Conservatives claim to love "freedom" — but the historical record, and the evidence, suggest otherwise

A belief in individual freedoms is supposed to be the bedrock of conservative thinking. But that's simply not so

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published July 9, 2017 12:15PM (EDT)

Ronald Reagan; Donald Trump; Rand Paul   (AP/Getty/Salon)
Ronald Reagan; Donald Trump; Rand Paul (AP/Getty/Salon)

For decades now — certainly since Ronald Reagan, if not before — conventional wisdom has held that conservatives and Republicans care more about freedom, while liberals and Democrats care more about equality. A slightly more sophisticated version holds that the distinction is between “negative liberty” (“freedom from”) and “positive liberty” (“freedom to”), a distinction usually attributed to Isaiah Berlin's 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty,” though it’s actually found in Eric Fromm’s 1941 book "Escape From Freedom," as highlighted by Conor Lynch here at Salon back in February — a point we’ll return to below.

But findings in a new NPR/PBS Marist poll neatly refute both versions of the claim. The poll asked if we have gone too far in expanding or restricting freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to protest the government and the right to vote. On all four questions — which hinge on questions of government restriction and thus “negative liberty” — conservatives and Republicans were more likely to say freedoms had been expanded too far, compared to liberals and Democrats. And on all issues except religious freedom, conservatives and Republicans were significantly more likely to say rights had been expanded too far, rather than restricted too much.

Let’s start with the three most clear-cut questions:

  • On freedom of the press, Democrats thought it had been restricted, rather than expanded too far, by 32 percent to 11 percent (for liberals, 37-10), while Republicans thought the opposite by 42 percent to 9 percent (for conservatives, 35-11).
  • On the right to protest or criticize the government, Democrats thought it had been restricted, rather than expanded too far, by 31 percent to 7 percent (for liberals, 40-7), while Republicans thought the opposite by 41 percent to 6 percent (for conservatives, 33-16).
  • On the right to vote, Democrats thought it had been restricted, rather than expanded too far, by 44 percent to 5 percent (for liberals, 54-4), while Republicans thought the opposite by 25 percent to 6 percent (for conservatives, 20-10).

The pattern here is unmistakable. While the numbers are almost all pluralities, with large numbers taking middle positions, Republicans and conservatives are consistently much more likely to think that rights have been expanded too far, while Democrats are much liberals are more likely to think they have been restricted too harshly. On these three key issues, conservatives display much  greater antipathy to freedom than Democrats/liberals do. What’s more, it’s negative freedom -- a supposed conservative value -- that they object to. They want more restrictions placed on people. They want to place more power in the hands of the state — to control the press, to stifle citizens' criticism and to limit voting.

There should be nothing surprising in any of this. Conservatives everywhere around the globe tend to share these same tendencies. But with such basic freedoms enshrined in our First Amendment, American conservatives have long been forced to express themselves in more circuitous, devious, or deceptive ways. Until the passage of the 14th Amendment, for example, state governments were not limited by such guarantees of freedom, and state-sanctioned churches were once commonplace. And of course, states had complete control of who would be allowed to vote — a right contested repeatedly throughout our history.

The NPR/PBS poll results on freedom of religion actually illustrate the broader pattern of how American conservatives work around the basic liberal thrust of the Constitution.  As mainstream acceptance of same-sex marriage began to seem inevitable, the religious right poured enormous energy into a bold attempt to redefine the battlefield in a never-ending culture war. This was analyzed in depth in in a January 2016 report, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right,”  by Frederick Clarkson, which I wrote about here when it came out. The strategy today — of cloaking discrimination in the garb of religious liberty -- has been tried before, as Clarkson noted:

As recently as the 1980s, Christian Right activists defended racial segregation by claiming that restrictions on their ability to discriminate violated their First Amendment right to religious freedom. …

Instead of African Americans being discriminated against by Bob Jones [University], the university argued it was the party being discriminated against in being prevented from executing its First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The fact that the religious right has been much more successful this time around (most notably in the Hobby Lobby case) has everything to do with political power having reshaped the courts, and nothing to do with the actual meaning of religious liberty. As I noted in my previous article, "the worst violations of religious liberty actually came from the anti-gay religious right itself — from a 2012 constitutional amendment in North Carolina, which criminalized the performance of gay marriage. The law was successfully challenged by the United Church of Christ in 2014."

In fact, the preface to Clarkson’s report was written by the UCC’s general minister and president, the Rev. John C. Dorhauer. The North Carolina law made it clear that genuine religious liberty was the last thing the religious right was interested in. Still, it’s a powerful propaganda tool, as reflected in the NPR/PBS poll, in which religion was the only issue where the Republican/conservative response at least gave the appearance of favoring freedom — although not as strongly as the Democratic/liberal response.

Democrats thought religious freedom had been restricted rather than expanded too far, by 27 percent to 9 percent, while Republicans thought the same by 34 to 17 percent. So Republicans were more likely to endorse both views, but were almost twice as likely as Democrats to say that religious freedom had been expanded too far.

Taken all together, the four NPR/PBS freedom questions and the responses tell us everything we need to know about how Republicans and conservatives really feel about freedom. The only area in which their anti-freedom bias is muffled is precisely the area in which that “freedom” has been vigorously redefined around the “right” to infringe on the rights of others.

Conventional wisdom aside, this poll shouldn’t be the least bit surprising. Since the 1970s, the General Social Survey has asked questions about whether unpopular views should be heard — for instance, those of atheists, communists, socialists, homosexuals, racists and advocates of military rule. Questions are posed in three different forms — about allowing someone to speak, allowing a book to remain in the library or allowing someone to teach in a college or university. As one might expect, liberals have consistently been more tolerant than conservatives of all the usual suspects — but they’ve also been more tolerant of racists and militarists, too. Conservatives, in contrast, are consistently more willing to restrict others' rights.

