Our Brand is “Freedom”

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage in the coming months, it’s clear that gays and lesbians in America will inevitably enjoy complete spousal rights.  The arc of the country’s history bends towards the full enfranchisement of one and all.  Equality is a truth we hold to be self-evident—eventually.

Conservatives deserve little credit for our ever-broadening moral horizon.  Indeed, the political right, despite its Orwellian embrace of “freedom,” has consistently worked to deny fundamental rights to one minority after the next, the latest of which includes gays and lesbians.  Catholics, Jews, women, and, of course, blacks, among many others, all faced reactionary hate and oppressive discrimination.  Latinos, or “wetbacks” in the vernacular of Republican congressman Don Young of Alaska, have long been and continue to be subjected to transparent right wing intolerance, which animates the current debate over immigration reform.

If freedom as understood by many conservatives means protecting the prerogatives of the white male establishment, it’s also about protecting the interests of America’s biggest companies, a responsibility the right assumes with particular gusto. The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki lays out the breadth of one form of this protection: corporate welfare.  There are billions of dollars for energy companies; billions for the telecom industry; and billions more for agribusinesses and the pharmaceutical industry, and much, much more.  According to the Cato Institute, the total cost of corporate welfare in fiscal year 2012 exceeded $100 billion.

In addition to being expensive, such giveaways are an affront to free markets, which rely on genuine and not rigged competition to produce outcomes that maximize consumer welfare.  They also threaten the republic.  As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson explain in Why Nations Fail, countries with mutually reinforcing “extractive” political and economic institutions that concentrate power eventually destroy themselves.  No matter.  Better to mindlessly repeat the mantra of economic freedom than actually practice it.  “We are the party of maximum economic freedom and the prosperity freedom makes possible,” last year’s Republican Party platform proclaimed.

While the right does champion freedom for the affluent few, those fabled “makers” whose ingenuity and know-how deserves the undying gratitude of us lesser beings, for the rest of us it’s serfdom.  Consider: conservative lawmakers were willing to risk the catastrophic consequences of a US credit default—spiking interest rates, falling stock market, declining currency, etc.—rather than agree to tax hikes on the wealthy, including the 400 richest Americans whose net worth roughly equals that of their poorest 150 million countrymen.  Yet, the same lawmakers were happy to let expire a two-year payroll tax holiday of particular benefit to the working class whose real incomes have been flat or falling for decades.

Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson correctly observes: “the modern GOP has undergone a radical transformation, reorganizing itself around a grotesque proposition: that the wealthy should grow wealthier still, whatever the consequences for the rest of us…Modern-day Republicans have become, quite simply, the Party of the One Percent–the Party of the Rich.”

The right’s traditional disdain for so many Americans—the poor, minorities, etc.—is mirrored by its callous disregard for many beyond our country’s shores.  So it is that George W. Bush may have rhapsodized about freedom being “God’s gift to humanity,” but his “Freedom Agenda” to deliver the Almighty’s grace around the world (at the point of a bayonet) was as insincere as conservatives’ commitment to real freedom at home.

The Iraq War demonstrated as much.  The fate of the long-suffering Iraqis was held up as a key justification for deposing Saddam in 2003, but when the country dissolved into civil war after the invasion, a “stuff happens” nonchalance set in among the same people whose hearts once supposedly bled for Iraq’s people.  Ten years on, and well over one hundred thousand Iraqi lives later, one of the most adamant war’s backers, Ambassador John Bolton, casually admits that war had nothing to do bringing freedom to Iraqis after all.  “[The invasion] was never about making life better for Iraqis, but about ensuring a safer world for America and its allies,” he writes in the Guardian.

At least Bolton gets credit for his candor.  Many of the Freedom Agenda’s proponents remain defiant about its dishonest premise and recklessness.  But, then, that’s to be expected.  So much of modern conservatism is bogus.  It’s not so much an ideology as it is a brand using jingoisms and tropes to hide an ugly agenda by and for the few.  The last refuge of a scoundrel may be the flag, but his first is likely to be that ‘ole chestnut, “freedom.”

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