In a recent opinion piece published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House press secretary for Donald Trump and now aspiring gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas, weighed in on the COVID-19 vaccination debate, recycling the typical Republican ideological keynotes.
Reversing course like many Republicans recently to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, she relied on a revisionist historical rhetoric to elevate Donald Trump as the great vaccinator protecting America’s health, blaming Democrats and public health experts for undermining vaccination efforts. Still, she stopped short, in the name of “freedom,” of calling for mandatory vaccinations, writing:
I believe in freedom and personal responsibility. Arkansans should not be told they can’t work because their businesses or jobs are not essential. Our schools or churches should not be shut down. Large gatherings should not be banned. There should not be mandates to get vaccinated or to wear masks.
She doubled down on this understanding of “freedom and personal responsibility” in an appearance on Fox News, in which she referred to these principles—as she distortedly understands them—as “key cornerstones, frankly, of our country.”
I refer to Sanders’ invocation and rendering of the principles of freedom and personal responsibility as distorted, especially when she identifies them as “cornerstones . . . of our country,” precisely because they depart so severely and wrong-headedly, so damagingly, from what our founders imagined as the cornerstones of the project of the American republican they undertook.
Indeed, while we can debate all day the soundness of policy, along with the mendacity and contradictions of Republican positions, what is not debatable is Sanders’ grotesque misrepresentation of how our founders defined freedom and personal responsibility in an attempt to forge a government and society sharply differentiated from the monarchical rule of authoritarian England.
While Sanders conceives of “freedom” as a some kind of personal license to do as one pleases, regardless of its impacts on or consequences for the larger social whole or the individuals with whom one lives in social relationships, the founders conceptualized freedom as a social mission, a social obligation, the chief goal of which was to serve the public good, not one’s narrow private interests.
As the noted historian of our nation’s formation, Gordon Wood, states the case in his landmark work The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:
The sacrifice of individual interests to the greater good of the whole formed the essence of republicanism and comprehended for Americans the idealistic goal of their Revolution.
Thus, as Wood chronicles the thinking and events of the revolutionary era in which the American republic was created, freedom wasn’t mere license to pursues one’s interests as one wished but rather a challenge to restrain one’s private passions and act virtuously to cultivate the public good. Personal responsibility for citizens in the republic meant not so much being responsible for one’s own welfare but for the public welfare, the commonwealth.
Indeed, Woods’ chronicle generously features the voices of the time giving us the flavor and character of what freedom and personal responsibility meant at this founding moment:
“A Citizen,” wrote Samuel Adams, “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”
“Every man in a republic, “ declared Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Philadelphia civic leader, “is public property. His time and talents—his youth—his manhood—his old age, nay more, life, all belong to his country.”
The word republic,” said Thomas Paine, “means the public good, or the good of the whole . . .”
Quoting more voices at the time, Wood writes:
True liberty was “natural liberty restrained in such manner, as to render society one great family; where everyone must consult his neighbour’s happiness, as well as his own.” In a republic, “each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body.”
Writing in 1782, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine exclaimed, “We are now really another people.”
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 force. So, the fledgling republic devoted to freedom faced the challenge of making liberty and some kind of governmental authority compatible. As Wood has noted, echoing Paine, simply transforming the structure and nature of authority, of government, would not be sufficient: “The people themselves,” he wrote, attempting to capture the sentiment and urgency of the time, “must change as well.”
In short, keeping the republic, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, really depended on people, on individual’s behavior. Indeed, the central governing principle of the new republic became what was called “public virtue,” which referred to the value and behavior of putting the public good ahead of one’s personal greed or interests.
If this political premise sounds tenuous, that’s because it is. As Wood describes it, “A republic was such a delicate polity precisely because it demanded an extraordinary moral character in the people.”
In the attitudes and behaviors of the likes of Sanders and the Republican Party as a whole, we are seeing nothing less than an assault on the nation’s moral character.
And the governing ideology here actually is central to the conservative political tradition and more broadly to neo-liberal politics and economics which dismiss the concept of the public good altogether, contending there only private interests, a position best summed up by Margaret Thatcher in a 1987 interview in which she said, “There is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women.”
It is no wonder the nation has been so challenged in addressing social crises such as the COVID-19, climate change, racism, and economic inequality—take your pick among these and many others. One of our major political parties and ideological purveyors doesn’t even believe in society, so how can a crises be social in nature and warrant a social response?
The Republicans’ concept of freedom is the license of be socially irresponsible and to undermine the founders’ mission to form a truly free society premised on valorizing the public good.
It’s no wonder America has tilted increasingly toward authoritarianism and seem democracy eroding under Republican “leadership.”
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic 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.