Freedom remains the foundation of our country. It is right there on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, where “liberty” takes a prominent place. It is set in stone in our buildings, in our anthem, and pretty much in any of our civic events and ceremonies.
It is also, unfortunately, incredibly overused by many politicians, to the point of becoming an empty platitude, often used by conservatives to criticize anything they disagree with, from taxes to having to wear a seatbelt in your car.
This is unfortunate, both for our politics and our country. For starters, it makes no sense that such a powerful, defining idea of what makes the United States a great country has become a partisan cudgel used to hit opponents, especially when the party that wields it the most has warped it beyond recognition. Republicans have turned “freedom” into selfishness, every-man-for-himself nihilism, unrestrained, predatory economics, and allowing the rich and powerful to do as they please with little regard for the common folk. Their “freedom” is an excuse to hand the keys of the car to the powerful, nothing more. Instead of the most transformative, powerful ideal born from the American experiment, it has become a justification to preserve the established order.
This is not what freedom means. This is not what freedom should be. And it is time for progressives to step forward and reclaim freedom as the revolutionary, transformative idea it truly is.
Let me take a step back, to January 6, 1941. The world is at war; Nazi Germany occupies much of continental Europe. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was just reelected for a third term. In his state of the union address, Roosevelt wanted to both make a case for ending American isolationism and for the ideals the nation stood for. He spoke about a new world founded upon four essential freedoms, the freedoms that defined America. They are simple, to the point, straightforward – and defined not just the fight ahead, but a progressive vision for the future.
Here is what he said:
- The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
- The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
- The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understanding which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
- The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
More than eighty years later, with Europe again at war, it is jarring how relevant these lines sound. Looking at what is happening within our own country, these four freedoms (of speech, of religion, from want, from fear) become even more urgent, more immediately necessary.
In recent years, we have seen a veritable backlash against freedom of speech. We had politicians removing books from libraries, of states actively banning teaching about racism and opression or talking about gender and sexual identity. Those complaining the loudest about “cancel culture” have been working full-time to shut down any dissenting point of view. A vocal minority of Christian Nationalists has taken over the Supreme Court, and is using it to impose their religion on the country. They eliminated the right to abortion, and are looking at marriage and contraceptives next – and they will not stop there.
Years of economic shocks, crisis, and governments that put the wealthy ahead of all of us have left a country where millions of families tether at the edge of poverty. Rampant, raging inequality has turned the wealthiest country on earth to a place where full-time workers live in poverty and are a medical bill, car repair, or missing paycheck away from economic pain. Despite our immense wealth, Americans live shorter lives, endure much higher crime rates, and live under much higher economic inequality, distress, and uncertainty than any other advanced nation. American working families want economic stability, prosperity, respect, an economy where hard work is rewarded with what they need. Instead, we have an economy defined by fear, as any mistake, any calamity, any crisis can leave many workers destitute.
It is time for progressives to embrace freedom – and talk about it as freedom from any oppression, not the narrow, jingoistic, “do as I want” caricature that it has become. Let’s build a country where freedom of speech, from religion, from want, and from fear define who we are. Our freedoms: a land where we can all live our lives fully, embracing the ideals that built this country.