Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Freedom(TM) is a Bumper Sticker

If you have any sense of historical memory, the last 24 months have marked a tremendous shift in right-wing rhetoric. Not more than two years ago, we were told that to be for freedom was to be for terrorists. Gubmint wants to wiretap your phone? Well, if you're not a terrorist, you don't have anything to worry about do you? 'Merica, love it or leave it, and all that. Now we have quotes like this:
"The State is the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice."
Any guesses on who penned this one? Which small gubmint, freedom(TM) loving conservative would analogize the State to a religious altar on which freedom is slain?

Answer: Anarchist Emma Goldman.

Certainly, it's not news to point out the similarity between left anarchism and right libertarianism/anarchism, but the ability for the Republican media apparatus to turn on a dime away from the big-government "security over freedom" rhetoric two years ago to the small-gubmint "talkin' 'bout freedom(TM)!" line of 2010 depends on the existence of the libertarian Right. Without a libertarian component to the Republican ideological universe, navigating from the wiretapping, library record snooping, unitary executive halcyon days of the Bush administration would have taken more than one-third of an election cycle. With it, the GOP simply tosses one set of talking points for another and reloads. More Atlas Shrugged, less Reflections of a Neo-Conservative.

MinnPost's Eric Black published a nice piece last week on political messaging and the GOP bumper sticker slogan "Honk if you love Freedom."
I’ve asked some people wiser in the ways of political messaging than I, and they have told me that the Dems need to stay away from the rhetoric of freedom. The Repubs own the word, and the argument that government is sometimes a freedom-bringer rather than a freedom-taker is too complicated and could not be fit onto a bumper sticker rebuttal to “Honk if you love freedom.”

The Dems need a whole different “narrative” that plays to their strengths, these message mavens say. Maybe something about “community.”
Republicans "own the word?" Well, if they do, that's a tremendous failure of Democratic messaging. The GOP line that "freedom(TM) is an absence of government" is the preferred message of the moment, made possible by the overwhelming minority status of the GOP in the government. But not more than 36 months ago, dissent was treason and spying on Americans was the price we paid for living in this country. This conservative dialectic between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian rhetoric is one fundamental reason that the US has been on a long, slow drift toward center-right politics.

Democratic messaging is not so flexible, nor has it provided a clear alternative narrative. There's one available, but would require Democrats to do something that they don't seem willing to do - adopt an aggressively anti-corporate line. Some of the biggest threats to the real freedom and economic security of Americans come directly from corporations, and the freedom(TM) being peddled by Republicans is really about the freedom of corporations. They are people, after all.

If the GOP has the libertarian right on which to rely for a refreshed message, the Democratic party has the anti-corporate progressive left to look to for their own. Given the #BPocalypse in the Gulf, the culpability of the financial industry in the 2008 economic collapse, etc., there are no shortage of examples of corporate abuse of "freedom(TM)". But right-wing spinners are always hard at work to take the failings of corporations and turn them into failures of government. You know, the Great Depression was caused by government spending, the #BPocalypse was caused by regulation, and the 2008 market collapse was the fault of a 1977 law to eliminate discriminatory lending practices and Fannie and Freddie. All of these events are indeed failures of government, but are failures of under-regulation. I don't have a bumper sticker slogan for that, but I'm sure one of our readers can help.

Bottom line: When Sarah Palin can accuse President Obama of being in the pocket of BP without actually giggling at the absurdity herself, you've got problems. And when there's not enough contrast between Democratic and Republican policy to make that message seem patently absurd, you've got bigger problems.

Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz.

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