Updated: Feb 22, 2020
Democrats could win more votes by confronting the narrative that Republicans advocate for freedom and Democrats advocate for control. That false dichotomy hurts Democrats in rural areas on Election Day.
Republicans see a zero-sum game of freedom.
The Republican Party has taken over freedom. Republicans put United States flags on their pickup trucks, barns, hats, and pants. They advocate freedom from regulations, freedom from taxes, and freedom from the United States government whose flag they wear. These Republicans conceive of freedom as a zero-sum game: only a finite amount of freedom exists, so when the government acts, it takes freedom from citizens.
But not only government restricts freedom. Government can actually increase freedom. Individuals have freedom when they can control the resources that fill their needs. Aside from government, science, economics, and other people also circumscribe that freedom.
Rural voters see that stopping climate change would take freedom to drive pickup trucks and eat meat. They conceive of Obamacare as taking away freedom to purchase health care or not. They expect that open borders will take away their freedom to compete with fewer people for jobs. They feel political correctness taking freedom to talk about extracting resources from less-powerful groups.
Alexander Hamilton predicted these arguments that prioritized certain individuals’ freedoms over all citizens’ freedoms. In a Federalist Paper, Hamilton cautioned against “[a]n over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people.” He predicted politicians would put those sentiments forward “as mere pretence and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good.” Today, Republicans are laying that bait, and citizens are falling for it.
Governments trade smaller freedoms for larger freedoms.
The Founding Fathers expected that governments would tax and regulate and thereby reduce some freedoms. But they created the United States to sacrifice those smaller freedoms for larger freedoms. In the Constitution, they invited taxes to “provide for the common defense.” They sought laws to “promote the general welfare.” Governments tax for roads and schools and sewer systems that no individual would create. And too, laws that follow science and economics expand freedom by protecting military bases and by growing resources for filling needs.
Democrats’ arguments flow from efforts to create those greater freedoms, but they are not making freedom arguments. Stopping sexual harassment gives women freedom to advance their careers. The Affordable Care Act gives freedom to take entrepreneurial leaps. Unions give freedom to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Environmental protections give freedom to breathe clean air and to recreate on unpolluted lands. Democrats advocate for issues that increase the size of the freedom pie.
Democrats argue morality.
Instead of explaining those freedom rationales, Democrats argue morality. They argue that oppressing women is immoral, that forcing people to stay sick is unethical, that paying only survival wages makes corporations corrupt, and that hurting the environment is wrong. Democrats convey they want more control to make citizens conform to their view of morality. Those conclusory statements alienate voters–especially rural voters–whose moral views differ.
The Founding Fathers established the United States to give us liberty and freedom. If they had wanted to cement their morality, they would not have written the First Amendment to prohibit establishing one religion. So today, Americans prize the Liberty Bell, sing about “the land of the free” in the Star Spangled Banner, and recite “liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Some voters see one party wanting them to have more freedom, and the other party wanting to control them. No wonder they resist the authoritarian party with all their strength. Democrats would earn more votes by advocating freedom.
Initially published in the Salt Lake Tribune on April 19, 2019.