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Why U.S. Politics Is a Deadlocked Mess

It's because of the rhetorical battle over 'freedom' and 'security.'

Freedom and security—for some 80 years, they have been the most cherished words in American political discourse. Each major party claims it can best shield the citizenry from danger while also protecting its liberties. Which side in this perennial contest makes the most persuasive case always ends up in power. And one reason national politics is a deadlocked, angry mess right now is that neither side has the rhetorical advantage.

First, a look back. The contest began during the Great Depression. Before that epic slump, “security” was a promise made more frequently by insurance brokers than by politicians. But, under Franklin Roosevelt, liberal Democrats used Social Security as the template for all of its most popular programs. The Wagner Act protected workers who wanted to have unions, and new federal jobs provided a measure of security for millions who would otherwise have been unemployed. The Liberty League, the New Deal’s most prominent foe, claimed all these policies were unconstitutional, socialist-inspired assaults on individual “freedom.” But, knowing the League was bankrolled by DuPont and other anti-union businesses, most Americans dismissed it as a thinly disguised corporate lobby. In contrast, FDR defined “freedom” as every individual’s ability to enjoy the good life, with the aid of a government that looked out for the common good.  

World War II and the early cold war extended the liberals’ hegemony. They were able to define security as a military alliance against, first, the fascist right and, then, the communist left—forces that threatened the political freedoms of every American. The minimum wage, health benefits won by strong unions, and steady economic growth all reinforced the notion that security at home was best left in the hands of those who had rescued the nation from Hooverism. The “loss” of China and stalemate in the Korean war briefly allowed conservatives to put liberals on the defensive. But, tellingly, they did so on grounds of insecurity, not freedom, and their moment of triumph was brief.

Then came the 1960s. Under pressure from the grassroots left—movements of blacks, Chicanos, women, and gays—liberals rediscovered their nineteenth-century heritage as tribunes of individual liberty. The quarter-century of economic expansion that followed World War II had given Americans unprecedented freedom in making choices about their lives. “Not With My Life You Don’t,” an anti-draft slogan coined by Students for a Democratic Society, the largest organization on the new, white left, quickly became a sentiment embraced by adherents to an ever-expanding variety of causes. The sum total of their efforts transformed liberalism into an ideology that prized the emancipated self over a secure, if culturally repressed, mass society. 

As a result, in the 1970s, when stagflation and a surge in violent crime occurred simultaneously, Democrats had no credible way to explain how they would keep the nation secure. Conservatives quickly seized their opportunity. Alarmed about abortion, feminism, and gay rights, the Christian right redefined security as the preservation of heterosexual marriage with the husband on top. Neocons, ironically, gave it a more traditional meaning when they warned about Soviet gains in both the arms race and the developing world. Meanwhile, the laissez-faire gospel that had failed to sway Americans in the 1930s was revived as a populist call to arms. The contest was between common-sense advocates of the free market and elites who foisted what Ronald Reagan called, in 1981, “excessive government intervention in their lives and in the economy” through “a punitive tax policy that does take ‘from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.’” Reagan brilliantly amalgamated these different, often contradictory, appeals to security and freedom.

Ever since, the right has been using Reagan’s synthesis, updated as needed, to make liberals seem either out of touch or without principles they are willing to defend. But it has been an incomplete triumph. The end of the cold war removed a major cause of global insecurity; neither Islamist terrorism nor China’s industrial might has provided a substitute as alarming or, at least so far, as durable.  At home, anxiety about the economy, both present and future, has helped doom every conservative proposal to convert either Social Security—or  Medicare, enacted in 1965 as a set of amendments to the original New Deal program—into a plaything of the free market. Meanwhile, the libertarian ethos benefits gay couples and dope smokers, as well as union-busters. 

This conflict over who can lay claim to security and freedom is not and has never been between advocates of “big government” and those who favor a smaller one. Starting in the 1930s, whatever party has held national power has extended federal dollars to the groups and causes it favors, and the budget has only gone up. But, today, our politics is trapped between two competing notions of freedom and security, neither of which seems capable of defeating the other. Liberals demand respect for individual autonomy of speech, identity, and religion, while defending the protections that unions and the federal state give to workers and consumers. Conservatives, meanwhile, see private property as the basis of freedom and view military security as the only necessary kind.

Barack Obama, cautious pragmatist that he is, seeks to muddle the differences. He hails the landmark health care law more for cutting costs than because it should give secure coverage for nearly all Americans. And he offers only grudging, pro forma backing to collective bargaining at a time when the very existence of effective unions is in question, and opinion overwhelmingly supports their rights. Of course, after the election debacle of last November, such stands have a short-run logic. But they avoid the task of articulating a brave new synthesis of security and freedom that can speak to Americans who wonder what Democrats really think the government should do and why.

As Obama and his fellow partisans wonder how to break through in policy debates and the upcoming campaign, they might read or re-read how the architect of their modern party combined the ideals of freedom and security into a persuasive whole. FDR told the nation early in 1941:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
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 understandings 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.

The world has, of course, changed in countless ways since FDR’s time as president. But our problems—economic, international, environmental, demographic—are no more daunting than those which Roosevelt faced. To “win the future,” FDR’s partisan descendants still have to explain how security and freedom require each other—and to make that combination sound not just sensible, but inspiring.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. His next book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be published in August (Knopf).

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