What Republicans and Billionaires Really Mean When They Talk About ‘Freedom’: Freedom to be homeless, jobless, and unable to access health care when you need it

Right-wing Tea Party protesters demonstrate in front of the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 6, 2011 urging for government spending cut. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

America is having a heated debate about the meaning of the word socialism. We’d be better served if, instead, we were debating the meaning of freedom.

The Oregonian reported last week that fully 156,000 families are on the edge of homelessness in our small-population state. Every one of those households is now paying more than 50 percent of its monthly income on rent, and none of them has any savings; one medical bill, major car repair or job loss, and they’re on the streets.

While socialism may or may not solve their problem, the more pressing issue we have is an entire political party and a huge sector of the billionaire class who see homelessness not as a problem, but as a symptom of a “free” society.

“Poverty, lack of education, no access to health care, poor-paying jobs, and barriers to voting are all proof of a free society, they tell us, which is why America’s lowest life expectancy, highest maternal and childhood death rates, lowest levels of education, and lowest pay are almost all in GOP-controlled states.”

The words freedom and liberty are iconic in American culture—probably more so than with any other nation because they’re so intrinsic to the literature, declarations and slogans of our nation’s founding.

The irony—of the nation founded on the world’s greatest known genocide (the systematic state murder of tens of millions of Native Americans) and over three centuries of legalized slavery and a century and a half of oppression and exploitation of the descendants of those slaves—is extraordinary. It presses us all to bring true freedom and liberty to all Americans.

But what do those words mean?

If you ask the Koch brothers and their buddies—who slap those words on pretty much everything they do—you’d get a definition that largely has to do with being “free” from taxation and regulation. And, truth be told, if you’re morbidly rich, that makes a certain amount of sense, particularly if your main goal is to get richer and richer, regardless of your behavior’s impact on working-class people, the environment, or the ability of government to function.

On the other hand, the definition of freedom and liberty that’s been embraced by so-called “democratic socialist” countries—from Canada to almost all of Europe to Japan and Australia—you’d hear a definition that’s closer to that articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he proposed, in January 1944, a “second Bill of Rights” to be added to our Constitution.

FDR’s proposed amendments included the right to a job, and the right to be paid enough to live comfortably; the right to “adequate food and clothing and recreation”; the right to start a business and run it without worrying about “unfair competition and domination by monopolies”; the right “of every family to a decent home”; the right to “adequate medical care… to achieve and enjoy good health”; the right to government-based “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”; and the right “to a good education.”

Roosevelt pointed out that, “All of these rights spell security.”

He added, “America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

The other nations mentioned earlier took President Roosevelt’s advice to heart. Progressive “social democracy” has kept Europe, Canada, and the developed nations of the East and South Pacific free of war for almost a century—a mind-boggling feat when considering the history of the developed world since the 1500s.

Just prior to FDR winning the White House in the election of 1932, the nation had been treated to 12 years of a bizarre Republican administration that was the model for today’s GOP. In 1920, Warren Harding won the presidency on a campaign of “more industry in government, less government in industry”—privatize and deregulate—and a promise to drop the top tax rate of 91 percent down to 25 percent.

He kept both promises, putting the nation into a sugar-high spin called the Roaring ’20s, where the rich got fabulously rich and working-class people were being beaten and murdered by industrialists when they tried to unionize. Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (the three Republican presidents from 1920 to 1932) all cheered on the assaults, using phrases like “the right to work” to describe a union-free nation.

In the end, the result of the “horses and sparrows” economics advocated by Harding (“feed more oats to the horses and there’ll be more oats in the horse poop to fatten the sparrows”—that generation’s version of trickle-down economics) was the Republican Great Depression (yes, they called it that until after World War II).

Even though Roosevelt was fabulously popular—the only president to be elected four times—the right-wingers of his day were loud and outspoken in their protests of what they called “socialist” programs like Social Security, the right to unionize, and government-guaranteed job programs including the WPA, REA, CCC, and others.

The Klan and American Nazis were assembling by the hundreds of thousands nationwide—nearly 30,000 in Madison Square Garden alone—encouraged by wealthy and powerful “economic royalists” preaching “freedom” and “liberty.” Like the Kochs’ Freedomworks, that generation’s huge and well-funded (principally by the DuPonts’ chemical fortune) organization was the Liberty League.

Roosevelt’s generation had seen the results of this kind of hard-right “freedom” rhetoric in Italy, Spain, Japan and Germany, the very nations with which we were then at war.

