American Values Report

The Polarization of Freedom

How the Right co-opted America’s most sacred value.

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As supporters of former President Donald Trump converged on the U.S. Capitol, a yellow flag featuring a curled-up snake dotted the landscape, interspersed with the Trump paraphernalia, American flags, and Confederate symbols. 

With the words “Don’t tread on me,” the Gadsen flag was a symbol of freedom during the American Revolution, a warning to the British to back off. Now, amassing on the Capitol steps, it was a warning to the democratic government in the process of certifying electoral votes in a presidential election won by Joe Biden: Stop the certification, or else. 

How a symbol of freedom came to stand in opposition of democracy is the result of the battle over the definition of freedom. And to historian Annelien de Dijn, author of Freedom: An Unruly History, it’s clear that Americans have largely ceded the concept of freedom to the right. 

Instead of viewing freedom as the right to self-govern or to be free from the arbitrary will of another, Americans have largely come to view freedom in conservatives’ terms—as individual liberty, as the absence of government intervention. The Gadsen flag, as it has been embraced by conservatives and revived by the Tea Party, is emblematic of that.

The right-wing has “won the battle for control over this idea,” says Dijn. “To the extent that nowadays we talk about freedom, it’s almost become a right-wing word.”

From the far-right congressional Freedom Caucus to the religious freedom argued by the Christian right to the Koch-funded Freedom Partners, freedom has become synonymous with the conservative movement. In a flip from the civil rights movement of the ’60s and the women’s liberation movement, progressives have largely abdicated the term. But it wasn’t always this way.

Who gets to be free?

Freedom has been a center pillar of the ideals held by Americans since the country’s founding. In declaring colonies free from Great Britain, colonists declared liberty an unalienable right. The First Amendment grants Americans the freedom of speech and the press, of religion, of assembly and protest, and of petitioning the government.

“Freedom originally had a very different meaning,” says Dijn. “It didn’t mean having a limited government or a small government; it meant having a democratic government. So not living under as few laws as possible, but having control as a people over the way [in] which those laws were made.”

Dijn says that for much of Western history, beginning with the ancient Athenians, freedom was associated with self-governing. The United States was no different, declaring this unity between democracy and freedom in The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And while there were those who were wary of “the common man” accessing the reins of government, as embodied by the Federalists, freedom was generally rendered in collective terms, as embodied by the Jeffersonian Republicans. “What was required is that, as a community, the colonists take charge of their affairs, and in taking charge of their affairs, they would now be free,” said Melvin Rogers, the associate director of the Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Brown University. “The colonists would participate in the construction of laws that then would govern them.” 

Of course, those collective terms meant white colonists. That brings us what most of Americans largely point to as a paradox in our country’s founding: While the colonists declared themselves free and all men created equal, slavery was widespread. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence who so eloquently laid out this unalienable right, was a slaveholder. 

But some historians don’t see this so much as a paradox as intertwined, with Americans’ concept of freedom developing not just alongside our concept of race, but key to it. In the book White Freedom: A Racial Idea, the late historian Tyler Stovall writes that “To be free is to be white, and to be white is to be free… freedom and race are not just enemies but also allies.”

Americans’ concept of freedom, Stovall writes, began with this dichotomy: the freedom from domination and the freedom to dominate. In this reading, colonists wanted the freedom from domination from the British Empire, but also the freedom to dominate those they enslaved or Native peoples whose land they claimed. 

Rogers, the author of the forthcoming book The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought, agrees with this assessment, noting that slavery became a way by which to judge one’s freedom. 

“What was used as a marker to determine and to understand the meaning of freedom?” asks Rogers. “The way that you know materially that you are free is to look at those who are not, namely the enslaved.”

But with the abolition of chattel slavery, this marker of freedom moved for white Americans, and some white Americans saw this as a threat to their freedom. During Reconstruction, as Black Americans began voting and running for political office—that is, engaging in self-government—another concept of freedom, one that was already being advanced by elites in Europe, was widely popularized: individual liberty. It was accompanied by Jim Crow, championed by white Americans who “longed for a reminder of their mastery,” Rogers said.

Individual versus collective liberties

“The opponents of democratization started arguing that they were wary of democracy because they were worried about the freedom of individuals,” Dijn says. “So, their main argument was basically, that democratizing government wasn’t the best way to set people free. Because popular democracy at the end of the day could only lead to either one of two ills, either it could lead to chaos and anarchy, or it could lead to majoritarian tyranny.”

In Europe, this was pushed by elites who were concerned about the uprising of the poor, Dijn found. In the United States, the hierarchy took place largely along racial lines. Individual liberty in both cases would allow the elites to keep the existing power structures in place.

Advocated most notably by William Graham Sumner in the U.S. in the late 19th century, the economist and political scientist went so far as to claim in an essay in Harper’s that liberty “does not consist in majority rule or in universal suffrage or in elective systems at all.” Government regulation, he argued, would grant rights to one man while infringing on the rights of another. The best solution? “All experience is against state regulation and in favor of liberty,” he said, squarely placing a democratic government at odds with freedom.

Sumner abided by social Darwinism, believing that “a man’s right to take power and wealth out of the social product is measured by the energy and wisdom which he has contributed to the social effort.” Thus, government regulations should be removed to allow personal liberty, and those who succeeded in such a world succeeded because they were superior.  

“This was a way of thinking about freedom that was invented by the counterrevolutionaries, those who oppose the ongoing democratization of our political systems,” Dijn says.

This argument was welcomed by those who saw Black Americans and immigrants, who were arriving in large numbers from Southern and Eastern Europe and were perceived as not of Anglo-Saxon stock, as undeserving of freedom.

