In an opinion piece recently published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House press secretary for Donald Trump and now emerging Arkansas gubernatorial candidate, spoke about the COVID-19 vaccination debate and recycled Republican ideological ideals.
She reversed course like many Republicans lately to encourage Americans to vaccinate, and relied on revisionist historical rhetoric to elevate Donald Trump as the great vaccineer protecting America’s health, blaming Democrats and experts public health to undermine vaccination efforts. Still, in the name of “freedom,” she stopped asking for mandatory vaccinations and wrote:
I believe in freedom and personal responsibility. Arcansans should not be told that they cannot work because their businesses or jobs are not strictly necessary. Our schools or churches should not be closed. Large gatherings should not be banned. There should be no restrictions on getting vaccinated or wearing masks.
She underscored this understanding of “freedom and personal responsibility” in an appearance on Fox News, in which she described these principles – as she skewed them – as “the most important cornerstones of our country”.
I describe Sanders’ calling and portrayal of the principles of freedom and personal responsibility as distorted, especially when they are “cornerstones.” . . of our country ”precisely because they deviate so severely and wrongly, so destructively from what our founders envisioned as the cornerstone of the American Republican project they undertook.
While we can discuss the soundness of politics as well as the mendacity and contradictions of Republican positions all day, Sanders’ grotesque misrepresentation of how our founders defined freedom and personal responsibility to forge a government and society is not sharp to discuss demarcated from the monarchical rule of authoritarian England.
While Sanders sees “freedom” as a kind of personal freedom to do what one pleases, regardless of its effects or consequences for the larger social whole or the individuals with whom one lives in social relationships, the founders conceptualized freedom as a social one Mission, a social obligation whose main aim was to serve the public good rather than narrow private interests.
As noted historian of the making of our nation, Gordon Wood, put the case in his seminal work The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:
The sacrifice of individual interests for the good of the whole formed the essence of republicanism and understood for the Americans the idealistic goal of their revolution.
The way Wood records the thoughts and events of the revolutionary era in which the American republic was created, freedom was not a mere license to pursue one’s interests at will, but rather a challenge to restrain one’s personal passions and act virtuously to cultivate the public well. Personal responsibility for the citizens of the republic meant less responsibility for their own well-being than for the common good, the community.
Indeed, Woods’ Chronicle generously contains the voices of the time and gives us the taste and character of what freedom and personal responsibility meant at that founding moment:
“A citizen,” wrote Samuel Adams, “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”
“Every man in a republic,” said Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Philadelphia citizen leader, “is public property. His time and his talents – his youth – his masculinity – his age, yes his life all belong to his country. “
The word republic, “said Thomas Paine,” means the common good or the good of the whole. . . “
Quoting more voices at the time, Wood writes:
True freedom was “natural freedom so restricted that society becomes one big family; where everyone has to question the happiness of his neighbor and his own. ”In a republic,“ each individual gives up all private interests that are not compatible with the common good, the interests of the whole body ”.
In 1782, after the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote: “We are really a different people now.”
What Paine meant in part was that the new Republican form of government required a new and different kind of person, a new kind of citizen. People were used to being subjects of the Crown, ruled monarchically through fear and violence. The young republic, which is committed to freedom, was faced with the challenge of reconciling freedom and a kind of government. As Wood noted, it would not be enough to repeat Paine and simply change the structure and essence of authority to change government: “The people themselves,” he wrote, trying to capture the mood and urgency of the time, “must also change ”. . “
In short, the preservation of the Republic, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, really depended on the people, on the behavior of the individual. Indeed, the central guiding principle of the new republic became the so-called “public virtue,” which referred to the value and conduct of placing the public good above personal greed or interests.
If that political premise sounds skimpy, it’s because it is. Wood describes it this way: “A republic was such a delicate polity precisely because it required an extraordinary moral character from the people.”
We see nothing less than an attack on the moral character of the nation in the attitudes and behaviors of the likes of Sanders and the Republican Party as a whole.
And the ruling ideology here is actually central to conservative political tradition and, more broadly, neoliberal politics and economics, which reject the concept of public good as a whole and only advocate private interests there, a position best suggested by Margaret Thatcher in a 1987 interview in which she said, “There is no society, there are only individual men and women.”
It’s no wonder the nation has been so challenged in dealing with social crises like COVID-19, climate change, racism and economic inequality – choose from these and many others. One of our major political parties and ideological suppliers doesn’t even believe in society, so how can crises be social and warrant a social response?
The Republicans ‘concept of freedom is the license to be socially irresponsible and to undermine the founders’ mission to build a truly free society based on the appreciation of the public good.
It is no wonder America is increasingly leaning towards authoritarianism and democracy seems to be eroding under “Republican leadership”.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a Chicago state university. A longtime progressive voice, he has published many scholarly and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association .