What Is A Liberal?

After our family vacation to Portland, I realized that I haven’t spent much time in a city. I mean really spent time in a way that you get to know the vibe of the people who dwell in a particular city. Sure, I live in a “city” of 63,000 people, but what I’m talking about is a big city like J and I used to live in (i.e., San Francisco and Philadelphia). Both of those cities are very different from each other, but they also have some similar features that we grew accustomed to. There are a number of differences between big cities and suburbs to craft a two year college seminar out of, but what struck me about my trip to Portland was a kind of liberalism (i.e., openness) that is certainly present in the suburbs, but often gets submerged by a kind of homosocialness (By the way, homo=same. It’s not referring to one’s sexual preference).

Did I feel comfortable in Portland? You bet! Were people more friendly than they are in Walnut Creek, CA? For the biggest city in the state of Oregon, the answer is surprisingly “Yes.” Were people more politically liberal? Um, duh! But to go beyond personal perception, I went over the the Oregon Secretary of State website and pulled the numbers from the 2004 election and found there were roughly 220,000 registered Democrats, roughly 95,000 registered Republicans, and roughly 125,000 who don’t belong to any political party (AKA independents). In almost every precinct, Democrats got the majority of the votes. So, one could safely conclude that the politically independents in Portland favor the Democrats over the Republicans (and their policies).

Good! Great! Woo hoo and all that…I guess.

I consider myself politically liberal, but since the last couple of elections, I’ve been wondering what it means to be a liberal in the U.S. today. While watching the Colbert Report yesterday, he did an interview with linguist Geoffrey Nunberg that was, of course, funny at times. But the book Nunberg wrote had the amusing subtitle of “How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.” Just for the record, the subtitle comes from a political ad paid for by the “Club for Growth” that was directed at Howard Dean during the 2004 Democratic primary. Anyway, the words used to describe liberals in attack ad has, for over 20 years, been the modus operandi of the Right. This rather simple method of taking the things the Democratic party stood for (i.e., helping the working class and the poor, achieve and maintain a middle class status through government assistance) and turing it in to a very bad thing has the distinction of being one of the most effective ad campaigns that’s come down the pike in a long time. Some argue that liberals need to fight back using similar techniques. Perhaps it might work. But the problem is that many political liberals like to think that they are above the whole name calling thing because, well, they’re adults who are trying to make the world a better place now and for the future. Said liberals also think that the vast majority of the country is above name calling/smashmouth politics and will, if given a sober and serious choice, pick the candidate and the party that will address pressing problems in our society — and do so in a fairly responsible manner. It’s the old “rational-actor” model of politics, and one that hasn’t really worked out that well for those who want to appeal to the better angels in our nature.  Sadly, one just needs to flip around the TV on any given night and you’ll quickly see that the Right has a better read on the culture than “good government” liberals.

So what’s all this leading to? Well, simply put, I’m wondering how political liberals (or progressives, if you’re more comfortable with that term) view themselves? I decided to start with the unfair list the Right has created and see if there’s truth to it when it comes to my life.

Here goes…

1. Favor raising taxes? Depends on the issue.

2. Latte-drinking? Nope. Regular coffee from Peet’s.

3. Sushi-eating? Only good sushi, baby. Only the good stuff.

4. Volvo-Driving? Yep! And boy is it an old Volvo!

5. New York Times-Reading? Sometimes. But I also read the SF Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, and the Washington Post.

6. Body Piercing? Hell no!

7. Hollywood-Loving? WTF does that mean? I guess if it means that I take orders from Barbara Streisand, then the answer is no. Do I like some of the films produced by Hollywood studios? Yes! And so do people who are conservative.

8. Left-Wing Freak Show? You know, I would pay money and buy cheap liquor to go to one of those. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one advertised in the paper.

So how ’bout it fellow Hollywood-Loving-Left-Wing-Freak-Show types? Are you what the Right likes to say you are?  I bet not!

–PK