Reflecting on the rise of the “Tea Party,” I am interested particularly in notions of “freedom.” In my estimation, everything that we have any knowledge of is socially constructed. This doesn’t necessarily make science, for example, less helpful or “true” as a knowledge system, but it’s only to say that everything relies on understanding of how things are defined, by us as social groups. As Clifford Geertz writes in his own special way, both dreams and rocks are of this world. In any case, the word “freedom” is being thrown around quite a bit, but it is a word that the right is using more and more. It can especially be found in the rhetoric of the “Tea Party” and of libertarians. But, the question isn’t really about restoring “freedom” or some such idea that you can find any number of extremist Republicans sputtering about these days, but about which freedom we want to champion. Here are some initial thoughts.
Oddly enough, my idea for this post was not sparked by the absurdist Glenn Beck or his ilk, but by the war-mongering Lyndon B. Johnson. This short quote comes from Milkis’ The President and the Parties, a political science work, but which I note only because he introduces the context the included quote from LBJ:
In fact, from the start, the very premise of Johnson’s campaign had been that Goldwater’s candidacy was illegitimate, that the Arizona Senator raised issues that had long been settled. This was not a contest between liberals and conservatives, he told the Democratic delegates who gathered in Atlantic City, nor was it a contest between parties. Rather, the case was reaffirmation of freedom itself: ‘For more than 30 years, from Social Security to the war against poverty, we have diligently worked to enlarge the freedom of man, and as a result Americans tonight are freer to live as they want to live, to pursue their ambition, to meet their desires, to raise their families than in any time in our glorious history.’
This staggered me. I got goose-bumps. I know, I know. I’m not saying that everything was rosy with the world at this point in American history (“than in any time in our . . . history” he notes), but there was some pretty sweet stuff going on. If this was all I knew of LBJ, I’d buy the guy a beer and talk him up to all my friends. Too bad his brand of liberalism follows in the vein of Theodore Roosevelt (this the “war-mongering” description above). But, aside from LBJ’s Vietnam mistakes, his comments on freedom and liberalism are incredibly thought-provoking. Now, this comment was given just over forty years ago. Things sure have changed.
In this paradigm espoused by LBJ, freedom centers around the freedom from want, from suffering, and from unfair exploitation. In this paradigm, it is very hard to argue that freedom of action and being are severely curtailed. One would have to resort to arguing against this freedom only on principle, and Matthew Arnold has shown us just how stupid it is to argue something “on principle” already in Culture and Anarchy.
But, arguing against this brand of freedom, fought for and established largely through the New Deal, is just what contemporary Republicans are doing. You can see them making the television rounds talking about how they have been too accommodating in the past 10 years. Huh?
But, Glenn Beck (though I shouldn’t attempt to engage his ideas in critical thinking terms for he has none in his thought) and libertarians (Rand Paul and co.) have manipulated the meaning of “freedom” as it came into being during and after the New Deal through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s to an even greater extent than mainstream Republicans. The Tea Party reaction and libertarians have simply pulled the Republicans further and further right than they already were under Bush II.
What isn’t sufficiently explicated in the notion of “freedom” touted by the Tea Party and libertarians is that their freedom simply privileges business’ freedom over that of individuals and society. Their freedom is the freedom to exploit and to oppress. For example, Rand Paul likes to talk about how we should strangle government in favor of the “free” market (I love how ideology has slipped “free” into that phrase by the way). Rand Paul is so enamored with this notion of freedom that he is willing to denounce the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 to (re)establish it. (I wonder if he’d be willing to revoke the abolition of slavery as well—after all, that was a market as well and like any of them, socially constructed. And it was a market curtailed by government action.)
Ultimately, the definition of “freedom” used by the right in so many different scenarios it’s dizzying, ultimately erases any real conception of the term. They have forgotten the hard-won battles that limited the power of business—from child labor laws to the eight-hour day to meat inspection—over the individual, ergo they are in fact only championing the freedom for business. The Tea Party, libertarians, and Fox and friends would do well to read challenging histories of the Gilded Age and the early twentieth century. What they find might surprise them.