This article is adapted from George Lakoff’s the ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! (September 2014) and is printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.
FDR, in giving his Four Freedoms speech of 1941, suggested that Democrats’ mission was to expand human freedom. Yet today Democrats have ceded the very concepts of freedom and liberty to Republicans. It’s time to take freedom back as the central Democratic issue.
Conservatives talk constantly about freedom and liberty, defining the nation’s understanding of these core values. But conservatives and progressives understand the concepts of freedom and liberty very differently.
For conservatives, individual responsibility is central: democracy provides the “liberty” to pursue your own interests, without any help from others (which would make you dependent and weak) and without any responsibility for others.
This is the exact opposite of the progressive view, perhaps expressed best by Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren often repeats a central truth that the conservative view misses entirely: democracy is about citizens caring about one another and working through their government to provide public resources that allow freedom for all.
How do public resources create freedom? Consider the business world. It’s hard to run a business without sewers, without roads and bridges and airports, without an electric grid, without satellite communications, the internet, GPS systems, and without healthy and educated employees. The public—you and me and the rest of us over decades—have, through our government, provided all these public resources. The development of computer science depended on government funding, as did the development of the computer chip industry. Our pharmaceutical industry required NIH research funding. In short: the private depends on the public! Without collective investment, Americans would not be free to start, run, and work in businesses.
The same is true of individual private life. Physical well-being is fundamental to a free life. If you do not have access to health care and you get cancer, you are likely to be trapped not only in debt peonage by the healthcare industry, but in physical anguish or death. So-called “women’s issues” are freedom issues, too—the freedom for individuals to be able to control their own bodies, and follow their doctors’ advice. Without safety regulations for our food and water supply we are not free. Without highways or air traffic controllers or an air force that trains most of our pilots, we would not be free to travel without fear for our safety.