A Looming American Choice: Self-Determination as Freedom or Tyranny?
I know a family that switched parishes in my community because its members found their faith’s diocesan leadership mandate that they wear masks during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic unduly harsh; this was prior to the development and widespread availability of vaccines. These individuals made this choice because they were convinced that their liberty was being unfairly impinged by their church’s efforts to protect them and others from acquiring or spreading a virus that to date has killed more than 600,000 Americans. They were so resentful of this requirement on behalf of the public good that they abandoned their home church of decades for another house of worship 10 miles distant practicing an alternate rite and with looser restrictions. This choice to risk public as well as individual injury, and even death, demonstrates a self-absorbed understanding of liberty as unreserved personal preference.
I offer this example to highlight a profound paradox in the politics of today’s Republican Party. Such partisans, for indeed, my acquaintances are strong GOP (and Trump) proponents, have so completely absolutized their conception of their construct of personal liberty as to recoil from even obviously necessary, temporary and well-reasoned efforts to bear even the most minor of inconveniences for the public weal. Their decision, like the choice of anti-vaccination partisans now becoming infected and dying at rising rates in this country, was one supported by their Party, by its putative leader, former President Donald Trump, and encouraged by their preferred media outlets as well.
The explanation for this perilous situation seems to be bound up not only in an erroneous understanding of freedom, but in its alliance also with a fascistic argument that such anti-liberal action constitutes self-determination and adulation of our nation’s supposed glory. In adopting this position, today’s Republican Party has not only chosen a view of liberty as unbridled private preference, but it has also simultaneously espoused the companion propagandistic claim that such a conception of self-determination validates oppression of others.
In the case of refusing to abide by COVID-19 public protection requirements and to obtain vaccinations, GOP devotees, including my acquaintances who remain unvaccinated, are directly repressing the freedom of others by risking those others’ lives in order to realize their own short-term preferences. More broadly, the same sort of perverse self-reifying construct of self-determination is on explicit display in the Party more generally, as its leaders argue that it can and should enjoy the right to target and subjugate groups of its choosing, including gay and transgender individuals, immigrants and minority group members, especially Blacks. Perversely, this despotic aim is justified by its proponents, as it was for advocates of slavery and for fascists calling for persecution of Jews as scapegoats in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, on a fallacious understanding of self-determination. That view defined that construct as ensuring racial or other superiority over others of one’s choice. In this sense, and in many others as well, today’s Republican Party politics may appropriately be labeled fascistic.
I do not contend that the GOP or our country will soon descend to the homicidal holocaust of Nazi Germany, but I do note that the very same arguments offered by the Reich for racial oppression and hierarchy are now being deployed in the United States. This said, the insurrection of January 6 should give all liberal democrats, irrespective of their partisanship, pause in these terms. The thugs who invaded the Capitol, like fascists everywhere, justified their murderous mayhem with lies and a perverse and dangerous belief that they constituted a chosen group that was only claiming what was rightfully, if only hazily defined, theirs and that doing so would further national greatness.
The Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley has captured this paradox elegantly in his discussion of the role of party propaganda in fascist politics among Southern state leaders seeking to contend that self-determination justified their continued embrace of chattel slavery:
The liberty that many whites in Southern states sought by calling for ‘states’’ rights was the freedom to restrict the liberties of their fellow black citizens. … In each [of these examples] we can find the specious arguments that the antiliberal goal is in fact a realization of the liberal ideal.
For their part, even as the Capitol insurrectionists sought, in effect, to prosecute a coup, they claimed they were realizing a legitimate liberal aim of ensuring self-determination. Whatever else may be said of those who committed crimes that day, very nearly to a person they have reported that they had been persuaded of that lie by their Party’s leaders, especially by then President Donald Trump.
This sort of fascistic obfuscating rhetoric, which claims that active efforts to undermine a solemn principle of democratic politics are instead supporting it, is now a staple of GOP politics and allied media. These actors daily assert, for example, that the 2020 election was “stolen,” that factually non-existent voter fraud is widespread and therefore requires efforts to ensure it is made more difficult and overseen by partisan officials, and that any and all efforts to secure freedom for all Americans to vote or to ensure citizens an honest understanding of U.S. history are compromising the rule of a rightfully aggrieved class of white citizens who should legitimately decry them.
The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has illustrated one way in which this type of thinking and propagandistic form of politics is today frequently rationalized as mere “partisanship” in a recent essay concerning how “conservatives” may ensure that their understanding of history gains purchase in the country’s schools. His assumption concerning the political scenario supposedly afoot was revealing, even as he argued that current local and state level GOP efforts to legislate what can be taught in schools will ultimately fail. Douthat offered possible alternatives that might result in securing curricula attuned to the Party’s desired vision of history, but then concluded that while helpful to consider, these were unlikely to succeed because:
The point of pondering such ideas, though, is to recognize that it’s not just conservatives who have an interest in breaking the multigenerational cycle that has handed liberals a series of cultural victories while also delivering a divided society, widely distrusted institutions, and a flailing, demagogic right. For the institutions that liberals currently run to command general support and respect, they need more conservative buy-in. For conservatives to buy in, the right needs some kind of guarantee of actual influence or power.
