I was joking on Twitter yesterday morning that since the Tea Party is so upset about intrusive government, they’ll definitely be outraged about the horrible anti-immigrant bill in Arizona. Hardy har har. But it reminded me of something more serious that I wrote recently, for a forum cosponsored by Demos and TDS. The centerpiece is this John Schwarz essay that details the role of freedom-rhetoric in conservative thought and politics and proposes the need for progressives to reclaim a left-liberal conception of freedom for our own purposes.
I think there’s a lot to be said for what Schwarz is proposing, but that fundamentally what he wants to do is have a positive liberty versus negative liberty debate and that’s not really what conservative freedom-rhetoric is about:
Consider that the proponents of right-wing “freedom” are not even slightly inclined to back elements of a libertarian agenda that conflict with conservative identity politics. When John Boehner says “most importantly, let’s allow freedom to flourish” he’s not suggesting we should open our borders to more immigrants or drop the vestigial Selective Service system or allow gay couples to marry or let Latin American countries sell us more sugar or reduce military expenditures. Indeed, the very same critics who castigate Obama for limiting Americans’ freedom also accuse him of being insufficiently eager to torture people, unduly hesitant to detain suspects without trial, and too eager to take the side of black professors subject to police harassment for the crime of trying to enter their own home.
Which is just to say that Boehner is a conservative. He sides with the military, with law enforcement, with the business establishment, and with the dominant ethno-cultural group in the country. In the United States of America, people who adhere to these values like to talk about “freedom” but this has nothing in particular to do with any real ideas about human liberty.
Back in September of 1960, the leading lights of the nascent conservative movement met in Sharon, Connecticut to found Young Americans for Freedom and they proclaimed that “foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” A naive person might read that and conclude that William F Buckley, Jr was a strong proponent of federal anti-lynching legislation and other civil rights laws since, clearly, it was African-Americans in the Jim Crow South who were most subject to “restrictions of arbitrary force” and general lack of freedom. In the real world, a couple of lines down the Sharon Statement is talking about state’s rights, “the genius of the Constitution – the division of powers – is summed up in the clause that reserves primacy to the several states, or to the people in those spheres not specifically delegated to the Federal government.” In 1962, YAF gave its Freedom Award to none other than Strom Thurmond, and in 1964 they helped organize the GOP nomination victory of Barry Goldwater, spearheading the party’s turn away from its historic support of liberty for black people. Somewhat similarly, the far-right parties in the Netherlands and Austria are both called “Freedom Party.”
This isn’t to say that talk about freedom is a mask for racism, but rather than talk about “freedom” is just talk about conservatism. Conservatives side with business over unions and environmentalists, with police and prosecutors over criminal defendants, with nationalists against cosmopolitans, with majoritarian ethnic and religious groups against annoying weirdos, and with the military against peaceniks. Ideas about freedom and small government are totally irrelevant to the actual political agenda and the Tea Party is no different from any other conservative movement in this regard.