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Will Democrats Adopt a Freedom Agenda?
Americans love freedom: it’s in our political DNA. Can democrats reclaim the political high ground while forcing Republicans to defend their increasingly fascistic and death-promoting policies?
Democrats must embrace a 21st century “Freedom Agenda.”
Last week I wrote about how important it is for Democrats to reclaim “law and order” as their own by embracing a non-racist community-oriented model of law enforcement and rebuilding the services available to the mentally ill and homeless that were gutted by Reagan, Bush, and Trump.
This is part two in a series about Reclaiming American Values. As much as Americans want the safety and security of law and order, they want freedom even more. The challenge is in defining that word and applying it as a brand to a political party.
Republicans and the billionaires who support them have gone on a 40-year branding spree, slapping the word “freedom” on any and every thing they can.
Part of this was just a cynical ploy to use a word embraced by Americans since Revolutionary times. Another part hearkens back to early 18th and 19th century conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke, Francis Parkman, and William Graham Sumner who all argued that “freedom” meant the ability of morbidly rich people to enjoy their wealth and property without having to interact with the riff-raff or suffer from regulation or taxation by government.
But in the modern lexicon, Democrats, reaching all the way back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, have a much better claim to the word “freedom” and need to revive it and put it at the center of their political branding and legislative agenda.
After all, they’re already promoting freedom with almost every single policy they champion. They just need to start saying it, over and over and over again.
— Democrats strive to expand American’s freedom to include rights to both abortion and birth control without government officials intervening, but Republicans want to limit women’s freedom to control their own bodies, outlaw birth control pills and IUDs, and prevent women from traveling across state lines to seek health care.
— Democrats want to expand your and your children’s freedom to breathe clean air, eat safe food, and drink pure water, while Republicans want to expand fossil fuel production and pollution, defend factory farms with massive pools of liquid fecal matter, promote cancer-causing chemicals, and prevent cities from replacing lead pipes.
— Democrats work to expand your children’s freedom to learn and aspire to higher education by keeping public schools and libraries open and expanding high-quality educational opportunities, but Republicans across the country are banning and burning books, defunding public schools, and attacking teachers as “terrorists” and “groomers.”
— While Democrats fight to protect entrepreneurs’ ability to start and run small and medium-sized businesses, Republicans are all-in on protecting the corporate monopoly power that has stripped our downtowns and suburban malls of local companies and driven inflation with their billionaire CEOs’ insatiable greed.
— Democrats are trying to protect our children’s and grandchildren’s freedom to attend school — and our ability to go out in public — without fear of getting shot. Republicans, on the other hand, have pushed policies that have expanded the number of guns in America from under 100 million in 1970 to over 350 million guns in circulation today, driving gun deaths to levels never before been seen in any developed country in the world. America is the only country in the world where school kids are regularly terrorized by active shooter drills or where guns are the leading killer of children.
— Democrats work every day to expand healthcare so Americans can have the freedom to stay healthy without going broke. Meanwhile, Republicans push the Medicare Advantage privatization scam, backstop Big Pharma in their rip-off pricing (a drug company lobbyist just became Speaker Johnson’s main policy advisor), and fight every effort to expand Medicaid and veterans’ health benefits.
— Democrats have worked for generations to give young people the freedom to access affordable college education without student debt. Ever since Reagan ended free college in California and then gutted the federal education budget by more than 20%, the GOP has championed the interests of student-loan bankers over students themselves, going so far as to sue Biden before the Supreme Court to stop his efforts to forgive billions in student debt.
—Democrats support freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. Republicans want to reinvent America as a Christo-fascist nation, forcing all American children to say prayers in school and legalizing discrimination against non-Christians and people like the queer community who the GOP bigots cynically say don’t follow their “Christian values.”
— Democrats champion net neutrality, which would return to you the pre-Trump freedom to browse the internet and use email with complete privacy. Republicans, on the other hand, are fighting for foreign governments’ and the internet giant’s “right” Trump gave them on June 11, 2018 to continuously spy on you, record every website you visit, and read every email you send or receive while selling your personal information to the highest bidder.
