Why Republicans Talk About Freedom and Democrats Don’t

Freedom is so hot right now.

Freedom is so hot right now.

Freedom, as a rhetorical tool and a slogan, is politically advantageous. Since FDR presented the “Four Freedoms” in 1941, our political leaders have uttered the word a lot. That’s not a conclusion influenced by recency bias, either. Text analysis from two American scholars shows freedom is more rhetorically popular than ever. Below is a graphical representation of how often our presidents have employed the term:

5e99fa7c7You can see that after a hundred or so years of middling usage, the word’s popularity surged with US presidents in the 20th century. While in the last forty years it went through some peaks and troughs, freedom has remained a prominent political term. An infographic from the analysis highlights this really well:

We get it Ronald, you like freedom.

We get it Ronald, you like freedom.

However, it’s clear that Obama and Clinton are bucking a modern rhetorical trend. In fact, Obama is on pace to say freedom “less often than any president since Warren Harding” — who served from 1921-1923.

Why are Democrats not saying freedom as much?

The answer is rather obvious: modern conservatives have hijacked the word freedom. (I’m certainly not claiming to be the first to notice this, I merely thought it would be interesting to compile various bits of research on the subject.) Just look at FiveThirtyEight‘s analysis on political buzzwords used in Democratic and Republican campaigns dating back to 1948. The results are unsurprising:


As the anti-government wing of the GOP has grown, so has their party’s asymmetric use of freedom. Yet their fondness for the phrase was not created in a vacuum. The word’s recent unprecedented popularity stems, in large part, from their collective reaction to Obama’s presidency. To understand why their base loves hearing “freedom,” you must empathize with how Tea Partiers are feeling.

To them, Obama appears to be a revolutionary socialist, a Muslim, and a black person who wants to dramatically transform America…for the worse. He dares to “spread the wealth” in a time of increasing income inequality. More than that, in their minds, they’re watching a president marching towards a complete government takeover of health care.

To these mentally contorted Americans, Obama seems like a total threat to individual liberty and choice. He doesn’t trust you to make your own decisions. He’s malicious and conniving. He’s coming for your guns. As Newt Gingrich so eloquently put it, Obama’s secularist-socialist regime poses “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”

Will conservatives continue to say freedom?

Assuming Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2016, it will be fascinating to see whether or not the GOP will continue this conservative rhetorical trend. I suspect we might hear fewer mentions of freedom from a Trump-led Republican Party. Why? Because Trump, unlike previous GOP presidential candidates, is extremely authoritarian.

That’s not an unscientific take. That conclusion is backed up by a fascinating poll conducted by Matthew MacWilliams, where he found that “Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations” followed closely by “fear of terrorism.”

These two electoral strengths of Trump both ironically call for bold interference in the lives of individuals. While freedom (as imagined by conservatives) is a concept which celebrates “non-interference,” authoritarianism represents “an oppressive exercise of central power.” An example of Trump’s preference for authoritarianism can be illustrated through his policies towards Muslims. He has promoted government surveillance of mosques and banning Muslims from entering the country, two highly intrusive policies which take away freedom. You’d expect that given modern conservatism’s love of liberty that they’d hate these policy prescriptions. But in fact we’re finding the complete opposite. All across the country, we’re seeing that a majority of Republican voters actually support these policies which celebrate authoritarian control.

We don’t know yet if Trump’s brand of conservatism is an aberration. Freedom-loving conservatives certainly hope it is. Going forward, analyzing the rhetorical use of freedom could be an interesting way to discover whether or not Trump’s rise is indicative of a larger ideological shift in the conservative movement.

Nick Cassella

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