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"Look beneath the surface of just about any progressive cause — voting rights, prison reform, income inequality, data privacy, college debt, immigrant protections, family leave, the right to be who you are — and you’ll find personal liberty fighting for its breath." (Photo: K.H. Anderson)

"Look beneath the surface of just about any progressive cause — voting rights, prison reform, income inequality, data privacy, college debt, immigrant protections, family leave, the right to be who you are — and you’ll find personal liberty fighting for its breath." (Photo: K.H. Anderson)

A Lefty’s Guide to Liberty

Real-life individual liberty — for everyone — is at the heart of everything progressives stand for. It’s time we own it

K.H. Anderson

The liberty ideal should be perfectly at home in every nook and cranny of left-wing rhetoric and activism, elevating issues as wide-ranging as racial justice, reproductive rights, net neutrality, and climate change. But while conservatives and libertarians will talk about liberty all day long, lefties have little to say on the topic.

Why are we content to let the right define this most basic of American values? Because equality and justice are “ours,” but liberty is “theirs”? Because the word sounds old fashioned? Too flag-wavy?

We’ve got a problem.

Our silence has allowed right-wing blowhards, free market zealots, gun fanatics, and conservative Christians to monopolize the language of freedom.

Our silence has allowed right-wing blowhards, free market zealots, gun fanatics, and conservative Christians to monopolize the language of freedom. They’ve now become so insufferably cocksure of their dominion over what makes America America, liberals now balk at patriotic words and symbols as if they are tainted.

Why are we so reluctant to go there?

We have our reasons.

Because anything with a whiff of patriotism feels out of character, against script, gratuitous, conspicuous — a stamp of approval for militarism and global arrogance. Because the United States of America was built upon stolen land and the bodies of slaves. Because this nation persistently fails to honor its most manifest promise of “all.”

Thing is, progressives (whether we say it or not) we’re the ones with the liberty goods. Look beneath the surface of just about any progressive cause — voting rights, prison reform, income inequality, data privacy, college debt, immigrant protections, family leave, the right to be who you are — and you’ll find personal liberty fighting for its breath:

  • When we say Black Lives MatterLove Is Love, and My Body My Choice we fight for nothing less than fundamental, personal human freedom and autonomy.
  • When we advance universal healthcare and a living wage, it’s about building the foundation for meaningful economic liberty for all Americans.
  • When we decry climate change, we are demanding a vigorous response to a crisis that is on course to deny our children and their children freedoms we have blithely taken for granted.
  • When we invest in public education, art, and scientific research, we liberate people’s capacity to become self-sufficient and to tackle challenges large, small, and as yet unknown.

I’d put those concepts of liberty up against the every-man-for-himself, get-off-my-lawn variety any day.

Unfortunately, the Left’s protracted unwillingness to lay claim to the liberty turf has critically damaged our reputation. It’s been so long since the Left has spoken the language of freedom, Americans can be forgiven for assuming we’ve utterly abandoned it as a goal. But if any liberal (other than an ACLU attorney) utters the word liberty in connection with progressive goals, she is met with blank stares at best. I know because I’ve been that liberal.

Just because “liberty” doesn’t easily roll off our tongues, doesn’t make it wrong. It just means we’ve left the tool in the kit for far too long. Sadly, its absence has diminished our ability to bring to life a clear, progressive vision for America — for our own base of voters as well as for those across the political spectrum with whom we may well share common ground.

“Our brand is _ _ _ _”

A palpable longing for “a better message” seeps through left-wing commentary from magazines to podcasts to dinner parties. Ken Martin, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and chair of the Minnesota party summed it up in a recent radio interview with this strikingly honest confession: “Our brand is shit.”

Let that sink in.

He’s right, but why? It’s not that we have the wrong priorities. (Pause here to recall everything we care about. Take your time; you’ll need it. It’s a long, important list that seems to get longer by the day.)

Now, here’s how that list, the platform, sounds to anyone other than activists and political junkies:

Blah, blah, healthcare, blah, too many guns, blah, climate, blah, gays, poor people, black people, immigrants, women, blah, you never do enough, blah…

The problem isn’t the issues, nor even the length of the list, it’s that we’re so preoccupied agitating for everything – often coming across like anxiety-riddled gripers forever waving urgent to-do lists – we forget to express in simple terms how it all fits together and why it all matters.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
K.H. Anderson

K.H. Anderson

K.H. Anderson is a Minneapolis-based art director.

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