“We are the party of freedom,” the Democratic U.S. congressman Eric Swalwell posted to Twitter on July 8. “Freedom to make your own health-care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. … Freedom for all.” It was a few days after his country’s Independence Day, when his fellow Democrat and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, took the unusual step of running a political advertisement in Florida—on the right-leaning Fox News Channel, no less—with a similar message. Floridians’ freedom was being threatened, Newsom said, under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who’s previously celebrated his state as “freedom’s vanguard” in America. Meanwhile, according to reporting by The Washington Post, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and ended the constitutional right to abortion in America, there appears to have been a “dramatic increase” in the use of the term freedom—a concept more commonly invoked for decades among Republicans—“in social media messaging of Democratic leaders and left-wing influencers and organizations.” Contestation over this term isn’t new, of course; it’s arguably as old in the United States of America as the country itself. But why is it reemerging now?
David Kusnet, an American communications strategist, was President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter during his 1992 presidential campaign and first term in office. Kusnet agrees with those who see a new opening for his party to talk about freedom, particularly with Americans generally opposing so many recent Republican restrictions in health care, voting, and education. As this opportunity creates new political debates, Kusnet understands these debates in part as reviving old ones about the kinds of freedom that America should prioritize—for instance, the freedom from government intrusion versus the freedom to live with opportunity and economic security. Yet he also understands today’s disputes about freedom as distinctive in important ways: They’re unfolding in an extraordinary political climate, influenced by populist ideas, and leading in uncertain directions—as Democrats, who are traditionally pro-union, increasingly return to emphasizing freedom for workers, while Republicans, who are traditionally pro-business, increasingly adopt new culture-war rhetoric targeting “woke” corporations dominated by progressive values as enemies of a free society.