Feeling conflicted about celebrating Independence Day and honoring America’s founders this year? Take a few minutes to read this excerpt from Whose Freedom, one of the enduring works of thinker and linguist George Lakoff, one of the best strategists and guides that the progressive movement has ever had.
Chapter Five | Progressive Freedom: The Basics
What I am calling progressive freedom is simply freedom in the American tradition — the understanding of freedom that I grew up with and have always loved about my country. America has always been a progressive country, and the progressive ideal of freedom has been cherished, defended, and extended over more than two centuries. What contemporary conservatives call freedom, as we shall see, is a radical departure and threatens freedom as we have known it.
Progressive freedom is dynamic freedom.
Freedom is realized not just in stasis, or at a single moment in history, but in its expansion over a long time. You cannot look only at the Founding Fathers and stop there. If you do, it sounds as if they were hypocrites: They talked liberty but permitted slavery; they talked democracy but allowed only white male property owners to vote.
But from a dynamic progressive perspective, the great ideas were expandable freedoms: expanding civil rights, voting rights, property rights, tolerance, education, science, public health, workers’ rights, protected parkland, and the infrastructure for progressive freedom — the banking system, court system, transportation system, communication system, university system, scientific research system, social services system, and all the other aspects of the common good that we use our common wealth for.
Expanding and deepening the ideas of the Founding Fathers is what dynamic progressive freedom is about.
Progressives don’t look backward to before these freedoms were extended to some ‘original’ nascent idea frozen in time, and they don’t work to reverse these freedoms as radical conservatives do.
As times change, freedoms must expand — or they will contract. Freedom doesn’t stand still. Radical conservatives are not going away. If progressives do not keep expanding American freedoms, radical conservatives will contract them.
— George Lakoff (Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea, originally published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
For hundreds of years, progressives in every era of American history have worked to expand freedom. Over the course of decades and centuries, for example, suffrage has been expanded to allow more and more Americans to vote. This progress didn’t happen all at once; it happened in stages. It was hard-fought.
Even in 2020, we have not achieved universal suffrage. But we’re working on it.
The idea that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights is an idea worth celebrating. The people who talked about these ideas in 1776 (including the Declaration of Independence’s authors) may not have been thinking of Black people or Indigenous people or people of color when they wrote those words. But we can: because the progressive concept of freedom is a dynamic one. As Dr. Lakoff said: “As times change, freedoms must expand — or they will contract. Freedom doesn’t stand still.” It is our job as progressives to expand our country’s freedoms, or else our opposition will contract them.
Today is a great day to celebrate the work we have been doing to expand America’s freedoms and build on the ideas of the Founders. It is a testament to the work done over the last few hundred years to expand freedom in this country that we can think critically about the Founders and their shortcomings.