On the radio show I do with Emil Franzi, I get calls from exasperated listeners who say really bizarre things like, "How can you be a liberal and have been married to the same woman for all those years?" Or, "How can a liberal bring up such decent, high-achieving kids?" Or, "You don't smoke or drink or use drugs and you go to church; you should be a conservative."
I try to point out that the three cornerstones of the modern "conservative" movement--Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich--have at least one monster drug problem and seven or eight wives between them. For those three, morality is a rallying cry that is often along the lines of, "Do as I say, not as I do." It's like the budget deficit. For 25 years, the mantra of the conservatives in the Republican Party was "balance the budget." When it finally got balanced under Bill Clinton, all of a sudden, it wasn't a big issue. And now that George W. Bush is running up the biggest deficits in history, the GOP has "discovered" that deficits don't really mean all that much in the grand scheme of the economy.
The problem partly stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes a liberal. Back in the 1960s, liberals led the fight for equal rights for minorities and women. They supported labor unions and recognized the importance of a strong middle class in America. They were on board for Lyndon Johnson's neo-New Deal stuff, helping the poor, getting more people into college, cleaning up the environment. They were also generally against the Vietnam War, but that's where things started getting weird.
In the summer of 1968, a gathering of disparate forces came together in Chicago to protest outside the Democratic National Convention. After the riots (Point of fact: An official government commission determined afterward that it was the Chicago Police who had actually rioted), eight men were put on trial for inciting the trouble. They included political activist Tom Hayden, committed pacifist David Dellinger, Black Panther Bobby Seale and anarchists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.
Over the years, that collection of idealists and nutbirds somehow came to represent Democrats in many people's eyes. This happened despite the fact that they were in Chicago to protest against the institutionalized hierarchy of the Democratic Party. "Extremist and liberal" and "Democrat" got mixed up together, and pretty soon, the Professional Againsters and Rabid Finger Pointers on talk radio and TV were wrapping themselves in the flag and labeling everybody else. Talk radio became some sort of universal translator into which they shouted the word "liberal," and members of the religious right would hear "abortionist," while Reaganistas would hear "Commie," and Trent Lott would hear "race-mixer."
"Liberal" became an epithet during the election of 1980, and Democrats have been running from it and hiding behind "moderate" for nearly a quarter-century. It's time to stop. As many great Americans have been liberals as have been conservatives. Liberalism is a grand American tradition, and liberals are neither no more nor no less American than are conservatives.
It's time for liberals to come out of hiding. The Radio Ranters have run their course. Limbaugh has been exposed as a fraud; G. Gordon Liddy has been marginalized; Michael Savage is a blithering idiot; and the current flavor of the month, Sean Hannity, is an inveterate liar who is unable to accept criticism of any kind.
In order for us to regain our rightful position in the American political landscape, here's what we liberals DON'T have to do:
· We don't have to sign up for every crackpot cause that comes down the pike. We don't have to support people who "rescue" lab rats or think we should only wear shoes that are made out of bamboo. And we don't need to protest the building of a telescope on a mountain because some guy who claims to be 1/32 something wants to build a shack and call it a sweat lodge.
· We don't have to listen to NPR, although we sometimes do. It's always nice to find out what's happening in the South Moluccas.
· We don't have to think that vegetarianism makes any sense at all. We're smart enough to realize that becoming carnivores had something to do with man's brain evolving into what it is today. We understand that eating meat and vegetables has been a natural part of humans' diet for as long as there have been humans, so eating only one to the exclusion of the other is inherently unnatural.
· We don't have to protest all wars. Most of my liberal friends and I were all for the United States going into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden. But we're smart enough to see that Bush the Politician beating the war drums and going into Iraq to assuage Daddy's hurt feelings is NOT a logical extension of what we were doing in Afghanistan. In fact, I believe that it we had stayed only in Afghanistan until bin Laden was killed or captured (instead of waiting for it to be an October Surprise this year), America's prestige in the world would have skyrocketed and it could have led to the ouster of Saddam Hussein without our having to sacrifice hundreds of American lives in a process that is still far from over and not guaranteed to succeed.
We don't necessarily have to stand for unlimited immigration, gay marriages or animal rights, just because someone at the fringe wants to use guilt to tug the majority along in that direction or because somebody on the other side wants to use a hot-button issue to paint all of us with the same brush.
What we must do is stand up for what's right, to champion equal rights, to do what we can to preserve the middle class in America and to remove the unwarranted stigma from the term "liberal."