In American politics, people don’t always agree about the meaning of “freedom.”
Former President Barack Obama declared in his second inaugural address that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Sounding a little like former President George W. Bush, whose second inaugural address “pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world,” Obama linked freedom to expansive foreign policy.
“We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom,” he said.
By contrast, former President Donald Trump’s inaugural address outlined a different vision, one in which freedom was tightly bound to national loyalty.
“Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag,” he said.
Trump also sounded different from Obama on foreign policy.
“We have defended other nations’ borders, while refusing to defend our own,” he declared.
President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, delivered amid the COVID-19 pandemic, didn’t include the word “freedom” at all, though “liberty” does appear twice.
By the 2021 holiday season, the president had little positive to say about individual freedom, at least when it came to certain COVID-19 restrictions and mandates.
“To folks who are not vaccinated: You may think you’re putting only yourself at risk, but it’s your choice. Your choice is not just a choice about you; it affects other people,” he said on Dec. 21, 2021.
Just three months later, with the Russia–Ukraine war underway, Biden spoke about freedom when justifying sanctions on Russia and the shipment of U.S. materiel to Ukraine.
“In the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom, Ukraine and its people are on the front lines fighting to save their nation,” the commander-in-chief declared.
As he gears up for 2024, freedom is cropping up in Biden’s rhetoric more often.
In his campaign’s first television advertisement, released in late April, a narrator says that freedom is among the things “we hold most dear as Americans.”
Freedom and other core American values are, the narrator says, “under attack by an extreme movement that seeks to overturn elections, ban books, and eliminate a woman’s right to choose.” Meanwhile, Jan. 6 protesters bearing Trump flags flash across the screen.
The narrator claims that “Joe Biden has made defending our basic freedoms the cause of his presidency” before running through a list of “basic freedoms,” none of which is listed in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights:
“The freedom for women to make their own health care decisions, the freedom for our children to be safe from gun violence … for seniors to live with dignity, and to give every American the freedom that comes with a fair shot at building a good life.”
That message rings hollow to Republican strategist Wes Farno.
“I think the ad is pure hyperbole to cover the complete disaster of the Biden administration and a lackluster attempt at best to change the reality of his administration,” he told The Epoch Times in a May 23 email.
“He uses the imagery of a little kid putting up an American flag, only to discuss the right to kill babies moments later,” Farno added.
Democratic politician and strategist David Carlucci said he sees it differently.
“Democrats are seizing the word freedom from the Republican lexicon because Republicans are making it easy. A party that wants to ban books, tell a woman what to do with her body, and censor businesses for policy disagreement is a party that deserves to be presented as anti-freedom,” he told The Epoch Times in a May 22 email.
Farno said the “freedom” message could hinge on activating voters who care about abortion. It was a live issue in the 2022 midterms, in which many believe that the Republican Party underperformed after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“The reality is that 60 percent of Americans don’t support abortion on demand, which is what they are ultimately pushing,” he said, citing an April 2023 poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist that found that two-thirds of Americans, including 90 percent of Republicans, want the procedure restricted to the first trimester.
Conservatives may find it easy to caricature their liberal opponents, and vice-versa. But, by stepping back, it’s easier to understand where both sides are coming from.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research on the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives is a useful starting point for reckoning with different conceptions of freedom.
Haidt has argued that liberals and conservatives draw on different values. He has found that liberals strongly emphasize care–a value associated with sympathy and generosity–and fairness.
According to Haidt, conservatives honor care and fairness too, though slightly less than liberals.
But conservatives also put stock in values that liberals generally don’t consider important: loyalty, sanctity, and authority, the stuff of any speech from Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed; they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos,” Haidt argues. “Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom.”
Haidt has since added a sixth moral foundation to his model—liberty and oppression. He has used it to study the psychology of libertarians.
Almost all the “basic freedoms” in Biden’s first 2024 TV ad are grounded in appeals to care or fairness.
They’re also a close cousin of two of the “four freedoms” in President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1941 State of the Union address.
The first two of Roosevelt’s freedoms—freedom of speech and freedom of religion—are in keeping with the First Amendment. The others, “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear,” depart from the Bill of Rights in the direction of greater power for the state.
Liberals’ strong focus on care and fairness and somewhat weaker concern with liberty also explain Biden’s COVID-19-era messaging and the consistent attacks from that wing on “freedumb.”
In the left or liberal mind, the decision not to wear a mask or not to get vaccinated could count as a weightier act of violence against human life than the conscious choice to terminate a pregnancy.
Conservatives and others who value sanctity and authority—the latter ultimately derived from God—may find that position hard to fathom.
But for liberals and those with a similar psychological makeup, appeals to sanctity and authority mean very little. At the same time, beliefs about what is most fair and least harmful to the expectant mother can lead them away from pro-life conclusions.
Likewise, concerns about care and fairness can override liberty for those who believe that masks and injections make a significant difference to the health and safety of their neighbors.
Of course, while leftists tend to caucus with Democrats and rightists with Republicans, the quirks of the electoral system and the demands of coalition-building sometimes lead to strange political bedfellows.
On the streets of liberal, Democratic Chicago, for example, a traditional Islamic mosque might adjoin a house flying the rainbow “Progress Pride” flag.
It’s hard to imagine a shared view of freedom bridging that gap–and yet common perspectives on immigration, economics, and, in particular, the Republican Party (and the Republican base) are apparently enough to deliver wins at the ballot box.
A Calculated Message
In the eyes of conservatives and libertarians, Biden’s use of the American flag might seem cynical and insincere.
But Biden’s message isn’t aimed at them. As in his 2020 campaign, he’s making a pitch to independents in crucial battleground states, many of whom likely share at least some moral foundations with conservatives.
Peter Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California–Irvine and a collaborator on “moral foundations” research with Haidt, said he agrees that the imagery reflects a careful attempt to draw support from nonliberals.
“Because liberals and conservatives have been shown to have different moral sensibilities, a message is often more persuasive to the other side when it is couched in ways that appeal to that side’s particular moral sense,” he told The Epoch Times in a May 22 email.
Using the moral foundations vocabulary, the flag is a keystone for loyalty, authority, and sanctity–loyalty to the nation, respect for government authority, and a belief in the American system’s sanctity.
“He is making a case for traditional liberal policy positions like support for abortion rights and LGBTQ rights (mentioning more contemporary controversies as well, like support for democracy and accusations of book banning), but framing them all in terms of support for patriotism and freedom, as a way to appeal more to conservative morality,” Ditto said.
By trying to claim the word “freedom,” Biden wants to make that trans-foundational case a stronger one.
“The freedom framing is particularly potent I think,” Ditto said.
“This election is a fight for the middle,” Carlucci, the Democratic strategist, said. “And the campaign will gather more support by showing voters what they will lose with Republicans rather than what they will gain with Democrats.”