How do you define “Freedom,” the quintessential trademark of America itself? And then—who’s definition of “freedom” is the right one, the one that motivates a whole nation to take up arms in defense of it, the one that grounds the entire legal system and culture of our fifty states?
George Lakoff, an American cognitive linguist and philosopher and former professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, recently wrote an article, “Framing Freedom: Biden’s 20224 Campaign Plan,” that highlights the difference between how Democrats define freedom and how Republicans define freedom.
Joe Biden's decision to focus on freedom as the theme of his 2024 campaign is quite shrewd. By emphasizing this fundamental American value, Biden taps into a moral framework deeply embedded in the American psyche.
In a video announcing his decision to run for re-election, Biden made freedom the central theme of his campaign.
Freedom,” says Biden in the ad released last month. “Personal freedom is fundamental to who we are as Americans. There’s nothing more important, nothing more sacred.”
The president defined freedom in terms of protecting democracy, standing up for personal rights, treating people equally and making sure everyone gets a fair shot to succeed.
Biden’s ad is powerful because it focuses on the most fundamental American value: freedom.
Differences between Democratic and Republican voters are rooted in different moral definitions and values. And of all the values that Americans hold dear, none is more important than that of freedom.
The importance of the freedom frame — and the differences between progressive and conservative definitions of freedom — was the central focus of the 2008 book “Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea.”
Freedom, it turns out, is a complicated idea with more than one meaning.
From the book:
Perhaps no idea has mattered more than in American history than the idea of freedom. The central thesis of this book is simple. There are two very different views of freedom in America today, arising from two very different moral and political worldviews dividing the country.
For the most part, however, conservatives have seized the freedom frame and sought to define the word according to conservative values. So, it’s great to finally see Democratic pollsters and politicians getting up to speed. (California Gov. Gavin Newsom deserves credit for leading the way by hammering the “freedom” theme over the past year. We wrote about that here.)
Remember: Our political ideas are grounded in metaphors. Metaphors help to frame our thinking and shape our worldview.
Every difference between Democrats and Republicans can be traced back to two different moral frameworks based on family metaphors. For Democrats, the moral framework is based on the metaphor of the nurturant parent, which emphasizes empathy, care and protection. For Republicans, the moral framework is based on the metaphor of the strict father, which emphasizes discipline, self-reliance and hierarchical order.
These frameworks lead to different ideas about what government should do, and what the role of the individual is in society. Some people — “bi-conceptuals,” or swing voters — have both framework in their brains. In the U.S., politics can be understood as a war over brains. Whoever succeeds in repeatedly activating their political ideas, and their definition of morality, tends to win. Repetition changes brains!
So why is freedom such an important value? For one thing, it is deeply embedded in our history and culture. From the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights, the idea of freedom has been a central theme in American political thought.
This is reflected in the way that we, as Americans, talk about our country. The metaphor of the nation as a beacon of freedom is powerful and is used by politicians from both parties to evoke feelings of patriotism and pride.
But what does freedom really mean in practice? This is where the differences between Democrats and Republicans come into play.
For conservatives, freedom is often cast as a matter of being left alone by the government, of being free from government regulation and interference in the marketplace. It’s supposedly about limiting the role of government in people's lives (though conservatives don’t hesitate to limit basic freedoms — like the right to an abortion — with which they disagree).
This conservative version of freedom generally entails reducing taxes and promoting certain individual freedoms, like the freedom to carry guns in public or to pray in schools.
For progressives, freedom means much more than the absence of government constraints. It also means having the power and resources to act on one's own goals and values, to pursue a fulfilling life, and to participate fully in the social and political life of the community.
For Democrats, freedom is about empowering individuals to pursue their own goals and aspirations. This means ensuring that everyone has access to basic necessities like healthcare, education, and a living wage. It also means protecting individual rights, such as the right to vote, the right to marry who you choose and the freedom to decide your own reproductive health.
Ultimately, the choice between these two visions of freedom comes down to a moral decision. There is no value-free politics. The choice between Democrats and Republicans is not just about policy differences — it’s about fundamental moral values.
By emphasizing freedom, Biden is making a clear moral argument about what kind of society we want to live in. In 2024, he must draw a stark contrast between the progressive and conservative visions of freedom.
—George and Gil
© 2023 George Lakoff and Gil Duran 150 Sutter Street, #74, San Francisco, California 94104
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