The frenzy of ugly freedoms in anti-democratic politics threatens to overtake freedom’s meaning entirely, harnessing freedom solely to projects of exclusion, privilege and harm.
Still, today we can also see vibrant political movements and legislation reclaiming freedom as a right for all. These freedoms expand Americans’ abilities to both live a flourishing life and participate in public affairs.
This inclusive freedom sometimes takes shape in legislative acts. The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would have promoted just this type of freedom. The bills ambitiously aimed to increase voting access by making Election Day a federal holiday (thus freeing workers to get to the polls), improving voting by mail, increasing transparency in campaign finance, and expanding protections for minority voters. By making it easier for all Americans to vote, it promoted a form of freedom that expands rather than contracts democracy, as it insists that freedom means all Americans must have equal power to shape governing systems.
Yet the legislation was blocked by Republicans last month. Some of those same Republicans actively support voter suppression laws in their home states that enable partisan interference in elections and place burdens on poor and minority voters.
In January, New Jersey had a more successful reclamation of freedom with the passage of the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act. This law broadly ensures that women maintain control over reproduction and childbearing, guaranteeing this freedom before it may be lost at the federal level when the Supreme Court rules in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization this year. The act draws on the language of freedom to ensure women’s capacity to make decisions about birth control, abortion and pregnancy, promoting a form of freedom in which people determine their own futures regarding childbearing. (Unfortunately the bill, in its final iteration, did not remove cost barriers for abortion, thus making it harder for lower-income women to attain that freedom.)
To be sure, efforts to counter ugly freedoms are not limited to legislative actions. They include unionization efforts that fight for freedom in the workplace. And they extend to robust social movements that organize for Black, transgender and disability freedoms. These movements articulate a democratic language of freedom that challenge structures of privilege that allow some Americans undue power over others, and they expand citizens’ access to governing power.
The ugly freedoms in American politics today increasingly justify minority rule, prejudice and anti-democratic governance. If we don’t push back against their growing popularity, we will have ceded what freedom means to those who support monopolistic rule and furthered the country’s downward slide toward authoritarianism. Creating and supporting democratic alternatives to ugly freedom, both in legislatures and on the streets, is an urgent task for all who value equality, community health and the shared power to construct a free society that truly values all its members.
Elisabeth Anker (@LibAnkerDC) is a professor of American studies at George Washington University, the author of “Ugly Freedoms” and a co-editor of the journal Theory & Event.