I keep hearing about how freedom in the United States is under attack.
I couldn’t agree more.
Let’s just look at the many ways our freedom is threatened.
The freedom to vote: We have efforts underway in many states to make it harder to vote, and two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult to block these efforts. If we take our tradition as a republic seriously, we should be moving in the opposite direction, with expanded and easier opportunities for all citizens to vote.
There are plenty of good proposals, including high school voter registration, online voter registration, election day voter registration, expanded early voting, and making election day a national holiday. Many other improvements can be made to our electoral system, as well, including taking redistricting out of the hands of political parties, lowering the barriers to ballot access for new parties, and allowing more candidates to be viable through instant runoff voting systems. Let’s go even further and make the right to vote a part of our Constitution. True defenders of freedom shouldn’t settle for anything less.
The freedom to participate as an equal in our democracy: Money has always played a large part in our politics, but thanks to a variety of U.S. Supreme Court and lower court decisions in recent years, billionaires and millionaires hold more sway today than in more than a century. In the U.S., you do have the freedom to get rich, but that does not give you the right to rule. That’s not democracy. It’s plutocracy. And defenders of freedom shouldn’t stand for it. A Constitutional amendment should be passed overturning the Citizens United decision, that defined money as speech and corporations as people. That will allow us to pass meaningful campaign finance reform that puts all Americans on a more equal political playing field. In the meantime, transparency and disclosure laws and penalties should be toughened and aggressively policed. It’s our republic, after all, so we have every right to know who’s buying our politicians.
The freedom that comes from a decent livelihood: We often hear that freedom isn’t free. That’s exactly right. It costs money. And if you’re poor or struggling or in debt, you’re not truly free.
Yes, people need to work for what they get, but for the last forty years, we’ve seen the fruits of most Americans’ labor flow to a tiny sliver of the population, even though Americans are more productive than ever before. Economics involves many trade-offs, and we can debate which proposals are best to address this problem. But we certainly can’t do what we’ve been doing and expect a different result. Cutting taxes even more for the wealthy won’t get us there. Instead, we should be expanding programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and preserving Social Security. There appears to be some room to expand the minimum wage without harming employment. If you want private market solutions, allow people to form unions as easily as they form corporations. And if we want to think big, we should consider consolidating and eliminating many social support programs and replacing them with a Universal Basic Income.
The freedom that comes from having good health: As the old saying goes, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. is expanding Americans access to health insurance. This will increase freedom by helping participants to get needed medical care and avoid a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. Efforts to repeal the ACA are a direct assault on this freedom. Many more improvements are still needed in the American health care system. We still have terrible health outcomes for the amount we spend. And perhaps we would be better off with a single-payer health insurance system – for basic services, at least. But until we have agreement around a different solution, the ACA is better than what we had before.
The freedom of safety from gun violence: The United States is an absolute outlier in the amount of gun deaths. And rather than address the problem, we have allowed a group of gun rights extremists, who have incredible savvy when it comes to manipulating our political process, to pollute our public square with their idiosyncratic interpretation of the 2nd amendment. A society filled with the fear of gun violence is not free. While there can be reasonable debate as to what would work to reduce gun violence in America, the fact that we can do nothing – especially as first-graders are slaughtered – is a travesty.
Freedom from state-sanctioned violence: A bedrock principle of western political theory is that the government exists to help protect the lives and property of its citizens. But recently, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, we have been reminded that blacks face disproportionate violence from our police. And this bias extends into how we treat criminality in the U.S., as well. Errant police and a biased legal system need to be brought to justice.
Freedom from religious interference in the operation of our public institutions: When a law is duly passed in this country, it is up to the officials in the government to implement that law without bias or favor. Now, with Kim Davis, we have the spectacle of a government official saying that she has the right to decide the law of the land unilaterally based on her particular religious interpretations and not perform her duties in office. Don’t like the law? Quit and get a new job changing it. Even go to jail to change it if need be. But until such time, keep our government out of it. It belongs to all of us and is not your personal soapbox.
Freedom from bigotry: Bigotry of many kinds – racist, sexist, religious, etc. – is running rampant. Again, blacks have to fear for their lives from the police. We have leading presidential candidates whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment. Women face sexist comments and long-standing inequalities in pay. We have teenagers profiled for their religion. Neo-confederates are marching in the street. The gay community has seen great strides with revised marriage laws and public acceptance, but must still face active hostility. And despite the fact that Christians think they are hated and persecuted, try being an atheist. Being judged for the circumstances of your birth – skin color, sex, sexual orientation – is a direct assault on your freedom to live your life. Ideas, like those that come from religious and ideological beliefs, are more open to debate and attack, especially when they lead to murderous behavior. But that debate – that free expression – is perhaps the crowing achievement of our American tradition. But to use those beliefs to justify mindless bigotry does not expand freedom. Instead, it destroys it.
Freedom from ignorance: Medical science has brought us huge advances in public health, yet there are still those who think their anecdotes on treatments like vaccines trump solid research. So much so, that well-managed diseases are making a comeback. And despite solid evidence that has been amassed now over decades, we have no action on global warming, the leading environmental threat to many communities the U.S. and across the world.
Yes, our freedom is indeed under threat. And Americans everywhere are standing up to do their part to oppose those who would strip us of our liberty. I have a word for them: patriots.