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Democratic Groups Embrace 'Freedom' for Their Policy Frameworks

Democrats at the local, state and federal levels are all using freedom as a catchall, believing the value helps promote their various policy ideas.

Talking first about freedom will make voters more receptive to specific policy ideas, suggests Florida House Democratic leader Fentrice Driskell. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Democrats are using the term "freedom" as a way of talking about their policies around abortion, voting rights and other issues.

  • They believe casting ideas under this broad umbrella makes voters more receptive.

  • Protecting individual freedoms moves voters more than individual issues, says one pollster.

  • Democrats are trying to reclaim the concept of freedom. More than 80 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined his “four freedoms,” contemporary Democrats have come to believe Americans will be more receptive when ideas are wrapped up within the core value of freedom than they are to discussions of specific policy proposals served up plain.

    “We know that freedom is so fundamental as an American value that it cuts through a lot of the divisions,” says Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic leader of the Florida House. “The data show that if you can lead in communications with your values, you’re more likely to connect with a voter, even one that you may disagree with.”

    Republicans, of course, also claim the freedom banner, including ultraconservative groups in Congress and legislatures known as Freedom Caucuses. In Driskell's own state, the Florida Republican Party hosted a "freedom summit" earlier this month.

    But Democrats around the country are now embracing the term ardently and strategically. Driskell has trained her caucus to talk about the “freedom to be,” a framework for talking about policies to promote prosperity, safety and health. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Josh Shapiro made “real freedom” a hallmark of his successful campaign for governor last year.

    “Real freedom means ensuring every woman has the freedom to choose,” Shapiro posted this month on social media. “Real freedom means protecting every eligible voter’s right to make their voice heard in our democracy. Real freedom means giving every kid the freedom to chart their own course and the opportunity to succeed.”

    The New Democrat Coalition in Congress and NewDEAL, a national network of state and local elected officials, released a joint “freedom agenda” last week. The key elements of their platform are creating opportunity, strengthening community and protecting democracy.

    Throughout the document, the groups seek to cast Republicans as a threat, arguing that Democratic proposals offer Americans “freedom from” harmful GOP policies, notably restrictions on abortion. That’s become a political winner for the party.

    “Abortion might not be your top issue, but some issues are deal-breakers for voters, even if it doesn’t show up in the polls,” says Kate deGruyter, senior director of communications for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington.
    Georgia state Rep. Phil Olaleye was a winner of NewDEAL's ideas challenge with a bill that would provide state funding to school districts that serve low-income students. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)

    Reframing Democratic Ideas

    At NewDEAL’s annual leadership conference, elected officials talked about the sort of issues you’d expect to hear from Democrats – education, the economy, climate and health care, along with buzzier concerns such as artificial intelligence and misinformation.

    Talking about those issues under the broad umbrella of freedom is the right way to go, argues Mark Riddle, president of Future Majority, a Democratic group that has been promoting this rubric. “Protecting individual freedoms moves voters more than anything else,” he told NewDEAL attendees.

    Governing serves as a media partner to promote the NewDEAL's biennial policy challenge, for which we receive no compensation.

    Once you’ve established that you’re arguing in favor of freedom, it makes citizens more receptive to hearing you out on the specifics of how you intend to address a particular topic, says Driskell, the Florida House Democrat.

    “You can have a conversation around policies that, frankly, are not even really partisan, like property insurance,” she says. “If you’re a Republican or Democrat or independent, you know rates are going higher and higher, but in order to engage in that conversation, in a trustworthy way, you’ve got to lead with values.”
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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