When we write about the right these days, we tend to use a set of dated shorthand, overlapping categories drawn from different eras: neocons and tea partyers, libertarians and hawks, the establishment and the grassroots.
These terms don’t really fit. There are multiple strands of anti-government conservatism that predate the tea party movement, and kinds of hawkishness that have little to do with the neoconservative movement. This jargon is a mess.
I propose replacing the messy old terminology with a simple new vocabulary, one that has evolved organically, which has deep and consistent intellectual roots, no pejorative implications, and which political leaders use effortlessly and without reflecting. The division that will define the Republican Party for the next decade is the split between Liberty Conservatives and Freedom Conservatives.
The divide over Liberty and Freedom has a good linguistic pedigree. The former draws on a straight line that runs from the Declaration to modern libertarianism; the latter on one that goes from emancipation to George W. Bush, with a rather inconvenient detour through Roosevelt. They can both claim Lincoln, who spoke in the Gettysburg Address of a nation conceived in liberty, and undergoing a new birth of freedom.
The divide also maps to real, recent policy divides. For example: U.S. intervention in the Middle East; the sequester that capped federal spending; the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans. Freedom Conservatives back the aggressive security measures and, relatedly, oppose the spending cap. Liberty Conservatives are deeply skeptical of bombing and spying, and drove support for limited spending.
Liberty Conservatives look, first of all, to America’s founding documents. They are deeply skeptical not just of the contemporary government but of 20th-century government action — their favorite texts include revisionist histories of Herbert Hoover and arguments that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t do much about the depression. They embrace the civil rights movement, but their intellectual forebears fought it. They are now focused on rolling back elements of the 20th-century welfare state. Their sources of funding are twofold: The old industrial empires (Koch Industries is emblematic, but hardly alone) that are still steaming about getting off the gold standard, and the libertarian radicals of Silicon Valley. They see ambitious liberal anti-poverty policy as deeply dangerous, and they’re also concerned about what they see as the excesses of law-and-order conservatism — like the drug war — and of pro-business conservatism’s alliance with big banks and big business. They have been shaped most of all by their opposition to Obamacare.
Freedom Conservatives are as likely to look to Lincoln as to the founders, and they may admit to having ancestors who voted for Franklin Roosevelt and marched for civil rights. The history Freedom Conservatives want to re-litigate is that of the first decade of the 21st century. They see a role for a strong government abroad, and they are, in some senses, the heirs to George W. Bush: Pragmatic about domestic policy, deeply concerned about America’s place in the world. Their backers include Wall Street financiers and defense contractors. They get credit for freedom fries. They, too, have been shaped by opposition to Barack Obama, but the spark for them isn’t health care, but the notorious notion of “leading from behind,” and the Obama catastrophe they fret most over centers on the Middle East.
Not every issue maps neatly onto this dichotomy, and politics is not about intellectual consistency or purity. The leaders of both groups, for instance, favor compromise on immigration; the Liberty grassroots oppose it. Conservatives of all stripes have, meanwhile, blasted Obama over the current crisis at the Mexican border. And there are differences of emphasis.The Freedom Conservative elites — from Bill Kristol to John Bolton to Sheldon Adelson — care a lot about foreign policy. Many of the Liberty Conservative leaders have less theory in that realm than instinct — that they’re against it. And the two groups are held together, for now, by a powerful centripetal force: loathing for President Barack Obama.
The words themselves, freedom and liberty, are a classic English pairing, like cow and beef — one Germanic root and one Latin one. They have been used, the American historian Eric Foner noted in an email, more or less interchangeably for years, and there is in fact a substantial and hard-to-get-through philosophical literature as to whether they are “twins” or whether they have different meanings. Isaiah Berlin said in his famous essay on liberty that he would use the words “to mean the same”; Hannah Arendt saw a distinction between the negative “liberty from” and the positive “freedom to.”
In American English, however, the words have acquired new valences in recent years.
“Liberty seems to suggest the ‘don’t tread on me, get the government off my back, do your own thing’ outlook, while freedom seems to suggest a more public, civic set of entitlements, often linked to exercising power of some sort,” Foner said.
“Liberty” is, in particular, the language of reaction, and of a radical turn back toward what its constituents see as America’s founding. “Freedom” also conjures what some on the Liberty right — which has a deep, though not uniform, Christian strain — see as pernicious social trends of the last century: drug legalization, sexual liberalization.
“As ‘freedom’ has expanded into areas that formerly belonged to ‘liberty’, ‘liberty’ has become even more strongly associated with the simple absence of political constraints rather than any positive rights or access to democratic process,” said the Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.
The political sides have taken note. The Paul family campaign organization is the Campaign for Liberty. Its hawkish opposite number in Washington is the Center for American Freedom. Other tea leaves are subtler. George W. Bush said the issue in Iraq was freedom and liberty”; the Koch brothers campaign to advance “liberty and freedom” in that order. The lines haven’t yet been clearly drawn — FreedomWorks is a Liberty group, and the Liberty List is a Freedom listserv — but they are starting to clarify.
Presidential politics is always where American political identity is shaped, and these two identities are set to mature in 2016. The candidates are lining up on both sides: The Freedom Conservatives are represented by Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie; the Liberty Conservatives by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
“You’re seeing skirmishes all over the place, people testing each other,” Michael Goldfarb, a Freedom Conservative (and indeed, the guy who coined that phrase), told my colleague Rosie Gray.
The winner in 2016 may be the most politically adept — whoever is able to plausibly keep a foot in both camps, something Cruz has been working hard on lately.
Meanwhile the two sides are also using language to define each other. Liberty Conservatives call their enemies “neocons.” Freedom Conservatives sling the word “isolationists.” Those of us trying to write about them without taking sides need a new vocabulary.
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