As the November 2022 midterms draw near, it seems that Democrats may start to embrace rhetoric championing "freedom" and "liberty" after a long hiatus. After seemingly allowing Republicans to claim the title of the "party of freedom" uncontested, Democrats are starting to readopt the terms that were once derided as right-wing dog whistles in recent years.
"What's the Democrats' message? I hear this all the time. Simple. We are the party of freedom." Rep. Eric Swalwell (D–Calif.) tweeted in July. "Freedom to make your own health care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. Our message is our values. Freedom for all."
In Kansas, language emphasizing personal freedom helped lead pro-choice activists to a landslide victory in the state's abortion rights referendum. Instead of concentrating specifically on abortion, political messaging focused on resisting government control and the principle of personal choice. In particular, many of the ads framed the state's proposed anti-abortion constitutional amendment as a "government mandate." In one ad, a local pastor, sitting in a church pew, says "I'm voting 'no' on the proposed amendment because it replaces religious freedom with government control." He asks viewers to join him "and thousands of Christians in voting 'no.'"
This strategy appeared to be incredibly effective. In a state that voted in 2020 to reelect Donald Trump by a nearly 15-point margin, Kansans voted to preserve their state's constitutional right to abortion 59 percent to 41 percent.
"If the Democrats stand one chance of salvaging these midterms and holding onto their House majority, they will do everything they can to make this election about … the massive intrusion into our private lives by a moralistic police state that is backed by only one-third of the country," wrote the New Republic editor Michael Tomasky in July. He argues that congressional Democrats should publicly announce that they're "also here to defend individual rights more broadly… in short, your freedom. If they can make this race about that, they have a shot."
However, recent attempts by Democrats to utilize an emphasis on freedom have not always been as successful. "Freedom is under attack in your state. Your Republican leaders, they're banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors," said California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a July 4 political ad that aired on Fox News stations in Florida. The ad ends with an offer for Floridians to "join us in California where we still believe in freedom."
The ad was roundly criticized. "Its wording suggests that Newsom might be delusional," wrote Steven Greenhut for Reason. "In what universe can a governor argue that California—despite its historical appeal to entrepreneurs and creative types—remains a beacon for freedom seekers? That ship has sailed like a yacht that has departed Long Beach harbor." Despite the shaky ground of Newsom's claims, the fact that he even made them at all represents a turn in Democrats' messaging. For Democrats, freedom is back in style.
It is a positive sign that Democrats seem willing to fight Republicans for ownership of words like "freedom" and "liberty." But neither party can make a legitimate claim to these principles until they dramatically change their current policy goals.
The unfortunate truth is that politicians' embrace of "freedom" is typically a meaningless gesture. The term is used as a rhetorical football, tossed around to raise public approval but rarely motivating policy. Both sides have political goals that sometimes align with freedom, sometimes don't, but almost always align with keeping themselves in power.
To Democrats and Republicans alike, it seems the only kind of freedom worth protecting is the freedom to proceed with their own political agendas. While it is all well and good for Democrats to speak of the "freedom" to have abortions or marry a same-sex partner, or for Republicans to advocate our "liberty" to own guns or spurn restrictive COVID-19 regulations, we should withhold our praise until politicians on both sides start embracing the freedom to make decisions that fall outside their ideological lines.