— Democrats want you to have the freedom to vote your conscience in free and fair elections. Republicans push Red state gerrymandering, voter roll purges (most recently in Ohio and Virginia), long lines on election day, and successfully challenged millions of mail-in ballots in the past two elections, disingenuously claiming that the signatures of people voting in mostly Democratic districts “didn’t match” closely enough. Most never even knew their ballots were thrown out.
— Democrats want America’s veterans to have the freedom to recover from their wounds and live normal, decent lives after serving their country. Republicans repeatedly vote against veterans. As Jeff Tiedrich writes on his brilliant Substack newsletter, the GOP’s #2 guy in the House, Steve Scalise, “voted against the VA Employee Fairness Act, the Veteran Service Recognition Act, the PACT Act (twice), the Equal Access to Contraception for Veterans Act, and the Ensuring Veterans Smooth Transition Act.” Gym Jordan “voted against the PACT Act, the Food Security for All Veterans Act, the Veteran Service Recognition Act and the VA Employee Fairness Act.” Lauren Boebert voted against veterans 15 times in her first year in Congress. This is the norm for the GOP these days: they sneer at veterans, who then-President Trump called “losers” and “suckers.”
— Democrats want gays and lesbians to have the freedom to marry and adopt like everybody else, and trans people to be free to live their best lives. Republicans want them all back in the closet or worse.
— Democrats explicitly support democracies around the world that embrace and defend freedom. Republicans, following the lead of Trump, embrace Putin, Kim, and the dictator of Saudi Arabia while fighting to gut the UN, NATO, and hand Ukraine over to Russian fascists. They even want to hold aid to Israel hostage to their effort to prevent the IRS from auditing the billionaires who’ve been grooming and financing Republican Congress members and rightwing SCOTUS justices for the past five decades.
How did we get to this point? When did the GOP become the party of an in-your-face-government so aggressive and opposed to freedom it would fight for book bans, assault rifles shooting up our schools, more poison in our air and water, limits on who can vote, and cutting aid to democracies under attack?
When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, the Republican Party was correctly seen — after the GOP’s tax cut and deregulation binges in the 1920s crashed the economy leading to the Republican Great Depression — as pretty much exclusively the party of the rich and powerful, as the party that embraced big corporations and hated organized labor.
The Democratic Party had been running America for a half-century by 1981. In that time, Democrats fought and won two world wars; created the world’s first over-50%-of-the-population middle class; built gleaming new schools, hospitals, roads, and airports across the nation; steadily reduced both poverty and crime; and dropped the national debt from 115% of GDP at the end of WWII all the way down to a mere $800 billion ($0.8 trillion) in 1980.
Democrats were, quite literally, known across America as the party of a strong defense, a robust working class, education, healthcare, law and order, and fiscal responsibility. Their support across America was so solid that the only reason Reagan took the White House in the election of 1980 was because he’d cut a deal with Iran’s Ayatollah to hang onto the American hostages until after the election, thus committing treason to beat Jimmy Carter.
When Reagan was sworn into office in 1981, the only Republican president since the Republican Great Depression to have endorsed rebuilding America’s middle class had been Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), and he’d fully embraced the Democrat’s agenda, rebranding it as the “Middle Way” that, he said, was solidly “in the center” between the “reactionary right” and the “radical left.”
Ike told America his goal was to “prevent or correct abuses springing from the unregulated practice of a private economy” and establish “some kind of security for individuals in a specialized and highly industrialized age.” One of government’s most important obligations, he said, was to maintain “a solid floor that keeps all of us from falling into the pit of disaster,” and campaigned for re-election in 1956 on the millions newly enjoying union and Social Security benefits, both of which he’d substantially expanded.
Reagan fully rejected Ike’s Middle Way, instead embracing the neoliberalism then promoted by Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and Milton Friedman and laid out in detail in the notorious Powell Memo authored by the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Bellotti opinion that first partially legalized political bribery in 1978.
