The Republican party wants to be known as the party of freedom. Beginning with Reagan, modern Republicans latched on to the rhetoric of “freedom” in the 80s, positioning themselves as the only protection against Governmental overreach. According to research by FiveThirtyEight, Republicans in 2012 were four times more likely than Democrats to use the word “freedom” in their party platform. Today, the most extreme conservative coalition in Congress bills itself as “The Freedom Caucus.”
These decades of branding seem to have been effective. A July 2021 poll of nearly 4,000 registered voters found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to use the word “freedom” when describing their party. Liberals may even avoid using the word “freedom,” apparently out of fear of its conservative implications.
Now, as Democrats double-down on vaccine and mask mandates at both state and federal levels, Conservatives across the country are returning to the familiar language of freedom to push back against the perceived infringement on their rights. But liberals may be surprised by the specific phrases anti-mandate advocates have adopted.
I recently stumbled upon a protest in downtown San Francisco. A crowd had gathered outside City Hall. The protesters, made up mostly of middle-aged white women, eagerly distributed pamphlets and gluten-free cookies to anyone who would listen. Their signs held familiar slogans: “My Body, My Choice,” “Coercion Is Not Consent,” and “Trust the Science.” To a naive onlooker, you may think you had walked into a feminist rally. But this was no Women’s March. The protesters were there to counter a new mandate requiring city employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The use of popular pro-choice slogans to advocate on behalf of another issue of bodily autonomy was, of course, an intentional attempt to “trigger the libs” into confronting what the protesters perceive as ideologically hypocrisy. If it’s “my body, my choice” when it comes to abortion, then why not when it comes to vaccines?
It’s a decent argument, and one that many pro-mandate liberals probably don’t have a well-considered answer for.
But anti-mandate conservatives miss the mark in one very important way: the hypocrisy of claiming to support freedom and bodily autonomy in one arena while not in another is clear as day among their own ranks, as well.
I can already hear the argument: But it’s not your body, abortion is taking the life of another person. What about their choice?
Liberals make much the same argument for vaccine and mask mandates: If you want to catch COVID and die, that’s your choice. But masks/vaccines are about protecting others. You don’t have a right to hurt others.
There are other differences between these two issues, but the steel-manned versions of talking points on either side are largely the same. At the end of the day, neither Democrats nor Republicans are truly the party of bodily autonomy and choice without coercion — but only one of them claims to be the party of freedom.
Governor Greg Abbot of Texas, the state which became my home in 2019, loves freedom. Or, at least he loves to talk about it.
In 2020, Abbot claimed on Twitter that, in Texas, “We believe in less government & more individual freedom.”
On May 28, he tweeted that Texas is the “#1 state in America that our fellow Americans choose to move to,” citing, among other reasons, the state’s supposedly “unmatched” “freedom & entrepreneurial spirit.”
The Governor’s website lists establishing a “Freer Texas” a key initiative of the administration, stating:
“Whether you’re a newcomer to our state or your family has been here for generations, we all unite around the ideals of freedom and personal liberty. This Legislative Session, we have a duty to keep Texas the freedom capital of America.”
Back in March, Abbott boldly stated that he was working to ensure that “all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.”
Of course, in Texas, determining the destiny of your own family doesn’t mean freedom to choose whether or not to have another child or if you even want to start a family in the first place.
The nation was appalled (despite years of warning) to wake up on September 1 and realize the most draconian anti-abortion law in the nation had gone into effect in Texas. The law is cleverly designed to avoid Constitutional challenges by deputizing citizens, and awarding a $10,000 bounty to anyone who successfully sues an abortion provider (or someone who’s aided an abortion) in civil court.
For a party that views Communism as the ultimate evil, the method of control implemented by the new Texas heartbeat ban is remarkably similar to how communist regimes just as Maoist China and today’s North Korea encourage neighbors to snitch on one another for their own protection.
In her memoir, In Order to Live, North Korean defector Yeonmi Park describes how children were taught from a young age that “even the birds and mice can hear you whisper.”
“Spies were everywhere, listening at the windows and watching in the school yard. We all belonged to inminban, or neighborhood ‘people’s units,’ and we were ordered to inform on anyone who said the wrong thing. We lived in fear, and almost everyone — my mother included — had a personal experience that demonstrated the dangers of talking.”
Turning the citizens against each other out of fear or to protect themselves (including financially) is a staple of fascist regimes. According to Patrick Bergemann, author of the book Judge Thy Neighbor: Denunciations in the Spanish Inquisition, Romanov Russia, and Nazi Germany, positive incentives to illicit the reporting of information have been a historically effective tool. But even without positive incentives or coercion, “denunciations are often motivated by personal resentments and grudges.”
Today in Texas, the self-proclaimed “freedom capitol of America,” citizens are living in a state that models its laws after communist China, where citizen informants can receive mobile rewards for using an app to snitch on each other. In China, however, the memory of Mao’s Cultural Revolution looms near, discouraging people from resorting to such denunciations again.
Meanwhile, across the very border Abbott is obsessed with policing, Mexican women now enjoy more freedom than Texans when it comes to abortion. Paula Avila-Guillen, Executive Director of Women’s Equality Center questioned if “the safest way for Texas women to have access to a safe, legal abortion” would be for them to “make their way to Mexico?” Elvia Diaz points out the irony in AZ Central, writing:
“How ironic that the pro-life folks – often the same ones raging against border-crossers seeking a better and safer life in America – could now be forcing Texas women to flock to Mexico to end their pregnancy.”
The hypocrisy of enacting a law with the sole purpose of forcing religious morality on the citizens while simultaneously claiming that “The First Amendment right to freedom of religion shall never be infringed” is also, apparently, lost on Abbot.
As the American Democratic establishment slides further and further away from traditionally liberal values such as opposing censorship and supporting individual liberties, the Republican party has the chance to live up to its promise of being the party of freedom.
Instead, facing what the AP describes as “increasingly dire demographic threats to their party’s dominance,” Texas Republicans are leaning into religious extremism, Trumpian rhetoric, voter suppression, and state censorship to squash the looming blue tide.
Hypocrisy permeates every side of this debate, and the Democrats are hardly blameless. But one thing is certain: the Republican dream of Texas as a bastion for freedom is nothing but a cruel farce, and women are the butt of the joke.