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Hijacking Freedom

January 31, 2005

Among the many sub-plots to watch for in Wednesday's State of the Union address will be President Bush's appropriation of the words "freedom" and "liberty" for his agenda and the GOP.
As we've written before, the Republicans have dominated American policy debates through their manipulation and control of language. Whether through message discipline or superior framing (to use Lakoff's term), the GOP has won a succession of victories spanning tax reform, Medicare, environmental policy, and more.
Bush's 2005 State of the Union will be no exception to this strategy. Across both domestic and foreign policy, President Bush will position the Republicans as the party of "choice", "liberty" and "freedom." To the GOP, the dangerous and unneccessary privatization of Social Security through "personal accounts" will provide Americans greater freedom and control over their retirement security. Health savings accounts will empower a wave of medical care citizen-consumers . Irresponsible and inequitable tax cuts will give Americans freedom to spend their money. School vouchers that undermine public education empower parental choice. New proposals for the Bush "Ownership Society" will free individuals to control their financial destiny. And that is just the beginning.
Central to the Bush strategy for enshrining the GOP as the Party of Freedom is the direct linkage of freedom at home and freedom abroad. This is much more than just a matter of national security as expressed in the Second Inaugural:

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

More important is Bush'a aggressive assertion of a radically individualistic concept of freedom at home. In this telling, the Republican second term agenda provides liberty and unity, prosperity and equality:

"America has need of idealism and courage, because we have essential work at home - the unfinished work of American freedom. In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty.
"In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time. To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools, and build an ownership society. We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance - preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society. By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.
"In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character - on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self."

The ownership of freedom will be one of the rhetorical battlegrounds of the Bush second term. Democrats cannot allow this Republican appropriation of terms like "freedom" and "liberty" to proceed unchallenged. As we've written many times before, the cynical GOP politics of "freedom" conflates the abandonment of government roles with its renewed commitment, narrow self-interest with the common good, and citizens opting out with justice, equality and unity.
In reality, the Republican program will abrogate the unwritten agreements that have defined the national bargain for three generations, such as hard work in exchange for social mobility, commitment to public institutions in exchange for growing personal freedoms, and those disproportionately benefiting from the American system disproportionately contributing to its maintenance. Instead, conservatives push to privatize social services like education, health care, and retirement, while rewarding Americans for withdrawing their support from their country, their government, their communities, their schools - and each other.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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