In 1981, Reagan set out to tear apart programs that sprang from the New Deal and the Great Society. His explicit goals were to:
— Cut taxes on the morbidly rich and America’s largest corporations while reducing the wealth of that pesky, unionized middle-class,
— Drive up the deficit as much as possible to both provide economic stimulus and to give Republicans a club they could use to force the next Democratic president to “shoot the Santa” of their own programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. (Bill Clinton bought into it and “ended welfare as we know it,” and Obama nearly cut Social Security with his “chained CPI.”)
— Gut regulatory agencies put into place to protect average Americans from predatory banks, insurance companies, and polluting industries,
— Make it radically more expensive for working class kids to get a college education,
— Destroy every union he could,
— Give publicly owned lands to fossil fuel billionaires who were Republican donors, all for pennies on the dollar,
— Dismantle integrated public schools and replace them with religious and for-profit private schools,
— Reverse Roe v Wade and return women to the economic control of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, and
— End the legal separation between church and state enshrined in several places in our Constitution.
While David Koch and his billionaire buddies were celebrating Reagan’s victory and his plans to dismantle the “welfare state” that they said “fosters dependency on government,” they also knew that if Reagan’s plans had been as clearly stated publicly as above, they’d never fly.
So, following the blueprint of the Powell Memo, the billionaires funding the Reaganista Republicans brought marketing experts into the party to figure out how to rebrand it in a way that still embraced their patrician values but seemed, sounded, and appeared more average-American-friendly.
Out of this extraordinarily successful rebranding effort came the modern GOP, which any schoolchild can tell you is supposedly the Party of:
— Law and order,
— Strong national defense,
— Fiscal responsibility and low taxes,
— “Life” and,
— Judeo-Christian values.
All, of course, are lies.
Republicans ignore Trump’s many demonstrable crimes and multiple fraud convictions while refusing to investigate criminals in their midst like George Santos.
Republicans protect billionaire tax cheats so aggressively they’re willing to see Ukraine go down in flames to keep the IRS from auditing their morbidly rich patrons. They’re blocking military promotions and refusing to fund programs for wounded veterans, all to prevent raped servicewomen from getting abortions.
While cutting taxes on billionaires from 74% down to 25%, Reagan raised taxes on working people 18 times, including taxing Social Security benefits for the first time. Virtually 100% of our $34 trillion national debt is attributable to Reagan, Bush, and Trump tax cuts for billionaires and the two illegal wars that Dubya lied us into as his 2004 re-election strategy.
Although they claim hyper-Christianity, Republicans spit at Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 25, where He said the only way to get into heaven was to feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, and have compassion on those in prison. Their policies create more hunger, more untreated sickness, more homelessness, and promote tougher sentencing while throwing billions at private, for-profit prisons in exchange for massive
bribes campaign donations.
Nonetheless, instead of reversing these insane policies, they’re demanding that Democrats stop funding to working class and poor Americans in crisis.
And the “Party of Life” continues to block Medicaid expansion in 12 Red states, leaving almost 30 million American low-wage workers and their children with no healthcare coverage whatsoever, all while cynically trying to use the power of law to force women out of the workplace and back into the kitchen and bedroom.
Because the entire post-Reagan Republican façade is essentially a Potemkin village, a false front embracing fascism while pretending to support “freedom,” Democrats now have a great opportunity to reclaim their pre-Reagan freedom brand while exposing the lies and hypocrisy that animate the GOP.
All they need do is roll out, like FDR did when he advanced “Four Freedoms” in his 1941 State of the Union address, a true Freedom Agenda and promote the brand every day between now and the 2024 elections.
Americans love freedom: it’s in our political and cultural DNA.
And this is a powerful way to reclaim the political high ground while forcing Republicans to defend their increasingly fascistic and death-promoting policies to a public that’s awakening to their various authoritarian scams, payoffs, and hustles.