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Occupy Wall Street has some conservatives running scared, leaving a window of opportunity to change the dialogue on what freedom really means.

Last week, Republican strategist and wordsmith Frank Luntz shared his concerns about the Occupy movement with a group of Republican governors in Florida. “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death… They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” Chris Moody wrote a must-read article on the matter, including the ten dos and don’ts that Luntz suggested to his audience.

As Seth Ackerman pointed out, there’s an entire industry around Democrats and liberals trying to get an edge on Luntz with even more carefully polled wordplay. However, by talking directly about the power of the 1 percent over our lives, the broken political process, burdensome debts, and a collapsed labor market, the Occupy movement has gotten Luntz’s attention in a few short months. As Ackerman puts it:

For twenty or thirty years, Democratic politicians… have been paying what must amount to billions of dollars by now to consultants, pollsters, and think tank gurus to tell them how to talk to the public about inequality in some way that might spark sustained public engagement… Then the Occupy movement comes along and after two and a half months shifts the national consciousness so palpably that Republican governors are scrambling to ask their Rasputins how capitalism can be defended to their constituents back in Peoria.

Luntz suggests 10 sets of words, phrases, and concepts to abandon and has some easily defended ones to use instead. “Jobs” and “entrepreneur” are out. “Careers” and “job creators” are in. Many people across the spectrum are noticing that Luntz is suggesting a retreat from the word “capitalism,” but few reference where he wants to retreat to:

1. Don’t say ‘capitalism.’

“I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’” Luntz said. “The public…still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

Luntz suggests retreating to “economic freedom” as an easily defensible phrase conservatives can use to describe the economic status quo. This is astute, as there’s been a long, 30-year conservative project to locate freedom in the laissez-faire marketplace.

It hasn’t always been this way. Take this 1930 cartoon in the Chicago Defender, where economic freedom is seen as part of the right to unionize (click for larger image):

(Source: Foner, The Story of American Freedom.)

Economic freedom as freedom from coercion was once a core part of progressive thought. Economic freedom as economic security was a central part of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s four freedoms. And economic freedom as freedom from domination in the workplace is a central aspect of what unionization brings to the country. This was thought of as essential to the lives of the individuals and democracy itself — as Samuel Gompers said, “Men and women cannot live during working hours under autocratic conditions, and instantly become sons and daughters of freedom as they step outside the shop gates.”

This is on the minds of people I’ve talked with at various Occupy movements. Early on in Occupy Wall Street I went and asked 15 random people at Zucotti Park what “freedom” meant to them. Their answers invoked these earlier versions of economic freedom as essential aspects: “I think that freedom is your ability to carry out what you want to do. It’s not just about your social freedom, it is also about economic freedom.” “Freedom is…when people can go to public universities and not have to go into debt. So not only so they can get the careers they want, but so they can be productive people in society.” With the movement, we have an opportunity to change the dialogue.

Corey Robin’s excellent essay in The Nation, “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom,” can act as a guide to why this is so important and what the roadmap toward changing it could look like. He says:

The secret of conservatism’s success — as any reading of Reagan’s speeches and writings will attest — has been to locate this notion of freedom in the market… We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job…

The politics of freedom does not dismiss the value or importance of state resources. But rather than conceiving of them as protections against the hazards of the market or indices of public compassion, it sees them as sources of power, as the tools and instruments of personal and collective advance. Armed with universal healthcare, unemployment benefits, public pensions and the like, I am less vulnerable to the coercions and castigations of an employer or partner. Not only do I have the option of leaving an oppressive situation; I can confront and change it — for and by myself, for and with others. I am emboldened not to avoid risks but to take risks: to talk back and walk out, to engage in what John Stuart Mill called, in one of his lovelier phrases, “experiments in living.”…

That is why the politics of freedom refuses to view the state as the conservative does: as a constraint. Or as the welfare-state liberal does: as a distributive machine. Instead, it views the state the way the abolitionist, the trade unionist, the civil rights activist and the feminist do: as an instrument for disrupting the private life of power. The state, in other words, is the right hand to the left hand of social movement.

It will be challenging to square this idea of the state as a partner in economic freedom with the more anarchist-leaning tendencies of much of Occupy thought, but it’s a debate worth having.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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