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Reclaiming Freedom as a Progressive Value
The Biden Camp's first ads show they understand the need to win the values argument.
Since announcing for reelection, President Biden has released an announcement video and ran his first television ad. In understanding how Team Biden sees their path to victory, they are fascinating pieces of content. The focus is on abortion, book bans, and images of January 6th. It’s clear Biden wants to double down on the strategy that served him so well in the midterms and make the campaign about Republican extremism. Such an approach was expected, but one thing stood out to me in the Biden campaign’s initial wave of messaging — a specific, conspicuous effort to make freedom a progressive value.
None of this is subtle. The announcement video opens with the line:
Freedom—personal freedom—is fundamental to who we are as Americans. There’s nothing more important. Nothing more sacred. That’s been the work of my first term—to fight for our democracy.
Given his accomplishments, it’s notable that Biden calls for protecting freedom and fighting for democracy the “work of his first term”. To further hammer home the point, Biden tweeted:
Freedom is more than a value. It’s who we are. That’s been the work of my first term: To protect your rights. To put more money in your pocket. To bring down costs. But MAGA Republicans are lining up to roll this progress back. We can stop them if we do it together.
Long-time consumers of Pod Save America and of this newsletter know that reclaiming the word “freedom” from the Right has been a mild obsession of mine. Last summer, I argued that Democrats should run on a “Freedom Agenda.” Of course, Democrats didn’t adopt my plan and still had one of the most successful midterms for a first-term President in history. But to paraphrase a quote from The Big Short, I wasn’t wrong; I was just early (That’s my story, and I am sticking to it). To be clear, I think there is ZERO connection between my newsletter and podcast rantings and Biden’s strategy, but I am glad to see it nonetheless. Making freedom a defining trait for the Democratic Party is the right strategy for this election and the long-term effort to defeat MAGA extremism.
Values Drive Politics
Democrats win on policies; Republicans win on values.
That’s a shorthand explanation of modern American politics. We all know that the vast majority of Democratic policies are broadly popular, and Republican policies are deeply unpopular. I don’t mean “family values.” I am referring to cultural values like — patriotism, hard work, and freedom, which polls show have traditionally been more associated with the Republican Party. This cultural skepticism is one reason that Democrats struggle to connect with voters who agree with them on the vast majority of issues. This is why we must treat our policies as proof points of our values and not final objectives. They are a way to show voters who we are and what we represent.
If Democrats want to build a broad-based, diverse governing coalition, we need to re-appropriate cultural values.
Freedom and the Right
The Republican Party’s efforts to define freedom are not new. As Harold Meyerson recently wrote in The American Prospect:
Since the coming of the New Deal, if not before, “freedom” has been the favorite battle cry of right-wingers defending big business against governmental regulations and the government’s infrequent creation of non-market social provision. In the mid-1960s, Ronald Reagan termed Medicare (then just a bill before Congress) an attack on freedom. Barry Goldwater said the same about Social Security. Tax cuts for the rich were championed for advancing freedom; the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank attacked for diminishing it.
In recent years, the Right contorted themselves into defenders of freedom by complaining about mask and vaccine mandates, and railing about cancel culture and something called “woke-ism.”
The focus on freedom impacted voters. A 2021 Pew survey found that Republicans are twice as likely to cite “freedom and independence as something that gives their life meaning.”
This is a problem for Democrats. Anat Shenker Osorio, the progressive messaging expert, tweeted last year:
Freedom is the #1 value Americans across demographics associate with being American. We cannot allow the right to co-opt a concept this integral, especially not when they so openly demolish it.
There is no better time to focus on freedom.
The MAGA Republican War on Freedom
All across the country, Republicans are waging war on personal freedoms. The Supreme Court rescinded the right to access an abortion. Republican politicians restrict what we can say, how we vote, what we can read, what we learn, and who we can love. It is an all-out assault — personified by the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs.
A poll conducted last summer after the Dobbs decision found that two-thirds of Americans think we will lose freedoms over the next ten years.
President Biden is smart to use this moment to make the election about protecting personal freedoms and calling out the Republicans for trying to take them away.
The difference between a campaign and a cause is morally righteous rationale — something that goes beyond electing an individual. Making protecting freedom a central theme of the campaign raises the stakes, connects the dots on the various elements of MAGA extremism, and provides a boost to young voters whose polls show they care the most about the freedoms under attack.
In the long run, Biden could improve the Democratic Party brand and expand the pool of voters willing to give our party a good look.