No, Tea Partiers, you don’t get to own American history

So, last night, Tea Party types won big when Christine O’Donnell took the Republican party nomination in the U.S. Senate race in Delaware.  That might not work out so well for them, of course, but I’m more interested in something she said during her victory speech:

Don’t ever underestimate the power of We the People!

“We the People”, huh?  I hadn’t even known that she had used this line until my wife pointed it out after hearing it on NPR.  She brought it up because of a pin I wear:

I first saw this pin on a friend’s lapel at a meeting of the Drinking Liberally social group I organize in Peoria, and I had to get one.  Back in the dark, late-Bush, still-possibly-McCain-Palin days, I felt the phrase “We the People” went a long way toward signifying what I felt was at stake.  We the People – all of us, in this together – had a lot to lose if conservative-Republican rule continued. 

So, along come the Tea Partiers and swipe We the People.  They already lay claim to the Gadsden flag, like hardcore religious and economic conservatives don’t want to tread on the rest of us.  They claim the U.S. flag, of course.  They claim freedom.  And of course, they claim the Constitution.

In my experience, liberals and progressives tend to shy away form using American imagery.  That’s a mistake.  American history – with its constant advancement of individual freedoms and quality of life – is our story, not theirs.

Let’s take a quick look at the preamble to the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 Let’s review:

  • Justice – dare I even say social justice?
  • The general welfare – hello, social security and Medicare.
  • Liberty – for everyone, not just the select.

Six goals laid out in the preamble and easily half of them clearly liberal and progressive.  The preamble, remember, spells out why the entire rest of the document exists – to serve those goals.

Now, I understand the liberal and progressive impulse to not overly glorify American history.  There were a lot of mistakes – horrible mistakes – along the way.

But it is no solution to simply concede the words and imagery of American history the Tea Partiers and hardcore conservatives.  Nope.  It’s ours.  And we’re not giving it up without a fight.

Freedom, freedom, and more freedom

And let’s throw in a fourth “freedom” for good measure.

If liberals and progressives want to have any chance of creating long-term and significant change, we need a new approach to our rhetoric, and a great place to start is to reclaim the word “freedom”.  Freedom is fundamental to the American identity and elicits a visceral reaction in people.  No one can be against it.  We need to show that we stand for freedom – that our ideas and policies bolster freedom.

And via Matthew Yglesias, I get a link to an excellent essay by John Schwarz in The Democratic Strategist:

For decades, conservatives hit liberals over the head as uncaring about individual freedom and personal responsibility, given their repeated advocacy of big governmental programs and regulatory planning. The attacks succeeded with such thoroughness that not only were liberals put into a perpetually defensive position, but the word “liberal” itself actually became an unmentionable political pejorative—the “L” word. Unless President Obama and the Democrats learn how to counter the opposition’s call for freedom effectively, it will continue to delimit them and the country in advancing the nation’s agenda over the years to come no differently than it proved able to demonize liberalism, emasculate the public option in the health-care reform bill, and make increasing taxes to finance government practically prohibitive.

Schwarz later writes:

Freedom, today, is often understood to convey a “me-first,“ “self-interest,” or “anything goes” kind of attitude, none of them a transcendent goal. Something morally crucial is missing in the prevailing view. What is lacking is the recognition of our duties and obligations to each other. The prevailing view fails to recognize that freedom, when rooted in the premise that each person has innate dignity and equal worth, carries with it profound moral responsibilities toward others precisely because we are all equals in our right to freedom. Those responsibilities require that we act towards all others with a level of concern that can demand more from us than even the Golden Rule does in asking us to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. 

And we must use all the tools we have at our disposal – markets, voluntary organizations, families, and yes, even government – to find ways to create true freedom for everyone.

I urge you to read the whole article.

I’ve been playing with this idea of reclaiming freedom for some time.  Here are a few imperfect samples of what I’ve come up with:

  1. Liberals and progressives are often the defenders of the “welfare” state.  I think we should start calling it the “freedom” state.  (This one would make the hard-core libertarians apoplectic.)  After all, how free can you be if your sick and unable to get treatment?  That’s the essence of Medicare and Medicaid.  How free can you be if your poor and starving in your later years or because of a disability?  That’s the essence of Social Security.
  2. We need to continue to work on reforming our health care system in order to eliminate employer-based insurance.  After all, how free can you truly be if you can’t leave your employer to start a new business or take a risk on a potentially better job if you’re worried about getting medical care?  This idea of “job lock” didn’t get a lot of play in the health care debate, even though it’s been talked about for quite some time.
  3. If taxes paying for the military protect our freedom, well, then, so do tax dollars for education.  An education is the surest ticket to having the ability to do whatever it is you want to with your life.  Without an education, your choices are severely limited.  Public education is one of America’s best freedom-producing expenditures.

Obviously these are first drafts.  Ideas are welcome.

You are “the government”

Here’s a great post on OpenLeft making a point I’ve thought of many times.

Whenever you hear a conservative going on about how “the government” is going to do this or that, it’s important to remember that, in America, we are the government! “The government” is all of us, working together, to achieve common purposes through a democratic system.

But, of course, that system can become corrupted, hence the need for campaign finance and lobbying reform.