Republicans cornering the market on freedom and oppression

Republicans cornering the market on freedom and oppression
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“Freedom is good policy and good politics,” said Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Bipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops MORE (R-Texas) this week while addressing the supposed threat of mask mandates that might otherwise stem the spread of COVID. In recent decades, Republicans have been adept at latching onto issues that can be construed as both “good policy” and “good politics.” Because often the two are intertwined. If you can sell the public on a policy — regardless of whether it’s inherently “good” — then you have achieved both aims.

On style, the modern-day GOP’s “personal freedom” movement can be traced back, in part, to the supposedly good policy / good politics “family values” movement, which reached its apex more than a generation ago, but which is still very much with us.

Both fight on puritanical grounds.

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Family values is “code” for an imagined 1950’s TV-style Christian morality when people didn’t cheat on spouses, when no one was gay, and when certain people knew their place — and knew better not to challenge canonical hierarchies. This crusade of “rightness” leaves no wiggle room for nuance or differing opinions. Absolutism is the key to absolution.

Similarly, today’s “personal freedom” movement is code for “Make America Great Again.” Advocates seek to restore America’s revolutionary spirit. If you oppose freedom, you support tyranny. There is no wiggle room for nuance or differing opinions. American and God-given rights are intertwined and inalienable.

On substance, however, these two movements reside on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Family values proponents seek societal control. Individual responsibility is irrelevant. Plenty of their members fall short of their moral standards. That doesn’t matter. The government must do more to curb the scourge of rap music. Politicians must enact laws to discourage out-of-wedlock births. Guns on the street are sanctified, while fake guns in video games are satanic. The nation must capitulate to the most just among us, as defined by the most just within the movement. The political power they have wielded is as impressive as it is oppressive.

But personal freedom fighters in the COVID era believe individual opinions — regardless of their truth — matter more than those of experts, of politicians, or of the dying lying in hospital beds. All levels of government constitute “the swamp.” “Don’t tread on me” has devolved into “No more rules.” It is the antithesis of the state control sought by family values. It is instead a battle against society — against the essential frameworks on which civilizations are built. This is a point of anarchical pride for the personal freedom brigade, because it doesn’t matter who gets hurt, as long as it’s not them.

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Of course, many of the family values and personal freedom advocates are the same people.

They just wear different hats on different days — and for some, in different eras.

The family values contingent has splintered in recent years on a number of topics, such as drug legalization and gay marriage. Their embrace of one of the most ethically flawed presidents in generations diminished the movement further. This is not a joyous time for a group with declining membership and influence.

So it should be no surprise that from the gathering ashes of family values, a new cause has arisen. Not that personal freedom is “new,” but rarely has it been tested under such hostile conditions, as the worst global pandemic in a century is poised to become the worst in our country’s history.

Historically, America would rally to defend itself. Personal safety would be sacred. Loving thy neighbor would be second nature.

But for the family values crowd, there’s no political benefit to that approach. Instead, a 180-degree ideological turn marked the easiest path for maintaining political relevance. Better to be on the wrong side with millions of people who adore you, than to be on the right side with millions of people who don’t.

We are left with two diametrically opposed movements led by the same political party. 

Family values surfaced to combat personal freedoms. Personal freedom surfaced to upend family values. They don’t agree on much, and for a party seeking to win over a majority of the electorate, that’s the point.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.