Mastriano and Shapiro both say they're the 'freedom' guy. But what does that even mean?

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

It's red, white and blue — and difficult to define, at least with any true consensus.

From the night they won their primaries, Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano have touted themselves as the "freedom" candidate. They've also labeled each other "draconian" and "extremist."

Scott Kiesling, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh, said he isn't surprised that the two of them have made the race a referendum on freedom because of the emotion it stirs in many Americans: "In some ways I don't know that it matters that there's even a content to the word. It points to a positive feeling that Americans have or even a feeling against something."

But the disparate treatment of these concepts has created some concern that Americans are no longer able to have a dialogue with each other because they're using entirely different political dictionaries.

"It definitely troubles me that we are using the same terms in these very different ways," said Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. "It makes it very difficult to come and have a common conversation. We can't begin a conversation because we define our terms differently. We're speaking different languages."

Framing the debate

In his first post-primary statement, Shapiro called Mastriano a "dangerous extremist" bent on robbing Pennsylvanians of liberty, citing his opponent's abortion stance and his call to make everyone re-register to vote.

"Mastriano wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives — that’s not freedom," Shapiro said. "Real freedom comes when we trust Pennsylvanians to make their own decisions about who they love, who they pray to, and how and when they start a family here in our Commonwealth. I will work tirelessly every single day to win this election in November, defend Pennsylvanians’ freedoms, and meet this moment."

Mastriano, meanwhile, framed his opponent as the enemy of liberty. He cited Shapiro's defense of the pandemic-era policies of current Gov. Tom Wolf.

“The Wolf Administration has done major damage to Pennsylvania," Mastriano said in his post-primary statement. "This Governor’s draconian policies, enforced by the Attorney General, have stolen our individual liberties, silenced our voices, stifled our economic growth, devastated our small businesses, destroyed our energy sector, and weakened our education system."

“It’s time for Pennsylvanians to unite. Together, we can and will reignite the torch of liberty and ensure all Pennsylvanians benefit from the bounty God has given our state."

Additional candidates in the gubernatorial race — Libertarian Matt Hackenburg, Green Party nominee Christina DiGuilio and Keystone Party nominee Joe Soloski — are each polling at 1% or less, according to recent USA TODAY Network/Suffolk University survey of voters.

According to Kiesling, political watchwords can vary from nation to nation. Candidates in other parts of the world may emphasize different kinds of principles, such as a spirit of cooperation.

But a Siena College Research Institute poll conducted last year indicated that a vast majority of Americans across political affiliation consider liberty one of three core American values. This suggests that the notion of freedom remains popular in a nation that's romanticized cowboys in the old West and the idea of rugged individualism.

"It's just so embedded in the history of the United States," Kiesling said.

"You can see how using freedom is the thing to do because it's such a powerful term in American history."

How PA voters view freedom, and why

Though the concept is well-regarded in the U.S., it isn't necessarily well-defined in any widely acceptable way. And its application to the American social and political realm may be equally tricky.

Brownsville resident Brendan Booth said he feels the country has been moving steadily from a true freedom ethos since the Patriot Act was signed by U.S. President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.

"They get elected and the first thing they do is pass more laws," Booth said. "They should be repealing laws or fixing broken laws."

The 37-year-old Democrat said he's sick of candidates making promises such as decriminalizing marijuana during the primary only to back off as the general election approaches. He added that he plans to change his registration from Democrat to independent.

Keith Murphy, a 58-year-old Republican and veteran from Jim Thorpe, said he ranks a commitment to freedom up alongside the economy in terms of most important issues.

Murphy said he feels like violent crime is becoming more common and sees the Second Amendment right to bear arms as particularly critical in light of that. He characterized himself as a reluctant Mastriano supporter because he believes Shapiro would be less supportive of gun rights.

Conversely, fellow veteran Diane McKay of Harrisburg will be voting for Shapiro in part because he's pledged to protect abortion rights.

The 60-year-old Democrat and attorney said she believes the GOP is more interested in protecting corporations than personal freedoms. She added that some Republicans are pushing for broad societal restrictions based on their religion.

"It seems to me that the conservatives want to restrict those freedoms and see it all their way," McKay said.

"I feel that the Republican candidates are not moderate, they are extremists and they are Trumpers. I think that whole Trump and MAGA crowd is bound and determined to take down the United States government as it exists today."

To many Shapiro supporters, preserving legal abortion access means protecting a woman's freedom of choice. But for someone like Mastriano, preserving legal abortion access means denying the unborn the right to life and liberty because he believes life begins at conception.

Mastriano has also argued that pandemic-era masking, lockdowns and school closings deprived Pennsylvanians of their freedom to choose -- and, conversely, the freedom to accelerate the spread COVID-19.

"You can see how really, in some ways, they're both right," Kiesling said.

Which means, in another sense, they're both also wrong.

A photo illustration of Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro.

Defining liberty

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said voters can inform themselves of a candidate's true stance on freedom by looking simply to the American Bill of Rights.

"You talk to any American, I don't care what their affiliation or views are, and they believe that their greatest right is to be left alone by the government," he said. "They don't want an over-intrusive federal government ... telling them and dictating how to live their lives."

To von Spakovsky — a former member of the Federal Election Commission who was later appointed by an advisory board on election integrity by then-President Donald Trump — any candidate or official who claims to value freedom while supporting intrusive business or individual mandates is lying. He said the pandemic provided a clear distinction between those who value freedom and those who don't.

"It was very, very restrictive provisions going out in many different places which ... a lot of Americans resented, fought against in court," von Spakovsky said. "I think that's one of the reasons why this has become a very important issue because the average voter has seen (liberties violated) over the last three years."

Others, however, look to different measures of a nation's liberty.

Ali said he views voting rights as the gateway to all other freedoms enjoyed by Americans. He believes efforts to expand poll watching, add ID requirements and restrict mail-in voting undermine trust in our democracy and represent a direct assault on liberty.

"There are ongoing attempts to intimidate voters ... and make it more difficult to cast a ballot specifically," Ali said.

"We're stuck on what's 'free and fair.' (Some are) taking these values and corrupting them and using them in a way that meets an agenda."

Ali's organization, Common Cause, is a nonpartisan one that calls for equal rights, accountable governance and advancing the "core values of American democracy." But Ali said the inability to agree on some of the basic principle guiding those core values could be a problem.

"My biggest fear is that we never come to a consensus. If we don't have a common definition, we don't have a common citizenry that can work together."

What does this mean?

Ali isn't alone in his concern.

Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, pointed to recent polling that shows widespread uncertainty about the future of the U.S. political system. An NPR/Ipsos survey from early this year indicates that 64% of Americans say our democracy is in danger — a sentiment that has broad popularity among Democrats (67%), Republicans (70%) and independents (60%) alike.

Dagnes said she thinks the situation stems largely from outrageous political rhetoric, conspiracy theories and a factionalized population that retreats into hyper-partisan media bubbles that serve to reinforce their beliefs, even when those beliefs are unsupported by facts.

"All of this together means that there's a significant portion of the element of the American public that are believing things that are demonstrably untrue. They're angry because of these falsehoods," she said.

Because of this deep divide, the debate over freedom, democracy and the direction of our country seems unlikely to be settled in Pennsylvania and beyond even after the votes are counted this fall.

"It's just become so staggering in its vitriol that there's no exit ramp any more," Dagnes said. She added that her personal optimism in the country's future is waning.

"When you turn the volume up this high the consequences can be quite dire."

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.