Whose American Idea? Which American Idea?
What does it mean to be an American? I’d like to propose that to be an American means to be a lover of freedom, but that it’s in the defining of freedom where the real debate lies.
There certainly is a strong temptation to articulate a single idea of American identity. After all, without such a notion there will be nothing holding us together as a nation. And in a deeply polarized world, I understand the motivation to find that precious something, however small, that can make us see past our differences towards what unifies us.
In a letter to Henry Lee, for example, Thomas Jefferson identifies not just AN American mind but “the American mind,” suggesting that there is something all Americans hold in common. Likewise, in a recent interview with Stephen Hayes, Senator Ben Sasse refers to THE “American idea,” that Americans are all about entrepreneurship, principled pluralism (without a knowledge of Kuyper, I’m not sure how Americans are committed to this, but I digress), and government taking care of a few things so we can live out the meat of our lives in local communities. More than that, Sasse argues that the American idea makes a distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to,” that government’s main job is to give us freedom from outside or internal attacks so that we can have the freedom to start a business, raise our families, and coach little league.
Moreover, the great appeal of the liberal tradition going back to Hobbes, Locke, and the American framers is that it offers us a chance to finally come together over something shared: not just in our churches or families but even in our politics. A thin consensus centered around freedom and equality, to be sure, but no longer would we have to kill each other over the meaning of the good life. Keep discussions of the good life in your homes and churches and voluntary associations — politics will be about the unimportant stuff that keeps us safe, free, and equal. That’s the appeal.
But as an American historian Sasse knows well that our history does not give us such a unitary understanding of the American idea. Let me give you one example of many. In his final State of the Union Address in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt articulated a Second Bill of Rights. This Second Bill of Rights would not replace the first one but would augment it to keep pace with the modern world’s demands. Noting that “necessitous men are not free men,” he asks what good it is for a person to have free speech if he cannot put food on his table. Thus, a right to work and a good education are among the many economic and social rights that should be guaranteed for all Americans. This speech echoed the “Four Freedoms” speech from 1941, where he re-confirms the old freedoms of worship and speech but adds the freedoms from want and fear.
To return to Sasse, then, what’s curious is that you have a conservative Republican who actually seems to share the “freedom from” language of FDR. Are Sasse and FDR on the same team? Certainly not, right?
Well, it is precisely in the Second Bill of Rights and the “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” language that provides justification for New Deal programs and any future attempts to provide economic and social security through the federal government. And this, in turn, has defined the differences between the two parties in our country and provided a basis for dispute about what the American idea actually is. Certainly the size and scope of the federal government that has been wrought as a consequence of FDR’s New Deal revolution is not in step with Sasse’s own vision of government getting out of the way so we can live out the bulk of our lives in Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce meetings.
And yet, we cannot miss the genius of FDR’s vision. I repeat: “a necessitous man is not a free man.” FDR knows that the American mind and the American idea has always been and will continue to be about freedom. In their view, FDR and the Democrats are not enemies of freedom but actually its greatest champions. He simply recasts the conversation such that our freedoms cannot be ensured without significant interventions by the federal government into the affairs of the states and the lives of its citizens.
I would contend, then, that basically every political debate in American history is about the meaning of freedom. Whether the topic is economics, race, abortion, marriage, mask mandates, or gender identity, the question to be asked and answered is, what is the meaning of freedom for this dispute and how can we maximize it for those involved? However, while there may be a single American mind that repeatedly asks the same question, our history and current moment reveal that we are not of the same mind in how we answer it.