The truth is, conservatives love to talk about liberty, but they've always had peculiar ways of defining it. “Religious liberty” is just one example of a broader strategy. As I wrote back in 2012:

Both Ron Paul and his son, Rand, oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because it outlaws private acts of discrimination. This is an "infringement of liberty", they argue. And they're right: just like laws against murder, it infringes the liberty of bullies. And that's precisely what justice is: the triumph of right over might.

I went on to note that in June 2004, Rep. Ron Paul was the sole voice in Congress to oppose a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On the House floor, he said:

… the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

Two years later, as I noted here, Rand Paul tried to rewrite his own history before an audience at the historically black Howard University in Washington. “I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act. Ever,” he said. “I have been concerned about the ramifications of the Civil Rights Act beyond race … but I’ve never come out in opposition.” Rachel Maddow then refreshed his memory with a tape of his 2010 appearance on her show, reminding us of what he’d actually said.

But it’s not just the Pauls and libertarians. Freedom is such a central American value, it’s not surprising that conservatives, like everyone else, would seek to lay claim to it. On the level of elite discourse, they have received sporadic hints of support from political scientists. From the 1950s onward, various researchers have proposed different ways of structuring political beliefs, using more than just one dimension. Hans Eysenck’s 1956 book "Sense and Nonsense in Psychology" was one early example, positing one dimension called "Radicalism" and another called "Tender-Mindedess" (T-factor). One of Eysenck's more technical critics, Milton Rokeach, went on to develop his own two-factor theory based on equality and freedom, in the 1973 book "The Nature of Human Values." But his views and findings didn’t match what American conservatives wish to claim.

Rokeach and his team used content analysis on texts using frequency counts covering more than a dozen values. They drew on various socialists, plus Adolf Hitler (representing fascism), Barry Goldwater (representing capitalism) and Lenin (representing communism), with the following results:

Socialists: Freedom ranked 1st, Equality ranked 2nd

Hitler/fascism: Freedom ranked 16th, Equality ranked 17th

Goldwater/capitalism - Freedom ranked 1st, Equality ranked 16th

Lenin/communism - Freedom ranked 17th, Equality ranked 1st

Of course, American liberals are watered-down socialists at best, leaving no difference at all between them and Goldwater in terms of freedom, only in terms of equality. What’s more, during the decade after Rokeach’s book appeared, Goldwater responded to the rise of the religious right with a distinct chill. In today’s environment, 30 years after that, the former Arizona senator would no longer represent a typical conservative .

What has kept the conservative claim to care about freedom alive is less on the level of political philosophy, and more on the level of political trench warfare and the propaganda that supports it. In 2012, I wrote about the ways that Planned Parenthood and the NRA represented two contrasting models of freedom, which play key roles in America’s decades-long culture wars. The NRA constantly uses the language of freedom, far more prolifically than Planned Parenthood does.

Yet a careful examination of the underlying history and facts shows a much stronger case for Planned Parenthood’s model, reflected for example in the quantities of lies used both to promote the NRA and to attack Planned Parenthood. Virtually no one wants to take guns away from ordinary law-abiding Americans, for example, even though the NRA frequently makes such claims, while opposing common-sense measures that its own membership strongly supports. At the same time, Planned Parenthood’s enemies want to shut it down completely. It's not just abortions they oppose, but everything Planned Parenthood does to empower women to have control over their own bodies. What could be more fundamental to the idea of liberty than that?

As I wrote at the time, "It's not just that conservatives are opposed to women's freedom, they genuinely can't even conceive of it. ... Women are non-persons. They have nothing to do with discussions of freedom -- unless, of course, they want to buy a gun."

In short, this latest NPR/PBS poll result simply underscores what we already know: Liberals and Democrats actually care about freedom substantially more than conservatives and Republicans do. When it comes down to the most basic forms of freedom Americans have long recognized, conservatives may talk a good game, but that talk is largely BS.

But is there something more than BS going on here? As I mentioned at the beginning, the notion of positive vs. negative freedom is usually traced back to Isaiah Berlin, but Fromm’s earlier work sheds a different light on things. As Conor Lynch wrote in February:

Fromm posits that industrialization and the rise of liberalism resulted in the “complete emergence” of the individual (i.e., “individuation”), along with newfound freedom, but also upended “primary ties” that had once provided men and women with “security and a feeling of belonging and of being rooted somewhere.”

Lynch goes on to quote Fromm:

If the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality … while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom.

And that, in the end, is where the hunger for lies and propaganda comes from, which is why simply refuting it is never enough. One must find ways to alleviate the craving for it as well.

This is also why positive liberty for the individual is never enough, even for those who don’t suffer directly the way that Fromm describes. As traditional foundations for security erode, new ones must be created in their place, through the collective exercise of positive liberty. Following a strong authoritarian leader, and imbuing him with perceived infallibility, is one way to replace those lost foundations. But society as a whole can create other, better options: new frameworks of shared meaning that draw on the past critically, bringing new concerns into focus along with the old.

This is precisely what social movements like Black Lives Matter have done, at their best. Their political work necessarily derives from a much longer time-frame of historical consciousness and forward-looking aspiration. It is profoundly difficult to translate the significance of such efforts into snapshot public opinion polls. Their most important work is not altering how people respond to polling questions. It’s altering how people question the world as they encounter it, discovering new questions that need asking to form the shape of freedom in a world not previously imagined.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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