How we view ourselves individually and as a nation often comes down to one idea, freedom. Freedom, the central term in our politics, is embedded in our history and our language. It is used interchangeably with liberty in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet it remains a subject of debates and dissents.
The history of the republic can be told as a narrative about expanding freedoms to include more and more people. The chief vehicle for this came first in the form of amendments to the Constitution. The first ten Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, guarantee civil liberties. Subsequent amendments ended slavery, defined citizenship, and extended the franchise to blacks, women and 18 year olds.
Women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, and others have struggled to deepen and transform the definition of freedom. Over the past generation, some real strides have been made in reducing disparities based on race and sex. Women and minorities have gained greater access in the areas of employment, politics, education, and athletics. In 1998, an amendment to the Iowa constitution added women to the equal rights under the law provision.
On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in a landmark ruling. The states can no longer deny gay men and lesbians the same marriage rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. This victory reflected growing public support for marriage equality. In 2009, Iowa became only the third state in the union to give same-sex couples the right to marry in a unanimous ruling of the state’s Supreme Court.
Belief in freedom as a right of all humanity has coexisted with persistent efforts to limit freedom by race, gender, class and in other ways. Limiting freedom has a long history in our country. Slaves, immigrants, the poor, and others have been deprived of liberty. The meaning of freedom has been constructed at various levels, in congressional debates, in political essays, on picket lines, and even in bedrooms.
Since 2009, Republicans have orchestrated a series of voter suppression laws in states they control. The laws supposedly prevent voter impersonation fraud, a largely non-existent problem. Several states require government-issued photo IDs—like drivers’ licenses—to vote. This disenfranchises those who do not own a car as well elderly and disabled non-drivers. Other measures include restricting early voting, eliminating same-day registration, and shortening polling hours. The new rules limit the voting rights and electoral power of Democratic leaning constituencies, blacks, Hispanics, lower income people, the poor, and college students. Several states gerrymander districts to reduce the political power of minorities and Democrats, and thereby guarantee Republican control in Congress.
In the 1970s, freedom as a political category became the appropriated domain of conservatives. The adherents of this ideology care little for the common good and public welfare or shared sacrifice and mutual responsibility. Rather they worship the “free market” and define government as intrusive and overreaching. Thus freedom, to them, became a matter of unrestrained individualism, not social citizenship.
Today, the idea of freedom continues to circumscribe our culture and politics. Freedom’s meanings remain vigorously contested. The debates will continue and new definitions will emerge. Rather than a fixed category or concept, then, conflicts over freedom have become an essential part of our democratic tradition.
The promise of American freedom leaves no one out. Securing American freedom for all, moreover, remains an ongoing struggle. We live in an age of impermanence and instability which requires courage and steadfastness in protecting our civil liberties.
June 30, 2016