Opinion writer

One reason South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is rising in polls and getting bigger crowds is his ability to reclaim ideological ground lost to Republicans, who have now abandoned any pretense of principle. With two words, he shows how the Democratic Party can recast the debate and win over a wide spectrum of Americans.

On “freedom,” Buttigieg likes to say, “Don’t let anybody tell you that the other side is the side that’s got a handle on freedom.” He explains that freedom isn’t merely freedom from government taxes, regulation, etc.:

He might have added that if someone is addicted to drugs and cannot find treatment, or working two jobs but missing their kids’ lives, or commuting for hours because housing prices are too high and public transportation is not available, that person is not very free, either.

Moreover, the notion that Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid restrict “freedom” is absurd, reminiscent of the pre-New Deal argument that abolishing child labor impairs the freedom of employers and children to contract for labor.

This goes to a serious problem with the brain-dead conservative movement: its failure to recognize that freedom is one value but not necessarily paramount to others, such as preventing cruelty or eradicating racism.

The center-right Niskanen Center put it exquisitely: “Liberty is a vital principle of the open society, but so are community and equality. Absolutizing any of these political goods is the essence of ideological thinking, while moderation is a recognition that all of them are important. Such a recognition necessarily puts some constraints on the achievement of any of these principles.” And to Buttigieg’s point, even freedom to attain one’s ambitions requires other limits on freedom (e.g. taxes to pay for schools).

“Freedom” in Republicans’ description can often be a rationalization for widening inequality and refusing to protect Americans from dangers to health and safety. We might be maximizing Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s freedom with huge tax cuts, but for the rest of Americans, the massive tax cuts for the rich or rollback on workplace safety or proposing to cut funds for the Special Olympics (how do these people sleep at night?) don’t look like freedom.

Getting Democrats out of the freedom-vs.-government nonsensical argument would be a great contribution to Buttigieg’s party and to reasoned debate. It would force Republicans to defend their policies on turf they are unfamiliar with: Are they helping people or hurting them, advancing a shared common good or reducing us to the law of the jungle?

Buttigieg — like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — is comfortable talking about faith in the context of his public views. Warren likes to quote Matthew 25 (“‘I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me water, I was in prison and you visited me. Naked and you clothed me. And as much as you have done it to one of these, the least of thy brethren, you have done it unto me.’”) Buttigieg says, "Living your faith might also have to do with paying more attention to those most in need and not celebrating those who already have the most wealth and the most power.”

Contrast that with the soullessness, selfishness and cruelty of the president and his policies. What faith tells one to demonize the stranger, deny care for the sick, destroy the planet we’ve been given and snatch children from the arms of their parents? What religion tells us to prefer white immigrants over nonwhites? President Trump’s policies are not only wrongheaded (e.g. counterproductive) but just plain wrong.

In speaking from a faith-based perspective, Buttigieg, Warren and others make a powerful point: What’s wrong with Trumpism — aside from its deceit, its authoritarianism, its rejection of the American creed and its economic illiteracy — is its rank cruelty. Trump’s actions routinely violate norms of decent behavior, which for many Americans are grounded in a faith tradition.

Once the Trump-worshiping evangelical operators sold their souls and discarded every faith-based value (e.g. tell the truth, help the stranger) in a bid to find their own bully and enact revenge against a society that they no longer dominate, they left the terrain of values — including faith and freedom — to Democrats. The Democrat(s) who can seize those values, ground their policies in shared principles and demonstrate that character is the most important quality in a president will go far. And who knows? At the moment that the evangelical right has thoroughly discredited itself, we might find ourselves in the midst of a new spiritual revival based on something as simple as the Golden Rule.