The Tyranny of Freedom

The Tyranny of Freedom

Everyone who voted no can return to your safe space’s you have officially told everybody how to live their lives mission accomplished.

The preceding grammatically-challenged comment was left by Facebook user Tony (with a don’t tread on me avatar) on my town’s website. You see, Tony was apparently disappointed that the town narrowly voted against allowing keno games within the town limits during last Tuesday’s local elections. For Tony, it didn’t matter that the town approved 25 out of 27 articles, he was banking on (pun intended) keno being allowed in our 24,000-person, largely conservative town. Since this article failed, Tony saw it as a failure of democracy.

As much as we would like to shake our heads at the sheer idiocy of Tony’s statement and logic, the truth is there are millions of Tonys out there. Today’s modern conservative movement is based on the idea that government only gets in the way when it decides something that they don’t like. Modern conservatives loved it when Donald Trump declared a national emergency on our southern border but found it simply intolerable that Barack Obama would dare to protect 5 million undocumented children. Modern conservatives loved the Supreme Court decision allowing for a Muslim ban but they found it judicial overreach when that same Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. And modern conservatives loved it when their own self-anointed, armed citizens militia hijacked federal lands but they found it terrifying when elected Democrats put forth a plan for gun violence prevention legislation.

All of these examples are nothing new. In fact, it can be argued that modern Republicanism has become the centuries-old myth of rugged individualism personified. Throughout our nation’s history, there has been this prevailing sense that anyone who works hard can be successful and if you’re struggling, you simply pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. It is this idyllic version of America that Republicans cling to because deep down inside, they know that a person needs government in order to be successful. For the last century, any positive government programs like social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA have been deemed socialist by Republican opposition. The underlying criticism of these programs is not simply that they work but that it is government overreach to try and help its most vulnerable citizens. Republicans honestly believe that Americans who need these programs simply aren’t working hard enough.

In July of 2012 during his reelection campaign, then President Barack Obama gave a speech at a campaign event in Virginia, highlighting the idea that it truly takes a village for any company or business to succeed. Among his remarks, he said:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

What those in attendance heard was how a rising tide lifts all boats and that some of America’s greatest accomplishments have been the result of collective action toward the greater good. What conservatives heard were four simple words:

You. Didn’t. Build. That.

And boom! Off to the races they went with what would become their rallying cry for the next 5 months. The sitting American president didn’t think that everyday Americans built anything on their own. That he hated ingenuity and innovation. That he didn’t value the American entrepreneur. That he didn’t see the everyday success in America of some ambitious kid who grew up to start his own business. No, Barack Obama saw none of that because he was too busy stifling American ingenuity because he didn’t believe Americans had the ability to become successful without anyone else’s help.

As laughable as the argument was then and still is now, the problem is that modern conservatives still believe it. They still believe in this antiquated idea that everyday Americans can become successful without anyone else’s help. They blatantly ignore the role of public schools, public health care, public libraries, public transportation, public roads, and public theater, art museums, and concerts. They ignore the public protection afforded to their home and businesses by local fire and police departments. They even ignore the public benefits of the programs they pretend to hate: social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA. Find me any elected Republican at any level who will reject his own personal social security benefits and I’ll find you a bridge in Brooklyn to sell for cheap.

Today’s modern conservatives continue to buy into this myth because to accept reality is to admit that government serves a purpose and that purpose can be for the common good. If they were to admit that, they then would be forced to answer why then they’ve refused to support such successful government programs over the past century. Today’s conservatives are the embodiment of Paul Ryan: someone who lived off social security benefits and who served and left government with a lifetime of benefits yet still wanted to openly gut the social safety net for millions of Americans. They’ve got theirs through the system but they don’t feel that you are worthy of getting yours. It’s a belief that steeped not only in White privilege but also White nationalism. They were good enough for these benefits but those people are moochers who are trying to game the system. When modern conservatives talk about drug testing welfare recipients, they aren’t talking about testing middle class White people, that much is for sure.

It’s clear that the Tonys of the world are never going to come around. They’re lost in the abyss that has become the morally bankrupt conservative movement. But what we, as Americans, need to do is to refine this idea that big government is bad. As Barack Obama said in his speech, America hit its apex in the postwar years largely due to successful government programs that gave those returning from war access to education, employment, and housing. Government, when in the hands of Democrats, can actually serve the common good as it was intended to do. Those like Tony won’t realize it, but millions of Americans, especially those from low-income communities, can benefit from sound, well-thought-out governmental policies. In order to take back the narrative, Democrats can and should toot their own horn with everything that they’ve helped accomplish while Republicans have sat on the sidelines. In the end, it is Democrats who should hammer home the fact that the programs they’ve created have helped tens of millions of people and they should have a simple, four word message to voters when talking about the country’s current prosperity out on the campaign trail:

We. Did. Build. That.

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