The savage political battle between the tea party and Progressives is much more than fodder for Fox and MSNBC. There is a deep intellectual conflict going on, and we ought to understand the ideas, even as the battle rages. It's about liberty, that most prized and abused American value.
Liberty is the touchstone of the American experience. Freedom from coercion and freedom to live as we choose drove the American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, the civil rights movement and more. An enormous gap has emerged about what liberty means today. The debate drives vastly different visions of where the country is headed. What should unite us, divides us. Unnecessarily, as it turns out. There's common ground if we want to find it.
If you're willing to listen carefully to the continuing argument, you can hear a real overlap between two contending ideas, the tea party and the Progressive versions of American liberty. The differences are not small, but could, with political skill, be accommodated. It's a debate worth having, and a convergence is possible.
The tea party version of liberty is based on the notion that government is the primary threat to liberty, the common understanding at the time of the American Revolution. Be it the king or an elected legislature, government will inexorably erode the personal freedoms each person should enjoy, sometimes through naked tyranny, sometimes by well-meaning expansion of social and political initiatives. This is the reason (or pretext) for opposition to drones, Obamacare, the NSA and food stamps. Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat, remains the apostle of small government, states rights, and suspicion of central authority. "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."
The Progressive version does not dispute the danger of government oppression. But it builds on it and recognizes that coercion and the erosion of Liberty can come from powerful private sources. At that point government becomes the friend of Liberty not its enemy. Corporate power and the ability of accumulated wealth to oppress is as powerful a danger to individual rights as the overreach of government. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, spoke to the change:
"The history of liberty was the history of the limitation of governmental power. This is true as an academic statement of history in the past. [It is actually] the liberty of some great trust magnate to do that which he is not entitled to do. We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. We stand for the limitation of his liberty not to oppress those who are weaker than himself."
It seems inarguable to me that coercion is coercion, whether its instrumentality is government or private power. My liberty is endangered when the NSA spies on me. It is equally endangered when Google collects information and sells it to strangers. My freedom and liberty are eroded when I have no access to health care, or education, or food. And when private corporations use their wealth to dominate the political process, individual liberty vanishes.
But that's me. There are others who see American liberty in its more narrow, pre-Roosevelt version. And in many specifics there is agreement across the tea party-Progressive divide. Left and right could agree today on ways of limiting NSA intrusions on liberty, for example. The barriers are political, so that Rand Paul gets hammered within the Republican Party when he reaches out for new kinds of support in the drone/NSA struggle, and Justice Ruth Ginsburg gets hammered when ruling against physical barriers to anti-abortion speech.
These kind of barriers to a broader liberty-inspired coalition are real. The Supreme Court's insistence on giving corporations the same liberty protections as given to breathing human beings will continue to distort practical politics until it reverses course. Social reactionaries on the right are uncomfortable with the liberty rights involving sex and reproduction. There's too much comfort on the left with liberty restrictions on speech offensive to specific groups.
But there's a real political opportunity to find the common ground and build on it. We don't need to settle out the liberty implications of Obamacare or abortion to begin the process of protecting liberty from government intrusion (NSA warrentless wiretaps) or corporate intrusion (Citizens United). Rand Paul or Hillary Clinton or somesuch will eventually find a way to offer us a political strategy to protect the quintessential American value. Better sooner than later.