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Beware of the false freedoms undermining our democracy


(May 3, 2017) — More than 150 years ago in his “Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The words still ring today. But in 2017, does our democracy really benefit “the people?”

The evidence says it does not. Economic inequality is at its highest level since the Gilded Age of the 1890s. Workers’ share of business profit is at its lowest point since records were first kept in the late 1940s. Everything from our legal system to our tax laws is designed to benefit the wealthy.  And apparently worried that economic disparity is not sufficient to strip the people of their democracy, more than 20 states have either enacted or are contemplating voter suppression laws.

So how did we get in this pickle?

It would be nice to put all of the blame for our weakened democracy on someone else, but much of the answer can be found in the mirror.

Confusing unfettered freedom with democracy, blinded by the glitter of all those liberties we believe should be ours as a natural right, we’ve allowed ourselves to be big-time suckered.

Make no mistake. Democracy’s enemies know how to use our addiction to personal freedom against us. In every press release or television appearance they shout “freedom” and “choice,” casting themselves as freedom’s champion, but instead offering ultimately empty substitutes for the democracy Lincoln’s words defined and promised.

Don’t believe it?

Do you think it’s an accident the most conservative wing of Congress calls itself the “Freedom Caucus?”

Or that opponents of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) say people should be free to choose their own insurance or none at all?

Or that so-called right-to-work states base their appeal on the freedom they’re providing for workers to join a union or not?

Of course, in practice these “freedoms” translate into virtually unlimited freedom for insurance companies to charge what they wish and for employers to pay workers as little as they want.

And it doesn’t end there.

That faux freedom menu the enemies of democracy present goes far beyond medical insurance “choice” and the “right” to work. It serves up everything from school “choice,” an initiative that busts unions and moves public money into private or religious hands, to the opportunity to choose your own individual retirement plan, each an inevitably poor cousin of the defined benefit pensions corporations have abandoned — and for a tasty dessert, how about a variety of freedoms to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or gender.

These are all fake freedoms, designed to drive wedges between us. The anti-democratic interests eagerly promote any freedom that divides customer from customer, worker from worker or one element of society from another, because by doing so they isolate and weaken us, making us easy prey.

Looked at from the other side, why would the anti-democratic forces so hate established government insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and the imperfect but fixable ACA?

They criticize them by saying the mandates that make these programs work fly in the face of the freedom the anti-democrats pretend to love. These social programs don’t offer the magic of “choice,” they complain, as if having a choice between terrible alternatives would solve any problem at all.

But behind the rhetoric, their real objection to these mandated programs is their massive success, a success due the way they band everyone together into a vast community that benefits all, not just the few. That is precisely the kind of government for the people the so-called Freedom Caucus and their brethren don’t like.

Social Security and Medicare represent the ripe fruit of government that works for the people. They arise from the same democratic impulses that give us workers’ unions and cooperatively owned and managed businesses, two other social arrangements the enemies of people-centered democracy love to hate.

Well known for his homey wisdom, I’m sure Lincoln knew that old saw about gift horses and mouths. The advice to look carefully before we buy anything certainly applies to the siren call of the fraudulent freedoms we’re offered in democracy’s place.

No matter how attractive they might appear, no matter how sweet their smell or narcotic their effect, if we continue to grasp at every false freedom advertised by the shady corporate shills who appear on our televisions or pose as our leaders, we’re undermining the very foundation of the government by and for the people we thought we had and said we loved.

Ken Winkes is a retired teacher and high school principal.

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