‘Tis the season for politics, once again, in the United States of America. And while some surprising new topics, like the size of candidates’ hands, have cropped up in this cycle, some of the mainstays of American political rhetoric are also at the rendez-vous.
Take Donald Trump, for instance.
In January, one of his campaign rallies featured the following performance:
While it features somewhat dated nationalist lyrics (including verses like “Come on boys, take them down!”), slightly updated for promoting Mr. Trump’s bid in the 2016 presidential contest, it also highlights a theme that is about as central to American political rhetoric as apple pie is to American cooking: freedom.
Whether freedom has been invoked as an empty rhetorical trope, as in this case, or whether it has been used more substantitvely, it has so completely permeated electoral discourse as to become inescapable.
Whether they have talked about government regulation, trade, national security, tax reform, education, abortion, or immigration, freedom has been Republican candidates’ preferred frame of reference.
Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been quite as single-minded. While Clinton has spent a great deal of her time trying to square away her commitments to free trade and to an equalitarian progressive politics, Sanders has explained his commitment to democratic socialism as meaning “that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” “True freedom” according to Sanders, “does not occur without economic security. People are not free, they are not truly free, when they are unable to feed their family.”
And yet, these invocations are largely based on outdated conceptions of what freedom is. The idea at the back of Sanders’ viewpoint, that economic independence is the necessary precondition for democratic citizenship harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the yeoman farmer, as historian Eric Foner was already noting in his book, The History of American Freedom. And as sociologists have been observing since the 1950s, such an ideal of economic independence is woefully inadequate to the corporate economy in which we live.
But it is just as true that the thesis that deregulation of international trade or of the labor market will result in greater individual freedom is based on the idea, first defended by classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, that government power threatens individual liberty. Mill’s disciples in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that the crux of liberal freedom consists in the absence of coercion of the individual, either by private monopolies or by government power, so that the smaller the size of the government is and the less active it is in citizens’ lives, the greater will their freedom be.
But as early as the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram actually found, in a series of now famous experiments, that most people do not need to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do, including engaging in actions which they are convinced will most likely result in the death of an innocent person: they will do these things of their own free will – a situation that suggests that “free will” and freedom may not be the same things after all.
In fact, a growing body of evidence has been produced in the human sciences over the past 40 years that suggests that the notion of a free-willing individual, who can make decisions independently of social and cultural contexts is a figment of our imagination. What this research reveals is that it is not the absence of context that enables individuals to act freely (whether it be the absence of a monopoly or the absence of a state bureaucracy), but on the contrary the presence of one.
This scientific research reveals several very surprising things about human nature that directly contradict the vision of human beings as rational, egoistic individuals, driven by an unquenchable lust for pleasure, money, or power, which we inherited from classical liberalism. The most recent of the great apes, it turns out, is a hypersocial being, whose subjective experience of the world is profoundly shaped by its empathetic openness to others, an openness that is not premised on any sort of fundamental or primitive goodness, but rather on the evolutionary mechanics of communication. Social psychologists, for instance, have discovered that in order to understand what someone else is saying we have to imitate the motion of their vocal chords (though in a much reduced fashion). We have to, in other words, become them. Neuroscientists have also found a specific type of neuron which corresponds to this process in the brain itself, the so-called “mirror neuron.”
Our identities, and therefore our desires, are profoundly affected by our cultural, social, and political contexts. To be free thus necessitates participating in the formation of the communicational contexts that affects and form us all. Freedom requires not only the freedom of expression cherished by classical liberals, but a certain freedom of connection – the power to shape the contexts in which this free expression happens. The freedom of choice advocated by classical liberals and their twentieth century followers confuses the fruit of freedom, the will, with its root. Likewise, those social liberals and socialists who emphasize economic independence while ignoring the other complex dimensions and processes involved in the creation of a free personality seem to be missing a significant component of the reality of the process of freedom.
This conception of freedom, if we examine it closely, suggests that democracy is not just a matter of elections or of constitutional rights (though it undoubtedly includes those concerns). Nor is the issue that of how “big” government bureaucracy will be. More fundamentally, political freedom consists in individuals and communities having the power to mutually affect each other and form each other. Democracy, understood from this perspective becomes a way of life rather than a formal mode of government, one that has consequences not only for the way in which ownership of the media of mass communication is organized for instance (a frequent complaint of the Sanders campaign is that this ownership structure is creating a bias in its coverage of politics), but also for every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the bedroom, its fundamental principle being “equality of participation.” The aim of a “politics of freedom” in this context would be neither decreased regulation of the economy or increased government intervention but the creation of increased opportunities for participation by all members of society in both economic and political decision-making, regardless of their wealth or income level. Beyond the public funding of elections, one might imagine this agenda including decreased mediation of the mechanisms of political representation. Currently, for instance, the average ratio of representatives to represented in the US House of Representatives is something like 1: 290,000, making it extremely difficult for any but the most powerful interests to gain a hearing, regardless of the way elections are funded. And yet, there seem to be few technical impediments to cutting that ratio in half for instance. Any number of other reforms could be proposed that would enable greater citizen participation in the polity, from making congressional office-holders into recallable delegates in order to increase accountability, to instituting worker and consumer co-management councils in private corporations, legally entitled to raise concerns about the social and environmental consequences of business policies (corporations being legal entities to begin with, there seems to be little weight in the argument that this would be “undue government interference”).
Now, wouldn’t the transformation of everyday life from the standpoint of such a principle of “equality of participation” be the basis for a genuine “political revolution”?