How a “freedom-and-fairness” agenda help can save the U.S. republic and federation

In Washington Monthly, Nationhood Lab’s director outlines a policy agenda to shore up U.S. democracy and beat back the authoritarian threat to the country

In the new print edition of Washington Monthly, Nationhood Lab Director Colin Woodard laid out how a “freedom-and-fairness” political agenda can steer the United States out of the dangerous, demagogue-infested waters it’s found itself in.

Woodard argues that preserving a liberal democratic society requires maintaining a balance between two essential aspects of freedom that are often in tension – individual liberty and the common good – and that the U.S. has become destabilized because of a decades-long lurch toward a individualistic, laissez-faire agenda that’s created yawning gaps between rich and poor, coasts and “flyover country,” global cities and abandoned countryside, undermining the social contract and creating the conditions for demagogues to flourish. Restoring balance requires investing in public goods that enable individuals to achieve meaningful freedom and having a government capable of cracking down on cheaters so as to ensure socioeconomic competition is fair.

This agenda, first described in his 2016 book American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, has in some key respects been taken up by President Joe Biden, who has made substantial investments in public goods while increasing enforcement of anti-trust laws. But as a matter of rhetoric, Woodard notes, the president has primarily deployed the language of freedom-and-fairness to the short-term challenge of Trumpism, an authoritarian and ethnonational movement hostile to the inclusive, egalitarian ideals in the country’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

“Biden has set up a rhetorical foundation that can anchor more than just the near-term defense of the republic against a proto-fascist movement,” Woodard writes. “He is also providing a long-term agenda that addresses the root causes of the crisis we’ve found ourselves in.”

The essay, in the July/August issue of the Monthly, lays out how, under presidential administrations and Congresses controlled by both parties, the U.S. made itself vulnerable to an authoritarian ethnonationalist threat, and how the country can find its way back out of the crisis zone.

“It’s through democratic government that we protect our freedom, be it economic or civic,” Woodard writes. “We use it to keep our external enemies at bay, of course, but also to ensure that our unending domestic competitions remain fairly played. Our system requires a government that’s strong enough to act as our collective referee, to prevent a slide into corporate or plutocratic oligarchy by stopping ‘cheaters’ and the accretion of hereditary privilege by maintaining the conditions for free and fair competition.”

Nationhood Lab, a project of Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, focuses on counteracting the authoritarian threat to American democracy and the centrifugal forces threatening the federation’s stability. One pillar of the project seeks to articulate a political agenda that is consistent with and supportive of the American Experiment in liberal democracy.

Woodard argued for the creation of a rebooted U.S. civic national narrative – another central pillar of Nationhood Lab’s work – in an essay in the January 2021 issue of the Monthly, a Washington-based non-profit magazine that focuses on developing effective policy solutions to the nation’s challenges.