How has “liberty” become the inspirational code word of conservatives rather than liberals? (A prominent example is radio host Mark Levin’s book “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto,” which was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three months without receiving major reviews, including in the Times.) I always thought that the Democratic Party is the freedom party — but I must be living in the nostalgic past. Remember Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “Chimes of Freedom,” made famous by the Byrds? And here’s Richie Havens electrifying the audience at Woodstock with “Freedom! Freedom!” Even Linda Ronstadt, in the 1967 song “A Different Drum,” with the Stone Ponys, provided a soaring motto for that decade: “All I’m saying is I’m not ready/ For any person, place or thing/ To try and pull the reins in on me.”
But affluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why? Is it because the new professional class is a glossy product of generically institutionalized learning? Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught. Elite education in the U.S. has become a frenetic assembly line of competitive college application to schools where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it’s invisible. The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote “critical thinking,” which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms (“racism, sexism, homophobia”) when confronted with any social issue. The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clichés that it’s positively pickled.
That’s a lot to unpack. I’ve certainly got an overlapping critique of academia. But let’s focus on whether liberals or conservatives are the party of “liberty and freedom.” Ms. Paglia suggests it is the latter. My friend Jaime, who blogs over at Federalist Paupers, agrees. “…liberty hasn’t been the provenance of the left since the late 60s,” he writes. “It was the Goldwater inspired and eventually Reagan led conservative revolution that truly brought liberty back on the table as a national concern. This is the sentiment that Levin taps into in his book “Liberty and Tyranny” and it is perhaps the most powerful motivator in American politics. There is a reason why, despite his off-putting overly theatrical public demeanor, that Mark Levin is such a powerful voice for the right – he speaks of THE core value of American society. No one on the Left, and very few on the Right, do this anymore.”
I am grateful to liberty loving folks on the right who’ve stood against central planning, advocated for markets, insisted that the Soviet Union had a morally inferior system of government, resisted campus speech codes, safeguarded private property, insisted on an expansive reading of the 2nd Amendment, pushed for school choice, litigated to expand religious liberties, and otherwise advanced the cause of freedom.
But I am also grateful to the liberals who helped end prohibition, opposed Senator McCarthy, were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, expanded the number of immigrants able to come to the United States legally, instituted basic protections for criminal defendants, stood up for free speech in political protests and the arts, opposed gay people being thrown in jail for sodomy, and fought to ensure the availability of contraception.
Even that incomplete rundown is sufficient to demonstrate that neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on expanding freedom — and on opposing its expansion. The right rallies around “Liberty and Tyranny” and the left rallies around “The American Civil Liberties Union.” In the decade prior to the September 11 attacks, I would’ve argued that the right did a better job advocating for freedom than the left, partly due to the left’s prior successes, and I remain quite uncomfortable with much of the left’s domestic agenda.
But I now feel as though the liberty loving American hasn’t anywhere to turn. Given its druthers, the liberal left would further regulate political speech, redistribute ever larger chunks of wealth as an end it itself, expand the federal role in most aspects of American life where federalism currently reigns, ignore illegal immigration despite duly enacted restrictions by democratically elected governments, maintain speech codes on college campuses, outlaw guns in many jurisdictions, institute a carbon regime that forces the hand of the state into far too many economic transactions, continue to push the commerce clause far beyond any reasonable reading, regulate fatty foods — and the list goes on and on.
The conservative right, left to its druthers, would allow warrant-less wiretapping, unchallengeable presidential declarations that American citizens are enemy combatants, the torture of detainees absent any reliable process to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, ongoing prohibitions against gay marriage, gay adoption, and gays in the military, the arrest of cancer patients who avail themselves of medical marijuana, an ever-expanding incarceration complex that imprisons people for years on end when they merely possess marijuana (and where too many prisoners are raped and assaulted), foreign wars of choice that will ultimately result in either tax hikes or inflation, rampant misconduct by police and prosecutors, an immigration regime that allows fewer people to enter the country legally, and a death penalty regime whereby an innocent man can die in a state like Texas without the pardon board even familiarizing themselves with the evidence establishing his innocence, even as a conservative Supreme Court Justice argues that there is no constitutional prohibition against executing a demonstrably innocent man. (It isn’t any longer clear to me that a liberty loving citizen should prefer conservative Supreme Court appointments. Much as I disagree with affirmative action and gay marriage by judicial fiat, they impact liberty far less negatively than an executive with all the powers Dick Cheney sought, plus death row prisoners executed despite strong evidence of their innocence.)
You’d think that a book called “Liberty and Tyranny” would grapple with some of those conservative shortcomings, and that an organization called “The American Civil Liberties Union” would oppose all the liberty lessening policies on the left, but until that is the case, it is silly to pretend that either the right or the left is the clear victor here — that Americans presently enjoy more freedom than they did several generations ago is due to liberty loving folks on both sides doing their utmost to expand it, and triumphing over some of their ideological fellows who are utterly blind to the liberty impinging actions of their own side.
UPDATE: I should add that liberty and freedom aren’t the only concerns in American life — and that neither the right nor the left has a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to where to draw those lines.