Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered his annual State of the State address, and the Republican took the opportunity to declare the Sunshine State the nation’s freest state.
Using the word “freedom” more than a half dozen times in his prepared remarks, the governor bragged to lawmakers, “While so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom’s vanguard.”
It was a curious boast. After all, as regular readers know, this is the same DeSantis who made it harder for Floridians to vote. And made it easier to ban books from school libraries and classrooms. And new created restrictions on the right to peaceably protest. And signed an infamous anti-LGBTQ measure described by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay“ policy.
DeSantis and Florida Republicans also approved a new abortion ban — with more restrictions on reproductive rights on the way. This is also the same GOP governor who used the power of his office to penalize a baseball team for speaking out against gun violence in a way he found ideologically unsatisfying, after threatening to penalize the Special Olympics for trying to protect its athletes during a pandemic.
“Freedom’s vanguard”? Hardly.
In fact, for a growing number of Democrats, the more Republicans take aim at Americans’ freedoms, the more important it becomes to turn the rhetorical tables and make the case to voters that DeSantis and his cohorts have it backwards. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein explained:
[T]he systematic drive by GOP state officials and the Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices to roll back seemingly long-settled civil rights and liberties, including the right to abortion, has provided Democrats with a unique opening to reverse the terms of this debate, particularly in races for state offices, where the rights battles are now centered. An array of Democratic governors and gubernatorial candidates are presenting Republicans as a threat to Americans’ freedoms.
Indeed, if it seems as if prominent Democratic voices have been referencing “freedom” more than usual lately, you’re not the only one who’s noticed.
Last weekend, for example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom aired an ad on Fox News, taking aim at DeSantis. “It’s Independence Day, so let’s talk about what’s going on in America,” the Democratic governor said in the commercial. “Freedom, it’s under attack.”
Newsom proceeded to point to DeSantis’ restrictions on free speech, voting rights, and abortion before urging Floridians not to let the Republican “take your freedom.”
He has plenty of company. At a White House event on Friday, in which President Joe Biden signed an executive order on abortion access, the Democrat declared, “We cannot allow an out-of-control Supreme Court, working in conjunction with the extremist elements of the Republican Party, to take away freedoms and our personal autonomy.”
The president added, “Extreme Republican governors, extreme Republican state legislatures, and Republican extremists in the Congress overall — all of them have not only fought to take away the right — our rights — but they’re now determined to go as far as they can.” Referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Biden went on to say, “Now the most extreme Republican governors and state legislatures have taken the court’s decision as a green light to impose some of the harshest and most restrictive laws seen in this country in a long time.”
A few hours later, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, published a tweet that read, “What’s the Democrats’ message? I hear this all the time. Simple. We are the party of freedom. Freedom to make your own health care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. Our message is our values. Freedom for all.”
Over the last couple of years, Republicans have tried to define “freedom” in a narrow way that runs counter to public health: To be free, they’ve said, is to reject mask requirements, regardless of the consequences. Much of the party has taken a similar approach to vaccines.
But the Republican-appointed justices’ ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has changed the nature of the conversation.
Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor, told The Atlantic, “It has frustrated me that Republicans love to cloak themselves in this blanket of freedom and feel as though they own it somehow, when in fact what they are selling to the people of Pennsylvania, or the American people, really isn’t freedom at all. It’s far bigger government and more control over people’s everyday lives.”
It’s a message worth keeping in mind as the 2022 election cycle unfolds.