What is more important to you: Freedom or equality?
If you’re a Democrat today, equality is more important. If you’re a Republican, it’s freedom. It wasn’t always this way. These values have shifted from one party to another over the past 154 years since the Civil War.
Current Democrats favor equality for women, immigrants, minorities and gays. Before the Civil War, though, Southern Democrats favored slavery and states’ rights, while Republican abolitionists worked for a level of racial equality and the end of slavery.
After the Civil War, Southern Democrats used violence to roll back the civil rights gained by the largely Republican passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments ending slavery, granting citizenship, due process, equal protection of the law, and voting rights to former slaves.
Southern Democrats felt that giving equality to former slaves only diminished whites’ power and status and took away their freedom. They fought violently to reduce equality with the passage of Jim Crow segregationist laws in the South.
In the latter 19th century, capitalistic Republicans turned away from pushing for racial equality in the quest for profit. The needs and safety of their workers, most of whom were immigrants, were ignored. In response, poor workers formed unions and went on strike. The federal government, controlled by wealthy Republican plutocrats, crushed these strikes and unions by calling out the military. Freedom for the wealthy meant inequality for the poor.
Those wealthy industrialist Republicans pushed laissez-faire capitalism; another way of saying they emphasized freedom—for them. They also espoused evolutionary theory, calling it Social Darwinism. This theory justified bad treatment of their workers by arguing their evolutionary superiority through survival of the fittest—the wealthy.
During the early 20th century, a group of moderate, educated middle- and upper-class activists from both parties arose to restore a balance between freedom and equality. Called “progressives,” they worked to alleviate suffering and provide aid and education to the poor, women, and children, especially in cities. They taught poor women birth control, increasing their freedom and thus their equality.
Progressives passed child labor laws which protected children from working long hours in dangerous factories. Public schools were mandated, taking children out of those factories and cutting the number of workers, resulting in higher pay for adult laborers. This was a way of leveling the playing field, increasing equality for many.
Americans of both parties fought for freedom both for us and other nations in World Wars I and II.
After World War II, blacks, Native Americans, women, and other minorities fought for equality in the civil rights movements.
Republicans had gradually been shifting from their 19th century emphasis on equality to freedom, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. White southern segregationists flocked to them and fought for states’ rights. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. His goal was freedom over equality. Taxes were cut, and regulations were slashed, especially for the wealthy.
During the 1990s and early 21st century, both parties focused on globalization and free trade. The gap between the freedom to succeed created enormous economic inequality suffered by poor whites and blacks alike.
In the age of globalization and free trade, wages stagnated, and college education costs spiraled upward, making it more difficult to gain financial equality for all. The Republican demand for gun freedom has resulted in increased purchases, and perhaps explains the rise in mass shootings.
In reaction to growing economic disparity, Democrats shifted their emphasis to equality by supporting minorities: “Black Lives Matter” arose in the second decade of the new century. Supporters demanded equal protection under the law. Democrats successfully supported the gay marriage movement which bestowed equality with the heterosexual community in the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015.
Since his election in 2016, Republican President Donald Trump has emphasized freedom through cutting regulations and pushing for states’ rights. In great part, his election has resulted in a counter reaction in the #MeToo movement which demands equal treatment for women.
Gerrymandering and voter suppression charges against Republicans have become a political battleground and represent the push for equality by Democrats and resistance from the Republicans.
The 2018 midterm election represent a partial victory for equal treatment for minorities and a partial and potential rollback for those advocating freedom, especially for whites.
The conflict between the demand for equality vs. freedom is now centered on immigration. Democrats and the Republican president are deadlocked over border security and the Dreamers.
In our time of polarization and division, the fight between freedom for the few and equality for the many has only intensified. Political parties have switched issues since the Civil War. We have lost our sense of balance between these two important ideas. Conflict is the result.