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June 26, 2014 2:15 PM The Battle for Freedom

By Ed Kilgore

Just over four years ago, The Democratic Strategist (a site where I’m managing editor) and the think tank Demos cosponsored an online forum entitled “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom.” We did so in the growing fear that the radicalized conservative movement and its vehicle, the Republican Party, were in danger of reinterpreting and distorting the powerful American value of “freedom” in a way that undermined (very deliberately) most of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century and promoted the interests of wealthy elites.

It’s probably safe to say that progressives are still on the uphill climb in that battle.

For historical ammunition, check out the review of Harvey Kaye’s The Fight for the Four Freedoms by the Century Foundation’s Moshe Marvit, in the new issue of the Washington Monthly.

Kaye’s account covers the formulation of the Four Freedoms as including “freedom from want,” the huge influence it had on the world view of the “greatest generation,” and the vigorous backlash from conservatives ever since.

On this last topic, it’s important to understand that the Tea Party’s dogma of “freedom” meaning strict and eternal limits on government has a very old provenance, even if you exclude its many pre-New-Deal exponents. Here’s Marvit’s quick summary:

Since the Four Freedoms were an important source of radical change—especially once Roosevelt used them in arguing for an economic bill of rights—they were regarded as dangerous by many conservatives. So, taking the advice of Walter Fuller of the National Association of Manufacturers, conservatives and business leaders wasted no time in co-opting Roosevelt’s principles for their own ends. They did this through a process of appending and supplanting. First, the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce passed what they termed the “Fifth Freedom,” the opportunity of free enterprise, arguing that without it the other freedoms were “meaningless.” Similarly, Republican Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts presented a congressional resolution to add the freedom of private enterprise as the Fifth Freedom. Liberals timidly backed away from the radical view embodied in the Four Freedoms, allowing it to be disfigured and contorted. In time the idea became an empty vessel, a brand name, which conservatives used to fill with their own ideals. This transformation was apparent by 1987, when President Ronald Reagan announced his plan to enact an “Economic Bill of Rights that guarantees four fundamental freedoms: The freedom to work. The freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. The freedom to own and control one’s property. The freedom to participate in a free market.”

The only real difference between Reagan’s approach to freedom and that of his “constitutional conservative” successors is that the latter clearly want to rule out a positive role in economic life for government forever, as a matter of constitutional law and (for most of them) Divine Edict. So in trying to reclaim “freedom” as a positive value, progressives are fighting against a new breed of reactionaries who are truly playing for keeps.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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