When I teach American History, this is among the questions I ask my students most often. This was especially the case on Friday, when my students wrestled with documents by Herbert Hoover, FDR, Henry Wallace, Henry Luce, and Friedrich Hayek. Each described their vision for what American society was or should be in the WWII era. At the heart of their disagreement was a fundamental question:
In the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” what kind of freedom do we really value?
I wish we raised this question more often in our political discourse, because it works wonderfully well as a framework for rancor-free discussion.
For my students, this is a useful exercise because it forces them to flex their historical empathy muscles, to try to see something from someone else’s perspective. A student who agrees with FDR still has to try to understand Hoover’s and Hayek’s concerns. Beginning with the proposition that all parties are seeking freedom – as they defined the term – removes much of the temptation toward moralizing. Instead of picking sides, students can focus on seeking out an answer to the common question. This levels the playing field, so to speak, by robbing any one historical figure of the high ground of an exclusive claim to “freedom.”
In our own political discussions, I think this would have a similar positive effect. This would be true in our personal conversations, helping us to maintain friendships by addressing common principles rather than partisan talking points. And it would be wonderful for our larger democratic process. In 1963, before the assassination, Kennedy and Goldwater had personally agreed to conduct the 1964 camaign as a series of town hall-style debates, every two-week, around the nation. Both believed that a discussion of their fundamental ideological disagreements would see their side triumph. I don’t know what the outcome would have been (or if they would have kept to the plan, but it would have been a wonderful precedent for the nation.
So, what’s your answer? What kind of freedom do you most prize? I’m eager to hear how you’d answer the question and will share some of my thoughts in the coming weeks.