Cruz on the Conservative Vision of Freedom and the Constitution

It’s important to understand just what Cruz means when he says “freedom.”

Beyond the cage match aspects of what happened last night at the Republican convention, it is important to remember that Ted Cruz’s goal was to lay out his vision for the future of the GOP. What struck me about what he said is that it is actually the vision that is driving a lot of what is coming from that party these days. So it’s worth taking a look.

Overall, Cruz didn’t talk much about policy. But it’s interesting that he did endorse a couple of things that Donald Trump has talked about.

We deserve an immigration system that puts America first, and yes, builds a wall to keep America safe.

A government that stops admitting ISIS terrorists as refugees. We deserve trade policies that put the interests of American farmers over the interests that are funding the lobbyists.

The big focus for Cruz was on values. You will notice that two words were prominent in the speech: freedom and the Constitution. He put them together twice as a summary.

…vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom, and to be faithful to the constitution…

The case we have to make to the American people, the case each person in this room has to make to the American people is to commit to each of them that we will defend freedom, and be faithful to the Constitution.

It is important to understand what Cruz means by “freedom” and ask questions about what it means to “be faithful to the Constitution.” Here’s what he said about freedom:

America is more than just a land mass between two oceans, America is an ideal. A simple, yet powerful ideal. Freedom matters.

For much of human history government power has been the unavoidable constant in life. Government decrees and the people obey, but not here. We have no king or queen, we have no dictator, we the people constrain government.

Our nation is exceptional because it was built on the five most beautiful and powerful words in the English language, “I want to be free.”

I have to admit, I was taken aback by the slogan he says our country was built on. Silly me…I thought he was going to say something like “We the people..,” or “E pluribus Unum” or even, “One nation, under God, indivisible.” I’ve never heard “I want to be free” used that way. To be honest, it reminded me more of a Sammy Davis, Jr. hit song.

But more importantly, Cruz suggests that freedom is all about “we the people” constraining government. That’s where he captures the real basis of conservative thought these days. It is as if government is an entity unto itself with nefarious motives designed to rule over us and rob us of our freedom. It completely ignores that the whole point of a democratic republic is that “we the people” are self-governing. The government is not some nefarious other. It is us. At least that’s what I have always assumed we mean by democracy.

I believe that this is one of the great dividing lines between Republicans and Democrats today. It is what animated the entire 2012 Republican Convention with its “We Built It” theme in response to these remarks by President Obama.

If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

For Republicans, the primary value is individual freedom – divorced from the concept of collective action. That is why, shortly after the Republican love-fest with individual freedom, Obama made citizenship the focus of his speech at the Democratic Convention.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

References to the Constitution by conservatives like Ted Cruz often act as dog-whistles for those who deny the legitimacy of both the presidency of Barack Obama (i.e., birthers) and his actions (i.e., Obamacare). But there is something deeper at work. We know that it also means an emphasis on an “originalism” that ignores Article V – which gave the country a way to amend the original document. The reason that is so important is because those amendments eventually did things like ended slavery, defined citizenship, gave women the right to vote, allowed for the direct election of Senators – not to mention the whole Bill of Rights. As we watch extremist conservatives attempt to roll back some of those amendments, one has to question just how far Republicans want to take the whole idea of originalism when it comes to the Constitution.

The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has, in some ways, obscured these very profound differences between Democrats and the current iteration of Republicans. Last night Ted Cruz laid his claim to the idea that he will revive them going forward. Whether he does or not is an open question. But I firmly believe that someone will.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .