Of the eleven people I spoke to in Philadelphia, eight of them mentioned freedom as key to being an American. Although I’ve only covered one city so far, freedom was so important to people I felt I needed to write about it. Jordan, a nineteen-year-old, twice mentioned the freedom to pursue what you want as the foundational aspect of being a good American. Meanwhile, Jenna talked about belief in free democracy as a foundation for citizenship. Trump supporters, third-party voters, and Clinton fans all agreed: freedom is essential to America and Americans.
But people used the idea of freedom in two distinct ways. The first is what I would describe as the ability to pursue one’s dreams. Jordan said being an American means “taking advantage of whatever this country has to offer you.” He saw himself and his friend as an American because they traveled across the country for college and used financial aid to get the best education possible. Meng Ting likewise said that Americans can be “whatever they want to be” and do “whatever it is that helps themselves and help others.”
On the other hand, people also used freedom to describe formal rights. Tom, from St. Paul, noted that to be an American was all about freedom. Americans have “freedom of expression, freedom of rights… and an acceptance of freedom.” Carol, from Virginia, said that freedom of speech was fundamental to American life and identity. Several people, from a money manager to a teacher, also mentioned freedom of religion as inherently American.
A Communal Good:
As noted above, Jenna believed that an acceptance of free democracy was absolutely pivotal to good citizenship. I think her point is crucial for us to understand the relationship between individual freedom and legal rights. Freedom guarantees an individual’s ability to do as he or she pleases, whether to pursue what they want, to say what they want, or to believe what they want. For this to be possible, though, for each individual to be free, we have to protect other’s freedoms. People associated freedom with American individualism and the American dream. But I think freedom is actually a group project. It’s a civic good that good citizens should protect, even for people they disagree with. If we don’t protect each other’s formal freedoms – religion and speech foremost among them – then we can’t have the ability to pursue our respective American dreams.