The surprising momentum of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has given a boost to an important but overlooked liberal project: taking back the rhetoric of freedom from decades of conservative domination. In his official campaign launch two weeks ago, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said: “Our conservative friends care about freedom, but only make it part of the journey. They only see ‘freedom from.’ Freedom from taxes, freedom from regulation … as though government were the only thing that can make you unfree.”
“But that’s not true,” he insisted. “Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. There’s a lot more to your freedom than the size of your government … Consumer protection is freedom, because you’re not free if you can’t sue your credit card company even after they get caught ripping you off.”
By staking out a liberal version of freedom that focuses on the economic barriers to individual liberty, Buttigieg is reclaiming important rhetorical ground for a left-leaning agenda. If he succeeds, it will be in part because it’s ground that Donald Trump has all but abandoned in favor of raw nativism. That gives all liberals, not just Buttigieg, a rare opportunity to articulate their own positive—and uncontested—vision of American freedom.
Freedom has never been far from the rhetorical center of gravity in American politics. But its political valence has shifted over time. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt wielded the rhetoric of freedom for liberal ends. He spoke about “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear,” demanding a new set of economic rights that called for affirmative government interventionism. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt told the nation. “Necessitous men are not free men.”
Since FDR’s era, however, and especially following the civil rights movement, conservatives have gradually taken over the mantle of freedom in political discourse. Beginning in earnest during the Cold War, the right successfully appropriated the concept as rhetorical draping for don’t-tread-on-me libertarianism and deregulatory free-market capitalism, casting liberal government programs as genetic cousins of totalitarian Soviet ideology. At the close of the 1964 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously framed the race between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson as a choice between “man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order” and the “ant heap of totalitarianism . . . [by] those who would trade our freedom for security.” And so conservative standard-bearers from Goldwater through Reagan through Paul Ryan defined freedom as the absence of government intervention: the unencumbered consumer putting his dollars to work as he sees fit; the family left alone by government to peaceably live behind a white picket fence.
Yet for nearly three decades now, with the Cold War long behind us, that pitch has been running on fumes. By the Great Recession, it had truly outlived its usefulness. Conservatism was vulnerable to an insurgent who would come along and challenge its dusty rhetorical trappings.
That insurgent turned out to be Donald Trump. Trump rarely talks about freedom. Instead, he talks about “winning”—a politics of brute domination, supercharging the status of “his people” by attacking the status of everyone else. Yet, at the same time, Trump’s lack of interest in the actual work of governing has compelled him to outsource much of his administration’s policy agenda to the Republican old guard. That has produced the standard fare of wildly unpopular GOP policies: tax cuts for the wealthy, relentless attacks on health care, and Ryan-esque budgets that take from the poor to give to the rich.
That combination—the GOP’s ultra-stale plutocratic agenda aggravating economic inequality, and Trump not even bothering to dress up that agenda in a thin veneer of freedom—gives liberals an opening to go on offense by arguing that true and meaningful freedom requires some baseline of economic security.
Where the traditional conservative narrative around freedom focuses on preventing the tyranny of government, liberals worry about the tyranny of markets in everyday life. You’re not free if your employer is allowed to act as a mini-dictator controlling your personal choices. You’re not free if you can’t afford to have children because of the prohibitive cost of childcare. You’re not free if you don’t have access to quality education that expands your opportunities. You’re not free if you can’t switch jobs without losing access to health care—or if your employer prevents you from going to a competitor, or if one company controls all the employers in your field in your region. When people are serving the needs of the economy more than the economy is serving the needs of the people, freedom can feel like it’s in distressingly short supply.
The financial constraints and dependencies of modern American life have left many rethinking what real freedom means and seeking a reprieve from the grind of the unforgiving economy. It’s no coincidence that the institutions many Americans cherish most are those that we’ve shielded from the market, like schools, churches, parks, and libraries. Those are spaces of life where, to one degree or another, all comers are free to pursue enjoyment, enlightenment, and salvation, regardless of their wealth or income. The question that liberals now raise is which other spaces of life—like health care, family life, higher education, decent work, and a clean environment— ought to join those ranks and be wholly or partially freed from the market, too.
When government steps up to take care of those essentials, people are freer to live the lives they want. For instance, as Buttigieg put it, “Health care is freedom, because you’re not free if you can’t start a small business because leaving your job would mean losing your health care.”
With the deepened corrosion of conservative politics under Trump, the idea of freedom is now up for grabs. To truly control our own lives, and to have real liberty, government must tear down barriers that get in the way of our pursuit of happiness. Buttigieg has started reminding voters of that truth. Other liberals should, too.