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Politics & Current Affairs

The Tea Party’s Empty Talk of Freedom

Matt Yglesias makes a good point. The Tea Party activists talk a lot about the government taking away their freedom, whether by taxing them, byforcing them to buy health insurance, or even by implanting microchips in their bodies. But for all their talk about freedom and for all their fear Obama will transform the country into a Soviet-style dictatorship, the Tea Party doesn’t seem particularly interested in protecting individual freedom in general. “Freedom” is a buzzword to them, and their freedom-talk just empty rhetoric.

In my favorite blog post of the week, Matt Yglesias asks us to

Consider that the proponents of right-wing “freedom” are not even slightly inclined to back elements of a libertarian agenda that conflict with conservative identity politics. When John Boehner says “most importantly, let’s allow freedom to flourish” he’s not suggesting we should open our borders to more immigrants or drop the vestigial Selective Service system or allow gay couples to marry or let Latin American countries sell us more sugar or reduce military expenditures. Indeed, the very same critics who castigate Obama for limiting Americans’ freedom also accuse him of being insufficiently eager to torture people, unduly hesitant to detain suspects without trial, and too eager to take the side of black professors subject to police harassment for the crime of trying to enter their own home.

Which is just to say that Boehner is a conservative. He sides with the military, with law enforcement, with the business establishment, and with the dominant ethno-cultural group in the country. In the United States of America, people who adhere to these values like to talk about “freedom” but this has nothing in particular to do with any real ideas about human liberty.

Conservatives may feel oppressed, in other words, but it’s only certain kinds of freedom—and only for certain kinds of people—that Rep. Boehner (R-OH) cares about. Mostly, it’s the freedom of white conservatives to be in charge. Or, as Yglesias puts it, “freedom’s just another word for ‘I’m an orthodox conservative with orthodox conservative views.'”

Yglesias compares Tea Party rhetoric to William F. Buckley’s Young Americans for Freedom stating in 1960 that “foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force,” even though the YAF was never particularly interested in civil rights legislation or ending Jim Crow. In the same way, tea party conservatives who rail against the police state generally have no problem with having the police pull over anyone who might look like an illegal immigrant. So when Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) called for a boycott of Arizona over its new—and possibly unconstitutional—law allowing police to demand people show proof of citizenship, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) accused Grijalva of “advocating for Mexico rather than the United States and against the rule of law.” As Greg Sargent says, what King—who obviously doesn’t even represent Arizona—is essentially saying is that Grijalva is “committing treason by advocating for his brown-skinned constituents in addition to his light-skinned ones.”

This is the problem with identity politics. We can—and should—argue about what freedom means. But whatever it means, we all have the same right to be free. If we reduce the freedom to the idea that we personally should be able to do whatever we want, it loses all meaning. What’s wrong to do to us, is wrong to do to everyone.


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