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Challenge to Dems: Make 'Freedom' a Stronger Party Value

Many progressives have lamented the conservative expropriation of faith and patriotism as the exclusive property of the GOP. Democrats, it is rightly argued, must reclaim these powerful themes as central tenets of the party's philosophy. Writing in the Washington Monthly, William A. Galston argues in his article "Taking Liberty: Liberals Ignore and Conservatives Misunderstand America's Guiding Value: Freedom," that Dems must also include "the evocative term, 'freedom' as a cornerstone of their philosophy in new and more creative ways. As Galston, a former deputy assistant for domestic policy for President Clinton and author of The Practice of Liberal Pluralism, points out:

The extraordinary value Americans place on individual liberty is what most distinguishes our culture, and the political party seen by voters as the most willing to defend and expand liberty is the one that usually wins elections. Conservatives have learned this lesson; too many liberals have forgotten it. And as long as liberals fool themselves into believing that appeals to income distribution tables can take the place of policies that promote freedom, they will lose.

Citing President Bush's 2nd inaugural speech as a successful effort to link his administration with the value of 'freedom,' Galston challenges Dems to do some serious thinking about the importance of freedom as a Democratic party value and ask the right questions:

The questions before us are, what is the meaning of freedom in the 21st century, and what are the means needed to make it effective in our lives? Those of us who oppose the conservative answer cannot succeed by changing the question. We can only succeed by giving a better answer.

Galston challenges Dems to confront head-on the conservative myth that the function of government is to reduce freedom:

Instead of dodging the issue, an effective center-left strategy should begin with a critique of the fundamental conservative conception of freedom because that conception is fatally flawed. Experience gives us no reason to conclude that government is the only, or always the gravest, threat to freedom; clerical institutions and concentrations of unchecked economic power have often vied for that dubious honor...At the heart of the conservative misunderstanding of liberty is the presumption that government and individual freedom are fundamentally at odds. At the heart of any liberal counteroffensive must be a subtler but more truthful proposition: Public power can advance freedom as well as thwart it.

Galston argues persuasively that "liberals must return to their historic mission of modernizing and promoting freedom." He says Dems should emphasize that reforms such as universal health care and a greater investment in educational opportunity expand the scope of freedom from want and fear for greater numbers of Americans. Galston may be on shakier ground, however, in suggesting Dems can make political hay by calling for sacrifice in the form of tax hikes, as did FDR in war time. (Remember Walter Mondale's "He won't tell you. I just did" defense of the need to increase taxes in his debate with Ronald Reagan.)

Galston's article concludes with a call for a "new patriotism," rooted in American values and experience:

Too often, liberals whose hopes have been thwarted by the historic individualism of our culture have pined for an alternative culture more akin to French statism or Scandinavian social democracy. Too often, liberals have reacted to exaggerated claims of American exceptionalism by rejecting the idea outright. These responses are patently self-defeating. We must begin from where we are. We must go with—not against—the American grain. As FDR did three quarters of a century ago, we must mobilize and sustain a popular majority with the freedom agenda our times require. We must love not another country's dream, but our own—the American Dream—and we must work to make it real for every American who reaches for it.

The theme of freedom, like patriotism and faith, need not be the exclusive property of the GOP, if Dems will accept Galston's challenge and make it their own.