Within 48 hours last week, two quick victories for individual freedom occurred.
On Jan.19, the voters of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in one of the highest turnouts for a special election, defied political operatives’ expectations, by electing with a comfortable margin, Scott Brown, a heretofore little-known Republican state Senator from Boston’s western suburbs to the U.S. Senate, most recently held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy for 47 years. On Jan. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a closely watched case, Citizens United v. FEC, ruled in a 5-4 decision for expanded political free speech for corporate bodies, such as labor unions and corporations, overturning several judicial precedents and declaring several federal statutes, including much of the McCain-Feingold campaign law, unconstitutional.
Post-election pundit analyses have attributed varying reasons for Scott Brown’s surprising win—from dissatisfaction with the President’s health care proposal and an inept challenge by his opponent to Sen.-elect Brown’s “truck-driving” charisma. Yet from the standpoint of the pursuit of liberty and individual freedom, achieving America’s mission statement, the most telling point in the campaign was Mr. Brown’s response to a media question about the uphill challenge for “Ted Kennedy’s seat,” of which the state Democratic-controlled Legislature and Democrat governor had done extensive maneuvering to keep in friendly political hands. Mr. Brown essentially replied: “This is not Ted Kennedy’s seat. It is not the Democrats’ seat. It is your [the people of Massachusetts’s] seat.” (Mr. Brown’s rejoinder proved so profound that it was approvingly used by the late Senator’s widow in her campaigning for Margaret Coakley, Mr. Brown’s Democratic opponent.)
The underlying message with reverberations back to 1775 and nearby Lexington and Concord is that our government and its elected officials are subject to the people’s will, not the reverse. As a result, a majority of voters expressed no patience for political entitlements and no tolerance of political arrogance.
The Supreme Court’s decision announced two days later held favorably for expanded political campaign financing and support from incorporated entities. Thus, the leadership of the Judicial Branch of our government bolstered freedom of political speech, a fundamental right recognized judicially as far back as colonial times in the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger.
Both events tellingly demonstrate the impact that one individual can have nationally in our nation’s governance. By Scott Brown’s successful political challenge, he becomes the potential pivotal “41st” U.S. Senator for possible successful filibuster against current Democratic-led health care legislation. The course-altering decision in Citizens United by the Supreme Court with its one-vote majority occurred by a change of one Republican presidential-appointed associate justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, with another, Samuel Alito. Solitary individuals continue to matter in our political governance and society.
However, just as in the world of sports that two victories do not a season make, it is thus true in the long, ongoing pursuit of liberty. Our Founders’ presciently warned of public obligation of constant vigilance against erosion of individual freedoms. It was only fifteen years ago that then President Clinton, having faced the wrath of the 1994 electorate over his administration’s national health care legislation, famously declared the era of Big Government to be over. Yet a few short years later, national leadership from both political parties engaged in profligate government spending unmatched since the the 1960’s Great Society. The result is mounting debt, owed collectively by each American, in trillions of dollars, partial federal government and thus control, of major financial institutions and much of the automotive industry, and plans for greater federal management of higher education through government monopolization of student loan programs. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, when earlier this week on Jan. 25, the 2010 edition of the Index of Economic Freedom, jointly compiled and published by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal, downgraded the rank of the U.S. from one of the world’s freest economies to one of “Mostly Free.” According to the index, which employs analyses based on objective indices from neutral sources such as the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the United States is in eighth place behind Canada and just ahead of Denmark and Chile. Even more disconcerting, during the past year, America’s composite ranking declined greater than that of any of the world’s twenty largest economies. Such precipitous drop in economic freedom induces corresponding curtailment of individual freedom. This slide must be reversed.
Such reversal can only occur and be sustained permanently through an extended, comprehensive, and pervasive approach of achieving our nation’s mission statement. The two victories last week are steps in the right direction, but the regular season has many games, and we have not even commenced spring training. It is time to get our individual freedoms in shape for the long haul.
Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.