The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Roe, Democrats say they, not the GOP, are the party of freedom

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), accompanied by female House Democrats, speaks at an event ahead of a House vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act and the Ensuring Women’s Right to Reproductive Freedom Act at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2022. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), angered by the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, laid out his vision for a sweeping Democratic campaign pitch.

“We are the party of freedom,” he tweeted two weeks after the decision. “Freedom to make your own health-care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. Our message is our values. Freedom for all.”

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California aired an ad in Florida on July 4 intended to needle that state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis — both men are considered possible presidential contenders in 2024 — that warned, “Freedom, it’s under attack in your state.”

Hours before the House voted last week to codify same-sex marriage into federal law, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted: “Democrats FIGHT FOR your freedom!”

In the weeks since the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion rights, Democrats have been gravitating toward a freedom-focused message more commonly used as a rallying cry by Republicans. After years of ceding to the right the defense of a cornerstone to the nation’s identity, Democrats now see an opening to establish their own narrative about personal freedoms. National Democratic strategists are encouraging their candidates to use the Roe decision as a catalyst to frame issues facing Americans — including economic woes, health care and voting rights — as threats to their freedoms.

A Washington Post analysis found a marked increase in the term “freedom” being used in social media messaging of Democratic leaders and left-wing influencers and organizations since the leak of the draft Supreme Court ruling in early May, and a dramatic increase in use after Roe was overturned.

Dan Pfeiffer, a White House communications director for President Barack Obama, suggested in his Substack newsletter that Democrats release a comprehensive policy plan and call it the “American Freedom Agenda.” He said internal party polls show freedom, especially concerning abortion and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, “is a powerfully persuasive message.”

“I don’t think you can just run around and say ‘freedom’ as much as possible. … We need a story to tell about the radical extremism of MAGA Republicans, and freedom is a great way to tell that story,” Pfeiffer said in an interview. “Republicans view freedom as almost entirely about your ability to buy an assault rifle. Democrats think it means you should have the ability to make decisions about your own body, who you marry and what books you read, and I think we have the high ground in that debate.”

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For decades, Republicans have promoted themselves as the standard-bearers of American freedom and personal liberty. Their version of it gained renewed prominence during the 2010 rise of the tea party movement, with its “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and tricorn hats. In 2015, a group of far-right Republican members of Congress dubbed themselves the “Freedom Caucus.” The political brand was amplified by former president Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. This summer, Trump has been holding rallies around the country on his “American Freedom Tour” where he takes the stage — as he has for most of his political career — to Lee Greenwood singing: “ ’Cause the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away.”

Anat Shenker-Osorio, a liberal communications consultant, said Democrats can’t politically afford to give away the concept. In her research, she’s found that “freedom” is the top value Americans associate with this country across race, gender and geographic lines.

She pointed to liberal causes over the past half-century that have received public support when framed as protecting or enhancing freedoms, pointing to the Freedom Riders during the 1960s civil rights movement and the “freedom to marry” slogan for same-sex marriage campaigns in the past decade.

“The overarching message is to say … Trump Republicans want to take away freedoms from all who do not work and live and look like them,” Shenker-Osorio said. “They’re coming for our freedoms from the most basic notion that we decide who represents us to what happens in our bodies and our relationships to our ability to send kids to school and know they will come back home to us safe.”

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Republican politicians railed against public health restrictions such as business and school closures and mask mandates as examples of Democrats’ infringing on individuals’ freedoms. Many Republicans then turned their attention to what they framed as parental rights, decrying critical race theory, a term broadly applied to learning about the nation’s history of systemic racism, and classroom discussion of sexual or gender identity.

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a rising star in the Democratic Party, gained national attention for a speech in April rebuking a GOP colleague who accused her of being a “groomer,” a term used to describe people who sexually target children.

“Finally,” McMorrow said in an interview, referring to the Democrats’ embrace of freedom as a political talking point. “For too long, Democrats have ceded the ideas of freedom, family, community. … The idea of freedom is under attack right now. There’s no denying that the Republican playbook is to tell you what to read, who to love, what you can or can’t do with your body. … I think we absolutely should, we should define what freedom is and take it back.”

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Even as Democrats increase their use of “freedom” in their political messaging, it remains a top talking point for Republicans. In a campaign speech in Arizona last week, former vice president Mike Pence said “freedom” seven times, at one point summing up his remarks by saying, “Truthfully, it really is about freedom.” To date, Republicans have talked more about freedom in their campaign messaging. Democratic ads mentioning freedom have aired 28,747 times in comparison with Republican ads about freedom that have aired 74,067 times, according to an analysis by AdImpact. But since the leak of the draft Roe opinion in May, there’s been a significant uptick in Democrats using “freedom” in their ads, with the highest number of them appearing in the two weeks after the Roe decision, according to the data.

Among Democrats invoking the term is Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) who is facing a tough reelection fight. She released an ad after the Roe decision promising to protect “our personal freedoms.”

The freedom-focused message is also being echoed by President Biden. At a July Fourth barbecue at the White House, he said, “In recent days, there’s been reason to think that this country is moving backward, that freedom is being reduced, that rights we assumed were protected are no longer.”

Democratic candidates are increasingly using “freedom” to differentiate themselves from their GOP opponents. Joe Cunningham, a former South Carolina congressman and Democratic nominee for governor, said in an interview that freedom is “on the ballot this coming November.”

“We want our freedoms and liberties. We all want the freedom to control our own bodies. We want our veterans to have freedom, when they’ve given so much for our country. We’re going to go across this state with a megaphone, making sure that people know exactly what the governor has done, the freedoms he’s prevented and freedoms he’s taking away,” he said, referring to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who signed a law restricting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The law went into effect after Roe was struck down.

In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for governor against Doug Mastriano, a far-right Republican who supports a no-exceptions ban on abortion and continues to spread the falsehood that the presidential election in 2020 was stolen.

“He’s coming for our freedoms,” Shapiro said in a recent tweet, “and your vote is how we stop him.”

After the House voted on codifying same-sex marriage and then on making contraception access a right, Democrat Cheri Beasley, who is running for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, blasted her opponent, GOP Rep. Ted Budd, for opposing both. In a statement, she warned that Budd “will stop at nothing to strip North Carolinians of our freedoms.”

Anu Narayanswamy, David Weigel and Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.