LIBERALS AND LIBERTY

LIBERALS AND LIBERTY… One of my abiding peeves is the degree to which conservatives exploit and misuse, and liberals underuse, the word “freedom.” The right will portray any action by the federal government it doesn’t like as an assault on freedom, knowing that this charge, however bogus, has a unique ability to rile the American public because liberty is at the core of our national identity. Last fall, John Boehner called the Democrats’ health reform legislation “the greatest threat to freedom that I’ve seen in the 19 years I’ve been in Washington.”

Liberals, on the other hand, seldom defend what they do in the name of freedom, even though, not so long ago, liberal leaders like JFK and Martin Luther King did so to great effect, and even though the policies that today’s liberals fight hardest for typically advance the cause of freedom. When young people earn college degrees with the help of government grants and loans, and hence have wider career options in life, are they not freer? When retirees receive Social Security checks, and hence the ability to buy groceries without having to depend on their kids, are they not freer? When health care reform gives would-be entrepreneurs the ability to quit their dead-end jobs and start businesses without depriving their families of health insurance, are they not freer? And yet how often do you hear Democratic leaders defend these programs as advances of individual freedom? Almost never.

Five years ago in the Washington Monthly, William Galston made the case that liberals need to take back the concept of freedom from conservatives, or risk political defeat. That baton has now been picked up by Ed Kilgore and the folks at the Democratic Strategist, which is hosting a fascinating online forum called “Reclaiming the Ideal of Freedom For Progressivism and the Democratic Party.” It is built around a powerful essay by political scientist and Demos senior fellow John E. Schwartz, and includes commentary from the likes of Matt Yglesias, Will Marshall, Hilary Bok, Mark Schmitt and others. It’s a fascinating discussion, and in light of the coming elections, I can’t think of a more important one progressives should be having right now.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.