Garry Sasse: Biden and Trump’s vision of freedom on the 2024 ballot

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sasse has agreed to conduct a long-form discussion about this column on In The Dugout with Mike Stenhouse. Over the next week or so, check back to this webpage for details.

by Gary Sasse. Originally published in the Providence Journal, April 27, 2024

President Joe Biden stated the central theme of his 2024 campaign will be democracy. This should come as no surprise given his opponent’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and also the ABCNews/Ipsos poll that found 76% of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Finally, the Pew Research Center recently reported that ‘fewer than two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing.’

Democracy addresses how affairs in the public sector are handled. It is a system based on voters making choices to resolve issues. American democracy has experienced rough patches and successfully navigated them. What is problematic today is that many Americans feel that their basic freedoms are being eroded. A 2022 McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University poll found that most Americans believe they have lost more personal freedom in the last 10 years than they have gained, and will continue to lose more in the future.

While democracy and freedom are used interchangeably, they are different concepts. The hallmark of a democratic government is built on voter participation regarding governance, laws and policies. Democratic decision-making can either enhance or limit freedom as the current debates over reproductive rights, school choice, gun safety, government regulation and energy policy demonstrate.

Freedom is focused on people-to-people relationships. A commentary by the Foundation for Economic Education opined, ‘Freedom means individuals may choose how to interact on a voluntary basis outside the purview of the state.’ Freedom encompasses civil liberties and economic choices. Commonly cited examples include the rights of free speech, religion, association, and the ability to own, buy and sell property. As President Ronald Reagan warned us, ‘Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction, it is not ours by way of inheritance, it must be fought for and defended.’

In a pluralistic nation neither freedom nor democracy can be absolute. The rule of law as part of a well-designed constitution is a requisite in delineating the boundaries of majority and minority rights and safeguarding both freedom and democracy.

The pollster Frank Luntz recently informed No Labels that freedom was the political idea that mattered most to voters.

Both President Biden and former President Donald Trump have a responsibility to tell voters their plans and philosophy to defend freedom.

This will not be easy because the extremes on the political left and right which influence the Democratic and Republican parties respectively place different emphasis on what freedom means in a political context.

Progressives focus on ‘freedom from’ socioeconomic insecurity and highlight equity over equality. To paraphrase the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker, many on the left see things through the lens of a binary choice between oppressors and the oppressed, or the so called ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’

The right stresses ‘freedom to’ choose as codified in the Bill of Rights. They believe that government mandates and regulations should not thwart social and economic activities, and decision-making should be closest to the individual and family.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt outlined his Four Freedoms.

Norman Rockwell’s depiction of Roosevelt’s 4 Freedoms

They included Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want (aspiration for economic security), and Freedom from Fear (protection against aggression).

Eighty-three years later Presidents Biden and Trump should articulate their visions of how their administrations will enhance and sustain our freedoms.

Americans are anxious about the further erosion of their freedoms.

The candidate who can alleviate those concerns will reap great dividends.

Gary Sasse served as executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, director of the Rhode Island departments of Administration and Revenue, and director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership.

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