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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Freedom on the Ballot

David E. DeCosse

David E. DeCosse (@DavidDeCosse) is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Among all the things on the ballot in this momentous election, I wonder if one thing Americans will in effect be voting on is which notion of freedom will prevail in the United States in the years ahead.

Perhaps no value is associated more with being an American than freedom. This year, two striking images capture the choice before voters: The freedom not to wear a mask in a viral pandemic or the freedom not to have a police officer kneel on your neck to the point of asphyxiation.

The sociologist Orlando Patterson has said that the particular value of freedom that prevails in any community is a complex result of ideas, practices, structures, and struggle. Our ideas of freedom may come from books. But what we finally come to value as freedom comes from the lives we collectively lead. 

In the United States, the valuation of freedom stands in a paradoxical history. At the moment of the nation's birth in a revolution understood as freedom-as-independence, there were also millions of enslaved persons in the country. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said we were a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But noting the sacrifice of the Union dead at Gettysburg, Lincoln also said that the struggle of a war over slavery pointed to the possibility of a "new birth of freedom" that would not only mean the liberation of the enslaved but would also mean a government in which they would have full political equality. 

It seems like there are inflection points in the ongoing struggles for this new birth of freedom: the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Suffragette Movement, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Era. And it seems like this election is occurring amid another inflection point era.

On the one hand, a reinvigorated libertarianism that claims long American roots (but really has its origins in the mid to late 20th century) has forcefully taken the stage during the pandemic with passionate refusals to wear masks and outrage at government restrictions on business. At the heart of this notion of liberty is the rejection of scientific reasoning and the rejection of the reality of empirical and ethical interdependence (i.e., that, like it or not, we are all connected and that, like it or not, we have duties to those far removed from us). Infusing this rejectionist spirit are an unimpeachable ideal of invulnerable masculinity and fear of fading, white dominance. 

On the other hand, the horrible constraint by police officers that caused George Floyd's death stirred the conscience of millions in this country. His unfreedom spoke of something well known to Black Americans and becoming more apparent to many others: The myriad great and small constraints that sometimes slowly or sometimes dramatically steal the freedom (and lives) of persons like Mr. Floyd and render them unequal participants in our political community.

In any case, these two images of freedom don't really inhabit different worlds. The uncomfortable fact is that too many of those who are outraged at the prospect of having to wear a mask are the same people in support of kneeling on Mr. Floyd's neck.

The faux freedom of mask refuseniks remains a powerful value in the country. But it has also run its course as a matter of coherence and legitimacy—even if the true believers will always hang on. We are hearing now something old to Black Americans but something new to many of us: A cry for freedom unheard for too long amid the vast world of constraint hiding in the plain sight of a Minneapolis traffic stop. We have to choose what to hear and how we will respond.

Oct 27, 2020

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