Annelien de Dijn is Professor of Modern Political History at Utrecht University. Paul E. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Stephanie A. Martin is the Frank and Bethine Church Endowed Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. And Robert Asen is the Stephen E. Lucas Professor of Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture at the University of Wisconsin. Each is author of a recent book on freedom and democracy.
As Annelien de Dijn tells it in her Freedom: An Unruly History, the political story of the West has been written between two concepts of liberty—one democratic, the other modern. The first of these dates to ancient Greece and Rome and defines freedom in terms of democratic self-government. In this understanding, citizens are free to the degree that they are able to participate in the selection and maintenance of the laws to which their community is subject. Unlike slaves—and understood, in fact, as their political opposite—free citizens are empowered to act in the public square. They have the agency to acquire knowledge, to form opinions, to take stands, to persuade others, and perhaps thereby to assist in guiding the course of the state. Along the way, they may enjoy the satisfaction and assurance that accompany the free practice of their citizenship on equal footing with their countrymen, who enjoy that practice as well. This democratic concept of liberty was the original of Western civilization, and remained dominant across the two millennia that followed.
Its usurper is de Dijn’s second concept, with allies as ancient as Plato but without widespread purchase until the turn of the 19th century. This modern concept defines freedom in terms of non-interference from the state. For proponents of this view, citizens are free only to the degree that laws do not bind them, effectively casting government of whatever sort as the antagonist of liberty. Following the turmoil of the 18th century’s Atlantic Revolutions, especially the Terror in France, political thinkers including Benjamin Constant and Edmund Burke reacted to democratic excess by locating freedom within the private individual. Though others have traced this development to the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of market economies, de Dijn asserts that it is best understood as a counterrevolutionary riposte. The presumption that individuals must be prioritized and popular power contained has been widely touted ever since. Today its influence is carved into our increasingly undemocratic institutions.
Unsurprisingly, then, this story of long rise and short but dramatic decline follows a trajectory similar to that of rhetoric itself. Crafted by the Greeks and refined by the Romans, democratic freedom fell out of favor in Medieval Europe but bounced back during the Renaissance, found champions during the Enlightenment, and provided the vital theoretical framework for a generation of revolutionaries who were defiant of subjugation and committed to self-government. In rejecting monarchy, the architects of the United States insisted also on a degree of popular sovereignty. And in securing the franchise for (some) citizens, they built a political system in which persuasion matters, in which good ideas and rhetorical polish could wield real influence. Attractive to the rank-and-file, this model necessarily threatened the elites, who quickly set to work fortifying their institutions against the mass. Early in the 21st century, their work remains evident in gerrymandered districts, disproportionate Senate representation, the Electoral College, and the passage of state-level voting restrictions, including thirty-four new laws across nineteen states in 2021 alone. Because rhetoric and democracy are so closely linked, the deterioration of democratic freedom unavoidably presages the forfeiture of rhetorical power.
De Dijn’s narrative is clearly oriented around this sense of loss. She recalls the Atlantic Revolutions as a collective eruption of democratic potential, ultimately confounded by internal complexities and class antagonisms. If the modern conception of freedom was first animated by fears of democratic anarchy and mob rule, it was refined and popularized by continental liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville who were anxious at the plight of powerless minorities. Adopted then by Federalists and Whigs, it was made to serve primarily as a rampart around the wealthy and a check upon the rest, effectively recasting equality as a threat to liberty rather than its actualization. Challenged by radical movements including abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and labor, modern freedom was revived during the Cold War and represented by a fresh host of intellectual advocates. “Today,” de Dijn laments, “the West’s most ardent freedom fighters (who are now more likely to call themselves conservative than liberal) remain more concerned with limiting state power than with enhancing popular control over government.” Indeed, freedom now serves as “a battering ram against democracy” rather than its raison d’être.
Long and sweeping but precise and detailed, de Dijn’s account provides an illuminating backstory to the present, a compelling context in which to understand what’s happening now. In the United States and Western Europe especially, diversifying populations are altering the composition of the citizenry and so threatening the traditional, hegemonic whiteness of the power structure. In response, resurgent right-wing movements and politicians are relying on restrictive institutions to save them, and the modern conception of freedom to justify that project. By insisting that government remain small and its purview limited, by creatively sorting and containing the voters, and by challenging the legitimacy of elections themselves, the dominant agents of the American Right have worked hard to constrain democratic freedom and to secure their advantages. Over the three sections that follow, this review will consider their progress within three specific venues, applying de Dijn’s two concepts of freedom to the work of rhetorical scholars examining politics, religion, and education in the United States.
Read the whole thing in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.