But throughout history, Black Americans, women, and others have fought for a different freedom—for the freedom to live without undue harm and to participate in self-governing. In 1964, after a long summer fighting for the right to vote in the face of violence, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party called to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention. 

Testifying, Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper leading the delegation, appealed to Americans’ sense of freedom, asking, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” 

Just a year earlier, the segregationist governor of Alabama George Wallace, too, appealed to Americans’ sense of freedom—one that was tied to whiteness, domination, and the absence of the federal government. “It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us have done, time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny… and I say… segregation now… segregation tomorrow… segregation forever.”

Debating what, and who, is “too free”

These battles for the concept of freedom continue to play out today. A 2017 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll asked how Americans view the freedoms granted in the First Amendment. Republicans and Democrats came to very different conclusions. 

On freedom of the press, Republicans thought that it had been expanded too far by 42 percent in comparison to 11 percent of Democrats. Republicans also believed that the right to protest or criticize the government had been expanded too far—41 percent to Democrats’ 7 percent. These differences played out along racial lines as well: White Americans were substantially more likely than Black Americans to believe these rights had been expanded too far.

While there’s only so much one can deduce from polling, what’s clear is despite conservatives’ declaration that they champion individual liberty, sizable portions of Republicans believed that Americans’ freedoms had been expanded too far. The only issue in which Republicans were more likely to believe that Americans freedom had been restricted rather than expanded too far was religious freedom—and the religious right has worked hard to ensure that definition favors a right-wing version of Christianity. As Paul Rosenberg writes in Salon, “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.”

This redefinition is clear when we look at how Republican voters embraced Trump, who was eager to harken back to an almost mythological white 1950s America, as restoring Americans’ liberties. Conservative organizations, like the Heritage Foundation and Heartland, claimed that freedom rose under the Trump administration, pointing to his slashing of the corporate tax rate and commitment to deregulation. The Christian right Family Research Council claimed Trump was a defender of religious freedom. Conservatives view Trumpism as restoring their freedoms.

But the Freedom House—a nonpartisan watchdog organization founded “on the core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people”—found that freedom in the United States shrunk 11 points from 2010 to 2020, a trend it says accelerated under Trump. It currently ranks the United States at 83 out 100 on the freedom score, placing the U.S. on par with countries like Romania and Panama.

By evaluating freedom on citizens’ political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House found that in 2021, the democracy was threatened by election disinformation fomented by Trump and his allies and the Capitol insurrection; that a series of state laws limited voting rights and a Texas law’s citizen-enforcement mechanism threatened individuals’ right to reproductive care; and that high-profile police killings of Black people made their way through the courts while criminal justice reforms stuttered. 

Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice-president for research and analysis, wrote last year that the decade of deterioration “was initially marked by harmful new restrictions on voting, legislative gridlock that has made it nearly impossible for the country to address serious public policy challenges, and the growing political influence of well-funded special interest groups.” But she continued, “The downward trend accelerated considerably over the last four years, as the Trump administration trampled institutional and normative checks on its authority, cast aside safeguards against corruption, and imposed harsh and discriminatory policies governing immigration and asylum.” In short, our freedom is declining as a result of the attacks on our democracy.

Freedom isn’t self-executing, Rogers said. Democracy is the tool by which it functions. 

White freedom at work

On the eve of January 6, 2021, far-right activists held a rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. Michael Flynn, the former three-star general and Trump loyalist, took to the podium. “In our DNA, we feel freedom, we bleed freedom, and we will sacrifice for freedom,” he said, urging Congress members to “find the courage” to overturn the election results.

He wasn’t the only one. Christian right pastors, gun enthusiasts, and election deniers called for American “freedom.” The leader of the movement promising to “stop the steal” stood in front of a sign that read “MARTIAL LAW NOW” while he led the crowd in chants of “Victory or death!”

At the Capitol the next day, these so-called “freedom-loving patriots” battled democracy. Stovall pointed to this as white freedom at work—a desire to keep freedom among a slim minority in a changing nation. 

It can also be seen as a desire to be left alone—a desire to have their individual freedom trump the will of the people. For those who subscribe to a view of ultimate individual freedom, democracy constrains their ability to do whatever they desire.

Some on the right are simply doing away with any pretenses of loving democracy. Conservatives embraced the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban this summer after he gave a white nationalist speech railing against “mixed race” countries. In Florida, activists at the National Conservatism Conference who had long argued for small government and individual freedom, now called for the right wing to rule with an iron fist. Peter Thiel—the Republican billionaire who does not “believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”—funded right-wing candidates across the country that have denied the results of the 2020 election, including the Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Thiel’s protégé, Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters.

But this discomfort with democracy doesn’t remain on the fringes. We might glean insight from that 2017 poll. Republicans were five times as likely as Democrats to believe that the right to vote had been expanded too far. White Americans were more than twice as likely as Black Americans to believe that the right to vote had been expanded too far.

While arguing against democracy today is simply not as popular as it was during Sumner’s time, conservatives working to disenfranchise Americans and overturn election results are doing just that: In states across the country right-wing politicians are passing draconian voter suppression laws; Republican candidates are claiming electoral fraud before the first votes have been counted; conspiracy theorists are harassing nonpartisan poll workers while Republican operatives replace them with partisan players; and Republican activists are teaching poll watchers to suspect fraud everywhere and asking them to clog the systems of democracy on a local level.

Freedom is a “powerful political weapon,” Dijn says. It’s for us to decide which definition we choose, whether we believe in a collective freedom of democratic self-government or an individual freedom that sees democracy as incompatible.

This is Part 2 of our five-part series, American Values: Who We Are Today, which explores and interrogates our national identity. Read Part 1, on equality, here.

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