Freedom for Joe’s People

Freedom for Joe’s People

According to Brett Samuels, a staff writer for The Hill, President Biden is building his campaign around the idea of “freedom.”  And that is unusual for a Democrat:

President Biden is flipping the script on Republicans by casting himself as the protector of “freedom,” going on offense by using a word and concept conservatives have frequently cited to push back on the president and his party.

Biden’s campaign launch video was titled “Freedom,” and he referenced “freedom” or “freedoms” six times over the course of the clip. The campaign’s first official ad used those words seven times. 

The president’s team has used the term aggressively to tie Republicans, and in particular his political foe Donald Trump, to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol that some in the GOP have been reluctant to condemn and to highlight GOP efforts to curb abortion access and squash dissent in statehouses.

“It’s pretty clear the strategy here is going to be, ‘Republicans are coming after our freedoms and our ability to do X, Y and Z,” said one Democratic strategist. “Those are typically talking points Republicans use, so we are playing on their turf and winning.”

This is fascinating, we think, not because Biden is defending “freedom,” but because people seem to think that it is unusual for those on the Left to do so, that it constitutes “flipping the script” or “playing on their turf.”

We’re not sure where these people got the idea that Democrats don’t talk about or campaign on the idea of freedom, but they’re wrong.  Every Democratic candidate since 1973 has campaigned on the idea that Republicans are coming after women’s “reproductive” freedoms, or that Clarence Thomas and mean ol’ strict constructionists on the Supreme Court are trying to limit your freedom to sleep with whomever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, and as publicly as you want.  Heck, Joe Biden himself campaigned for reelection as Vice President by telling black people that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan wanted to limit their freedoms and “put y’all back in chains.”

We have written before about the differences between negative rights/freedom and positive rights/freedom – mostly in the context of abortion.  As a general rule of thumb, those on the Right believe in and embrace negative rights and negative liberty, while those on the Left are more enamored with positive rights and liberty.  But there is an additional distinction that predates Kant (long thought to be the originator of the distinction between negative and positive liberty) and, we think, explains better what Biden et al. are after in this campaign.

Today’s leftists are, of course, the heirs to the Progressive tradition, and as such, they disregard social contract theory as it was understood and practiced by the Founding Fathers, favoring Rousseau’s construction instead.  In brief, the competing conceptions of the social contract that have shaped American political development – Locke’s conception and Rousseau’s – are inimical to one another and point government and government interests in radically different directions.

Locke’s conception, of course, relies heavily on the notion of natural rights, those rights that are endowed upon man by his “Creator” and which are inalienable and therefore must be respected by any legitimate authority. Locke’s social contract is derived in large part from Thomas Aquinas’s conceptions of natural law and, in turn, formed the foundation for the notions of government that inspired the American Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Declaration, and James Madison, the father of the Constitution.

As for Rousseau, the intellectual progenitor of the political Left, his social contract rests on the idea that the state exists to guarantee liberty and that true liberty can only be expressed and understood in the will of the people, which is to say the “collective will.”  Rousseau was, at least superficially, the quintessential anti-republican.  He favored both direct popular sovereignty and the authority of the state to enforce the will of the people upon every individual.  Whereas Locke (and the American Founders) saw the role of the state as protecting the individual’s inalienable rights, Rousseau saw the state as a mechanism whereby “true” liberty could be achieved through the expression of and conformation to the collective will.

Rousseau understood that getting people to accede to the “proper” common will is not especially easy.  It’s actually closer to impossible.  But there’s a fix for that, namely the coercion of minority opinion.  The Left doesn’t like to talk about this much, but Rousseau was, in some ways, a proto-utilitarian and a proto-authoritarian, in that he concerned himself principally with the will of the greatest number and the authority of the sovereign to enforce that will.  (And indeed, we should note that both Rousseau and the Utilitarian patriarch Jeremy Bentham were widely revered and avidly read among the authoritarian French Jacobins).  Therefore, in Rousseau’s social contract, the sovereign, which is the voice of the people, has both the power and the responsibility to enforce the common will, even at the price of silencing dissent and dissenters:

While the state can compel no one to believe, it can banish not for impiety, but as an antisocial being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, if needed, his life to his duty.  If, after having publicly recognized these dogmas, a person acts as if he does not believe them, he should be put to death.

Virtually the entirety of modern leftism – from Comte’s positivism to Marx’s communism, from the Pragmatists to the Progressives – is derived in part from Rousseau’s notions of government and of the general will.   American Progressives believed wholeheartedly in the Rousseau-ian general will and dedicated their entire ideology to identifying and implementing it.

The Progressives believed adamantly that the Founders had written a constitutional document that was deeply flawed and, in any case, had outlived its usefulness.  In addition to the direct election of Senators, Progressives championed the reform of state primaries to allow direct election of candidates.  They pushed the ballot initiatives and referenda and, of course, recall elections.  In all these endeavors and more, the Progressives sought to make the American government receptive of and responsive to the “general will.”

Unlike contemporary progressives, the original Progressives were unafraid to speak their minds, to trash the Constitution and the Founders, and to advocate policies that favored the general will over inalienable rights.  Moreover, they understood that their values and their goals for society were in fact incompatible with those of the Founders.  And they freely admitted so, decrying the Founding documents and their veneration of “natural rights” as relics of a long-dead era.  For example, Charles Merriam, the first political scientist on faculty at the University of Chicago and a Progressive intellectual champion, put it this way:

The individualistic ideas of the “natural right” school of political theory, indorsed in the Revolution, are discredited and repudiated . . . The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.

When Joe Biden talks about freedom, THIS is the “freedom” he has in mind.  He doesn’t especially care about your negative freedoms – your Creator-endowed rights to free speech, free assembly, free practice of religion, or to bear arms.  Rather, he cares about your “freedom” to avoid “misinformation” or to be protected (via masks and closures) from pandemics.  He cares about your freedom not to be subjected to ideas that you find “hurtful” or to determine for yourself what reality is or isn’t.  When Joe Biden talks about freedom, he means the same things that other leftists have meant for 250 years when they spoke about freedom, namely the liberty to undermine and silence those who create an atmosphere contrary to the “general will.”

Not only is this not new, not an unusual strategy for a Democrat, but it is also not a “flipping of the script” on Republicans.  It’s reading from a different script altogether.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.