This contention both suggests the Republican Party is powerless in such matters, when it obviously is not, and blames “liberals” for its demagogy. Douthat offered this argument even though every historical account I have read suggests the GOP deliberately chose in 1964 and thereafter to undermine faith in governance and government institutions as an electoral strategy that would place more power and wealth in the hands of market elites. The Party has accompanied those claims with arguments that minorities cannot be entrusted with full civil and human rights lest they misuse those to make illegitimate and wasteful redistributive demands of government—read Republican taxpayers and, especially, the wealthy. Indeed, historians have shown that such demagoguery and propaganda go back at least to the antebellum era and certainly prevailed during and following Reconstruction, especially, but not exclusively, in the South. Characterizing its use during Reconstruction to “explain” corruption in that time frame in the South, for example, W.E. B. Du Bois observed:
The south, finally, with almost complete unity, named the negro, as the main cause of southern corruption. … [They argued that] the center of the corruption charge … was in fact that poor men were ruling and taxing rich men.
As Du Bois’s argument demonstrated, Douthat also trivializes the question at issue. So-called conservatives are not seeking to ensure that a history, as Stanley has argued, “faithful to the norm of truth, yielding an accurate vision of the past, rather than history provided for political reasons” holds sway, but instead desire one that enshrines political dicta, blames minorities for GOP partisans’ challenges and justifies their oppression on that lie. The Party’s proposition must be confronted and overcome, if we are to have any chance of preserving a free society that affords rights to all our nation’s citizens.
More deeply, in his partisan or ideological fervor to blame unnamed liberals for our nation’s current governance predicament, Douthat too quickly and glibly set aside the principles on which the United States was founded. Women, African Americans, immigrants, individuals with disabilities and gay people have all gained civil and human rights, however unevenly, during our nation’s history only through hard won and often fraught decades-long efforts to claim what was in principle already theirs under the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. For examples, think of the Civil War and the civil rights eras as well as the continuing effort to secure the full rights and dignity of gay individuals and persons with disabilities. If those many years and that constant struggle have yielded any single conclusion, it is that humane reform is not a repudiation of freedom or self-determination, as today’s GOP deceptively would have it, either of rights or ideas, but an enlargement and, ultimately, a celebration, of its import and reach.
Few have put this point so plainly in recent days as the long-time distinguished journalist Dan Rather and his colleagues:
The ideal of freedom can inspire. But it also can be used to justify oppression. … Their ‘freedom’ [Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a key supporter of the GOP] is the freedom to repudiate science, denigrate public health, suppress free and fair elections, and undermine the very notion of a pluralistic society based on mutual respect for our fellow citizens and the sustainable health of our planet.
Notably, none of these so-called CPAC freedoms, not one, is the product of a “liberal” establishment creating conditions that Republicans cannot abide. Instead, these are positions that the Party has adopted to mobilize many to enrich the few in the short-term, while imposing costs on countless others in society. Together these stands mark a fascistic politics of division, rancor and scapegoating intended to divide for the political gain of a small group.
There are, of course, other ways to view American and democratic politics. As Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, among many others, have exemplified, one may view it as a place in which the citizens of a complex and pluralistic society may continuously strive to realize its principles and ideals of full human and civil rights for all, rather than rationalizing oppressing one or more groups. In this view, ensuring ethnic and minority groups their rights as citizens and residents uplifts all, even as it enlivens and ennobles the nation as it comes closer to realizing its ideals. This is exactly what President Abraham Lincoln called on the country to undertake during his tenure. As he put it in an address at a Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, Maryland on April 18, 1864,
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence, we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.
More than a hundred years later, civil rights icon and long-time United States Congressman John Lewis also called on Americans to embrace a definition of freedom as a never-ending struggle against tyranny masquerading as freedom. Almost one year before he died on July 17, 2020, Lewis tweeted:
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and to make good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.
I am persuaded that most Americans do not desire social or economic oligarchy or to lose their freedom, rightly understood. I therefore shall count on them to continue, in Lewis’s memorable phrase, “to make some noise and good trouble” to overcome the pernicious propagandizing now afoot concerning the character of their country and of self-determination. The United States at its best, as Lincoln deeply understood, is an idea, an ideal, of a united and diverse people able to live together and to celebrate their differences and similarities alike as they work continuously to ensure civil rights, equality before the law and opportunity for all.
 Stanley, Jason. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House Publishers, 2018.
 Stanley, How Fascism Works, pp. 30-31.
 Douthat, Ross. “How Conservatives Can Reshape Education,” The New York Times, July 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/17/opinion/sunday/conservatives-education.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20210718&instance_id=35632&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=40087534&segment_id=63780&user_id=0100ea161cc78533fc4fac5d8cf3a77c, Accessed July 17, 2021.
 DuBois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 219.
 Rather, Dan, Elliott Kirschner and Steady Team, “Freedom Defined and Distorted,” Steady, July 17, 2021, https://steady.substack.com/?no_cover=true, Accessed July 17, 2021.
 Lincoln, Abraham. “Address at a Sanitary Fair,” April 18, 1864, (Teaching American History), https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/address-at-a-sanitary-fair/, Accessed July 17, 2021.
 Lewis, John, “Do Not Get Lost in a Sea of Despair,” Twitter@repjohnlewis. July 16, 2019, https://twitter.com/repjohnlewis/status/1151155571757867011?lang=en, Accessed July 17, 2021.
July 26, 2021