument from the abstractions of the free market to the very real power of the businessman. More than posing an impersonal threat to the deliberations of a democratic polity—as the progressive opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision would have it, or as liberals like Paul Krugman and Hendrik Hertzberg have suggested about the unionbusting in Wisconsin—the businessman imposes concrete and personal constraints on the freedom of individual citizens. What conservatives fear above all else—more than higher taxes or lower profits—is any challenge to that power, any inversion of the obligations of deference and command, any extension of freedom that would curtail their own. FDR understood that. In his 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he was careful to take aim not simply at the rich but at “economic royalists,” lordly men who take “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives.”

Mounting this kind of argument requires more than a strategic shift of frames; it calls for deep immersion in a wellspring of American political thought: the language of opposition to personal dominion and rule. Americans are notoriously uninterested in systemic notions of domination, but the struggle against slavery has left them with an abiding appreciation of—and visceral hostility to—individual forms of domination. And that is what the businessman, uncurbed and unchecked, portends: personal domination.

We must also change the argument about government. Government need not be a source of constraint, as conservatives claim. Nor is it designed to protect citizens from the vagaries of the market, as many liberals claim—a formulation that depicts citizens as needy and passive and opens liberals to the charge of paternalism and condescension. When government is aligned with democratic movements on the ground, as Walter Reuther and Martin Luther King Jr. understood, it becomes the individual’s instrument for liberating herself from her rulers in the private sphere, a way to break the back of private autocracy.

* * *

In forging his realignment, Roosevelt was careful to identify the enemy not as a political party but an economic aristocracy. Throughout the 1936 campaign, he barely mentioned Alf Landon. Instead, he denounced the Liberty League and the businessmen it represented. Realignments in America are like that: Jackson railed against the Bank; the Republicans ran against the slaveocracy; Reagan campaigned against the liberal elite. Part of this is strategic: it’s easier to peel away voters from the opposition if you can show that it is not their party you oppose but the interests it represents, which are not theirs. But part of it is substantive, reflecting a conviction that the task at hand is not simply to defeat a party or win an election but to free men and women from a malignant social form. If we hope to forge a comparable realignment, we must stop talking about the Tea Party or even the Republicans and start talking about the business class that stands behind them.

Some of us might be tempted to frame the fight against business in terms other than freedom: as a campaign for security, perhaps, or for equality. In defense of the former, people could point to Social Security, the third and fourth of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (freedom from want and from fear), and the general idea of a safety net. Lurking around such arguments, inevitably, is 9/11 and the desire to reclaim the meaning of security from the right. In defense of the latter, people could point to the new breed of superrich, galloping away with their billions while everyone from the pauper to the millionaire—suddenly thrown together in that great crucible of the middle class—gets left behind. Lurking around these arguments is the age-old suspicion on the left that freedom is either hopelessly bourgeois or inherently antagonistic to equality. One must opt for equality over freedom—happily, says the radical; regretfully, sighs the liberal.

The problem with defending government as the guardian of security and equality is that it endorses a passive conception of politics and people in which the citizen is a recipient of the state’s benevolence rather than an agent in her own right. The government doles out protection or largesse, and she takes it in. In neither case does—or need—she do anything. Security and equality are also static ideals. How do you know if men and women are secure or equal? If each is fixed and fastened to a certain place or position? When men and women are boxed in like that, movement, the most basic form of freedom, can seem threatening.

Security and equality are critical values, but they are means to an end. The reason we value security is that it enables us to act freely, without fear. The reason we value equality is that inequality is the throughway of domination: someone with vastly more resources than I—an employer, for example—can coerce and control me, abridge my freedom. By emphasizing security and equality, we focus on the means and lose sight of the end.

The politics of freedom does not dismiss the value or importance of state resources. But rather than conceiving of them as protections against the hazards of the market or indices of public compassion, it sees them as sources of power, as the tools and instruments of personal and collective advance. Armed with universal healthcare, unemployment benefits, public pensions and the like, I am less vulnerable to the coercions and castigations of an employer or partner. Not only do I have the option of leaving an oppressive situation; I can confront and change it—for and by myself, for and with others. I am emboldened not to avoid risks but to take risks: to talk back and walk out, to engage in what John Stuart Mill called, in one of his lovelier phrases, “experiments in living.”

* * *

The politics of freedom is a politics of individual and collective emancipation. Frederick Douglass discovered his freedom, negative and positive, when he raised his hand against his overseer. After that, he realized, though he might remain a “slave in form,” he would never again be a “slave in fact.” The politics of freedom similarly understands liberty as, above all, a claim against—and a movement to overcome—oppressive forms of power, particularly in the private spheres of the workplace and the family.

That is why the politics of freedom refuses to view the state as the conservative does: as a constraint. Or as the welfare-state liberal does: as a distributive machine. Instead, it views the state the way the abolitionist, the trade unionist, the civil rights activist and the feminist do: as an instrument for disrupting the private life of power. The state, in other words, is the right hand to the left hand of social movement.

The question for the left today is twofold. First, how do we formulate this argument in an age when capitalism goes unquestioned? At previous moments of liberal ascendancy, revolution was a potent threat and social democracy a viable alternative, if not in the United States, then at least elsewhere. For all its repressive effects, the cold war helped spur domestic reform. Today the United States is the global hegemon; China, its only potential competitor, offers no ideological threat to its economic system. Whether it is possible to mount a challenge to current economic arrangements without that threat remains to be seen.

Second, and perhaps more important, can we formulate this argument at all? During the Great Recession, much has been written about reviving the policies of the New Deal. Though well-intentioned, this focus on policy suggests that thirty years of conservative control has left us ill-equipped to counter the power of the businessman with first principles. It’s long past time for us to start talking and arguing about those first principles, especially the principle of freedom.

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