Speaking of “the grave dangers of ‘rightist reaction’ in this Nation,” Roosevelt told America in that same speech that: “[I]f history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”

Although right-wingers are still working hard to disassemble FDR’s New Deal—the GOP budget for 2019 contains massive cuts to Social Security, as well as to Medicare and Medicaid—we got halfway toward his notion of freedom and liberty here in the United States:

  • You’re not free if you’re old and deep in poverty, so we have Social Security (although the GOP wants to gut it).
  • You’re not free if you’re hungry, so we have food stamps/SNAP (although the GOP wants to gut them).
  • You’re not free if you’re homeless, so we have housing assistance and homeless shelters (although the GOP fights every effort to help homeless people).
  • You’re not free if you’re sick and can’t get medical care, so we have Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare (although the GOP wants to gut them all).
  • You’re not free if you’re working more than 40 hours a week and still can’t meet basic expenses, so we have minimum wage laws and the right to unionize (although the GOP wants to gut both).
  • You’re not free if you can’t read, so we have free public schools (although the GOP is actively working to gut them).
  • You’re not free if you can’t vote, so we’ve passed numerous laws to guarantee the right to vote (although the GOP is doing everything it can to keep tens of millions of Americans from voting).

The billionaire class and their wholly owned Republican politicians keep trying to tell us that “freedom” means the government doesn’t provide any of the things listed above.

Instead, they tell us (as Ron Paul famously did in a GOP primary debate years ago) that, if we’re broke and sick, we’re “free” to die like a feral dog in the gutter.

Freedom is homelessness, in the minds of the billionaires who own the GOP.

Poverty, lack of education, no access to health care, poor-paying jobs, and barriers to voting are all proof of a free society, they tell us, which is why America’s lowest life expectancy, highest maternal and childhood death rates, lowest levels of education, and lowest pay are almost all in GOP-controlled states.

America—particularly the Democratic Party—is engaged in a debate right now about the meaning of socialism. It would be a big help for all of us if we were, instead, to have an honest debate about the meaning of the words freedom and liberty.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy: The class divide is already toxic, and is fast becoming unbridgeable. You’re probably part of the problem.

The 9.9 percent may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils.

History shows us a number of aristocracies that have made good choices. The 9.9 percenters of ancient Athens held off the dead tide of the Gatsby Curve for a time, even if democracy wasn’t quite the right word for their system of government. America’s first generation of revolutionaries was mostly 9.9 percenters, and yet they turned their backs on the man at the very top in order to create a government of, by, and for the people. The best revolutions do not start at the bottom; they are the work of the upper-middle class.

These exceptions are rare, to be sure, and yet they are the story of the modern world. In total population, average life expectancy, material wealth, artistic expression, rates of violence, and almost every other measure that matters for the quality of human life, the modern world is a dramatically different place than anything that came before. Historians offer many complicated explanations for this happy turn in human events—the steam engine, microbes, the weather—but a simple answer precedes them all: equality. The history of the modern world is the unfolding of the idea at the vital center of the American Revolution.

The defining challenge of our time is to renew the promise of American democracy by reversing the calcifying effects of accelerating inequality. As long as inequality rules, reason will be absent from our politics; without reason, none of our other issues can be solved. It’s a world-historical problem. But the solutions that have been put forward so far are, for the most part, shoebox in size.

Well-meaning meritocrats have proposed new and better tests for admitting people into their jewel-encrusted classrooms. Fine—but we aren’t going to beat back the Gatsby Curve by tweaking the formulas for excluding people from fancy universities. Policy wonks have taken aim at the more-egregious tax-code handouts, such as the mortgage-interest deduction and college-savings plans. Good—and then what? Conservatives continue to recycle the characterological solutions, like celebrating traditional marriage or bringing back that old-time religion. Sure—reforging familial and community bonds is a worthy goal. But talking up those virtues won’t save any families from the withering pressures of a rigged economy. Meanwhile, coffee-shop radicals say they want a revolution. They don’t seem to appreciate that the only simple solutions are the incredibly violent and destructive ones.

The American idea has always been a guide star, not a policy program, much less a reality. The rights of human beings never have been and never could be permanently established in a handful of phrases or old declarations. They are always rushing to catch up to the world that we inhabit. In our world, now, we need to understand that access to the means of sustaining good health, the opportunity to learn from the wisdom accumulated in our culture, and the expectation that one may do so in a decent home and neighborhood are not privileges to be reserved for the few who have learned to game the system. They are rights that follow from the same source as those that an earlier generation called life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Yes, the kind of change that really matters is going to require action from the federal government. That which creates monopoly power can also destroy it; that which allows money into politics can also take it out; that which has transferred power from labor to capital can transfer it back. Change also needs to happen at the state and local levels. How else are we going to open up our neighborhoods and restore the public character of education?

It’s going to take something from each of us, too, and perhaps especially from those who happen to be the momentary winners of this cycle in the game. We need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors. We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does. 

This article appears in the June 2018 print edition with the headline “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy.”