Biden's "freedom" pitch and the coming political realignment
As the right retreats from the theme of "freedom," the left sees an opening
In the final days of the 1964 presidential campaign, a professional pitch man and public speaker named Ronald Reagan recorded a video on behalf of the Republican nominee for president of the United States, Barry Goldwater. In the pitch, conventionally known as the “A Time for Choosing” speech, Reagan fixated on one word and theme above all else.
The Cold War, in his telling, was about whether we “lose this way of freedom of ours.” He wondered if Americans “still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers.” For Reagan, America was apparently the only place with liberty on the entire surface of the Earth: “If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” Maybe he hadn’t traveled much. He extolled “individual freedom consistent with law and order” and bemoaned “the assault on freedom” and worried that “freedom has never been so fragile.” He derided “those who would trade our freedom for security.”
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The pitch for Goldwater didn’t work, but the pitch man outperformed his own product. A decade and a half later, Reagan would be elected president on a similar rhetorical platform of freedom, freedom, freedom, and freedom. And the frame of freedom that he insisted on would become the mantle of the right. Every strand of the right’s project — from deregulating the economy to busting unions to lowering taxes on the rich and corporations to imperially adventuring in foreign countries — all of it could be justified by the “freedom” pose.
And in those years, the left committed a blunder, largely accepting the right’s dubious claim to ownership of the concept of freedom. The left pursued other themes. It pursued justice, equality, solidarity, coming together, hope, change, the future. But it somewhat accepted, often unconsciously, that freedom was the right’s thing.
So it was significant that on January 20, 2017, as Donald Trump, in many ways an heir to the Reagan Revolution and in other ways a departure from it, delivered the darkest inaugural address in American history, he used the word “freedom” once. Even that was boilerplate, not substantive: “We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same, great American flag.”
That was it.
If Reagan had conjured the image of thriving, effervescent Americans bursting to do things, build things, raise families, chase dreams, but for the threat of government encroachment, Trump told a different story. Americans in this new story were victims of entropy: "trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” surrounded by “rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation,” “deprived of all knowledge” by a broken education system, threatened by “the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives.”
The kind of freedom the right had traditionally emphasized — negative freedom, the freedom to be left alone — wasn’t really the solution if this was the problem. If Reagan had emphasized the moral imperative of leaving free and vigorous people alone, Trump spoke of people who needed a powerful protector — a.k.a. him.
Of course, many of the actual, underlying policies Trump proposed would be quite similar to those proposed by Reagan, but the departure of the 2017 pitch from the long-reigning orthodoxy of the 1964 pitch was revealing: the party that once saw people as full of agency, threatened by government constraint, now saw people as naturally weak and vulnerable, threatened by forces beyond their control which only strong leaders could defeat. The libertarian Republican Party was now the authoritarian one.
The Republican retreat from the frame of freedom is a tectonic, under-appreciated shift in American politics. And it may be the start of a profound political realignment. For the first time in a generation, the idea of freedom is not an especially important animating principle for the right. They use the word still, but they are fundamentally about something else now, fundamentally about protecting people from supposedly menacing forces like demographic change and changes to M&Ms and children’s books and “woke” corporations. This is the pitch not of freedom but of the strongman.
To quote Miley Cyrus, the libertarian right of previous generations conceived of citizens as having the attitude “We run things, things don’t run we.” Today’s Republicans tell their adherents that they live in a world of forces that do run them, and only a powerful ruler can interrupt that.
The right’s desertion of freedom creates a historic opportunity for the left to reclaim what should never have been conceded. In reporting my book “The Persuaders,” I saw research showing that freedom is the most highly ranked value by people on the far right, far left, center right, and center left. There aren’t a lot of values like that left.
And it’s not just rhetoric: the actual program of the diverse camps of the political left is consonant with a freedom-centered pitch. What is the fight for reproductive rights but a fight for the freedom to control one’s body — and to have sex without fear that you are making a lifelong commitment some Friday night? What is the fight against book bans but a fight for the freedom to read and think? What is the effort to pursue justice for the January 6, 2021, insurrection but a fight to enshrine and defend the freedom to vote? What is the fight against climate change but a fight for the freedom of our children and grandchildren (and us) to drink clean water and breathe clean air and live in the mental peace of not constantly dreading floods and fires? What is the fight for truly universal healthcare but a fight for the freedom from illness — and for the freedom to pursue your business ideas and not have to cling to your awful job? What is the quest for free daycare and college but a fight for the freedom to learn and pursue your dreams regardless of whether you happened to be born into wealth?
Today, as President Biden announced his re-election campaign, his choice of approach struck me as a sign that this great political realignment may be upon us. As Politico summed up the campaign’s opening pitch: “Biden's 2024 choice: ‘More freedom or less freedom.’” In the campaign’s three-minute opening ad, Biden uses the word “freedom” six times. That is approximately five times the frequency of Reagan’s 11 uses of the word in his 27-minute speech in 1964. The ad frames all kinds of present-day issues as battles for freedom: protecting Social Security, beating back insurrection, defending democracy, safeguarding the vote, preserving abortion rights, preserving marriage equality, resisting book bans, shoring up civil rights, and more.
As Anat Shenker-Osorio, the progressive messaging guru whom I write about in “The Persuaders” says, the thing about freedom is that you can feel it. It’s corporeal. It’s not abstract. People know what it feels like to be free. And not to be free. This is a theme, a concept, a frame, a word that the left can no longer afford to hand to the right, and the good news is it seems like it no longer is.
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