Gavin Newsom's campaign to reframe - and reclaim - freedom

A war of words over the most important idea in American politics

Gavin Newsom's campaign to reframe - and reclaim - freedom
Photo by Drei Kubik on Unsplash
If liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock on progress in America

— “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” 1996

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These words, written when Bill Clinton was president, have regrettably come true. Even as far back as three decades ago, it was clear that Republicans were intent on repealing things like abortion rights, as they have now succeeded in doing for tens of millions of women.

All of us know that this project to undo progress won’t stop there. Today’s Republican Party has devolved into an overtly authoritarian force. Its goal: to impose its twisted version of morality on every aspect of our lives. As laid out in “Moral Politics” nearly three decades ago, their moral worldview is a hierarchical structure that serves the interests of the long-held status quo.

The main goal of “conservatism” has always been the conservation of patriarchy and racism to preserve dominant social status for the wealthy, the white, the male, the Christian, etc. In the Trump era, Republicans have made it clear that they will no longer let elections stand in the way of getting what they want. As they see it, there is no wrong way to achieve what they believe to be right.

The ends justify the means when you are “right.”

It’s hard to defeat such an incisive and organized belief system with lists of policies, but this is essentially what Democrats have long tried to do. There have been some bright exceptions, like Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. For the most part, however, Democrats have consistently allowed Republicans to win the framing war. (A subject on which Dr. Lakoff has written several books…)

In 2022, at least one Democratic leader appears to grasp this failure, and he’s trying to do something about it. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has gained national attention over the past few weeks for his efforts to push Democrats to sharpen their communications efforts and reframe the debate. In ads, tweets and media appearances, Newsom has launched a one-man campaign to rally Democrats in defense of freedom.

“Freedom is under attack in your state,” said Newsom in an advertisement that ran on Fox News in the state of Florida. “Republican leaders — they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors. I urge all of you to join the fight, or join us in California, where we still believe in freedom.”

Newsom has also sought to reframe the meaning of the phrase “pro-life,” arguing that a true pro-life agenda would support things like healthcare, expanded education, gun safety protections and policies to reduce pollution and fight climate change.

“Spare me their mantra on being pro-life,” Newsom said of Republican states rushing to make abortion illegal. “They don't deserve that status.”

On Friday, Newsom unveiled a new ad campaign, this one targeting the state of Texas. The ads frame gun protection laws as “pro life” and blast Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for supporting abortion restrictions that endanger lives.

“If Texas can ban abortion and endanger lives, California can ban deadly weapons of war and save lives. If Governor Abbott truly wants to protect the right to life, we urge him to follow California’s lead,” the ads read.

Newsom’s communications campaign has led to speculation that he may run for president. Such speculation aside, it’s refreshing to see a Democratic leader finally try to proactively reframe the debate. At a time when the Republican Party has made it clear that they its members do not consider democracy and freedom as permanent features of life in the United States, it’s important to say that.

Freedom is the most crucial idea in America. We all cherish and support freedom, yet the very meaning of the word is disputed. Freedom means different things to different people, depending on their moral worldview. Over time, our definition of freedom has been expanded to include a greater number of people, and our freedoms have expanded in a progressive direction. We have seen an expansion of citizen participation and voter rights, the expansion of opportunity, the expansion of worker rights, and the expansion of public education. All of these have helped to expand freedom for a greater number of Americans.

What radical Republicans aim to do is reverse many of these hard-won gains and go back to the time before these progressive freedoms were established. They want to conserve their own distorted version of freedom — a “freedom” that does not include many of the freedoms that have been expanded over the past centuries to include more people and more situations. They want to undo voting rights, worker protections, civil rights and environmental protections — all essential to modern American freedom. Their successful effort to undo Roe v. Wade after decades of trying attests to their zeal for rolling back women’s freedom.

“Freedom defines what America is — and it is now up for grabs. The radical right is in the process of redefining the very idea. To lose freedom is a terrible thing; to lose the idea of freedom is even worse.”

— “Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea,” 2006

So, what can be done? First, Democrats must do a better job of speaking openly about what’s at stake: freedom. That’s what Newsom is trying to do.

For decades, radical Republicans have sought to lay claim to the words “freedom” and “liberty” by constantly applying them to Republican ideas policies. Rarely have Democrats competed to define these terms, despite the fact that they are crucial to American political thought.

And so we now live in a time when our very freedoms are at stake, thanks to longstanding Republican efforts to roll back the clock on democracy and freedom.

Newsom has the right idea, but it will take more than one governor to reframe the debate after decades of failure by the Democratic establishment.

Remember: This is not about buzz words or slogans. It’s no mere “messaging problem.” It’s about exercising a basic effort to define the ideas and values that unite most Americans, and it’s about clearly saying how those ideas and values are threatened by Republican authoritarianism.

Further readings:

Gavin Newsom: ‘Florida Freedom,’ Washington Post, 2022

Whose Freedom?’ by George Lakoff, New York Times, 2006

‘Freedom’ Means Something Different to Liberals and Conservatives. Here’s How the Definition Split—And Why That Still Matters, by Annelien de Dijn, Time Magazine, 2020

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