Daniel Rodgers, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics Since Independence, 1987

Rodgers follows the varied lives of seven terms that Americans have struggled over in their political discourse: utility, natural rights, the people, government, the state, interests and freedom. Each word belongs to a certain era when it was in vogue, when a particular insurgent group used it to press their vision and others began to ascribe new meanings to the idea. The ancient notion of “the State,” for instance, came in handy in the late nineteenth century, when the middle class and new professionals sought to shore up the integrity of governing institutions against the rising tide of revolution, whether socialist, populist or otherwise. The twentieth century words are especially interesting for our purposes. Interests first came to prominence as a Progressive rallying cry in the early decades (a fight against “the Interests,” i.e. big corporations), and subsequently joined the cause of New Deal liberals who sought to work out a fair compromise between the various competing interests of society – this time, in a pluralist sense. Rodgers argues that the notion of government brokering between business, labor, consumers and other interests did not have the moral resonance to sustain the nation through World War II and the Cold War. Franklin Roosevelt portrayed the war as a struggle for freedom against the fascist nations, and the dichotomy served well when the opponent became communism. Freedom came to represent the free choices conferred by capitalism and democracy:

“At home one learned to talk of economic relations in terms of the ‘free market’ and the bounties of the ‘free enterprise system.’ The latter term, put into currency toward the end of the 1930s by anti-New Deal businessmen who sensed the defects of their earlier (though more honest) talk of ‘private’ enterprise… had become a fixture of both parties’ platform rhetoric by the early 1950s… The term ‘freedom of choice’ with which the jugglery was done was accordingly fuzzy and indistinct. It bound in a phrase the consumer benefits of postwar prosperity with the political fact of choice in open, reasonably contested elections.”

However, when black Americans took up the rhetoric, the debate soon shifted and people spoke of rights of all kinds as “the practical test of freedom.” FDR himself had posited four freedoms, including freedom from fear and want, proposing an “economic bill of rights” that would ensure jobs, housing and sustenance so that people could enjoy their lives freely. After the interlude of the early Cold War, talk of freedom again turned toward rights, this time as women’s rights, gay rights, Native American rights, the rights of the unborn and so on.

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