Every time I take a political quiz, I end up rating as a liberal, generally much farther to the left than I consider myself to be. I don't imagine myself as a firebrand, standing on the corners hurling lamb's blood at the passing SUVs. I often feel like I am one of those mythical liberal libertarians. "I don't believe in small government in itself," I find myself saying, "but I do believe that the government should be as small as it can be as long as it can do what it must." Defining the "must" part is sometimes tricky, but I can't let that get in the way of a good rhetorical skirmish with this week's Neal Boortz follower. Another retired but recently favorite slogan is that I want my government to be like the Special Forces: small, professional, and extraordinarily capable, rather than large, ponderous, and merely profoundly capable.
I don't hide from being a liberal. For a while I called myself a progressive, because I liked the idea of, well, progress. Making tomorrow better than today. A conservative claims to want the same thing, by pointing to a mythical past and trying to shape the modern world into that past, whether it's the mom-and-pop-and-colored's-only-bathrooms ideals of the 1950s or the stone-the-daughter-who-was-viciously-raped ideals of the original 50s, the ones that happened 2000 years ago. The past doesn't make the future better. It just distracts from the systematic pillaging of the national purse with policy failures that can always be conveniently blamed on those damn liberals.
"Progressive" is a good enough word for what it is. It embodies moving forward, leaving behind the old, growing up, giving up Cowboys and Indians for responsibility. But it's only part of the story.
A conservative, if you'll pardon the sports metaphor (one made more peculiar by the fact that I'm more of a baseball man than a football one), keeps passing the ball (which wasn't meant to be a snide and knowing reference to passing the buck, but, hey, we play the hands our typing fingers deal us) even though nobody can catch the damn thing and you end up having to punt. Every. Single. Time.
A liberal knows when to run. Ok, um, let's not say it that way. A liberal knows when to try something new, when to sneak the ball up the middle (ooooh, another subtle double metaphor, hmmm?), or scoot to the outside, or, when it's necessary, to put the ball down, take a shower, go back to the office and get some real work done. I wouldn't say liberals have cornered the market on strategy and flexibility, but I would say that the core principle of liberals is to use good strategy and intellectual and systemic flexibility to do good work. Conservatives use strategy and flexibility to bend us over, spank us, and then tell that we'd better be good little boys and girls and they make (some of) us love it.
But what about this word, "conservative"? Being a liberal, am I necessarily not a conservative? I like to hold the door for people entering my building behind me. I say "please" and "thank you" at the sandwich shop. I really, really want my (currently hypothetical) family to sit down at dinner every night and talk to each other. I think 99.5% of soldiers, cops, and lawyers are good and decent folk doing their best to make a living for themselves. I fly a flag on July 4th. I once bent down and kissed American soil when I came home after living abroad, because, damn it, I was home in the greatest country on earth. I own a couple of guns, and an alarming number of prints with ducks and gun dogs (most of which I inherited).
Does any of that make me less of a liberal? After all, I think two men should be able to enjoy the benefits of marriage if they love each other. And I think we have a long way to go yet in healing centuries of racial inequality on this continent. Oh, and it doesn't make me feel emasculated to say that I live, work, and socialize with incredibly strong women whose courage, intelligence, and humanity have been more inspiring to me than all the John Wayne characters and Tom Clancy heroes ever written into the world of fiction.
So am I mortally conflicted? Where some see angels and demons perched on their shoulders, do I have Morlocks and Eloi, trogs and naifs constantly pulling me this way and that? Well, no. I function as a sane and happy adult, despite these (apparently) irreconcilable moral and political beliefs.
But here's the punchline. They're not irreconcilable at all. See all those things up there in the "conservative" paragraph? They're not policy positions, they're not "conservative". They're personal behaviors, ethical choices, acts and beliefs. On a Venn diagram, they'd show up somewhere at the intersection of Common, Decent, Traditional, and Sappy. We should all hold doors for each other and say please and thank you. Most Americans are happy to come home. A few of you might even have a print with a duck or a gun dog on it, but that may be a Southern thing.
Republicans, as they do with strategic thinking and intellectual flexibility, have coopted these admirable and American ideals to serve a very nasty purpose. They call what is essentially American, perhaps essentially human (other than the guns and duck prints), theirs. They wrap themselves a shawl of extraordinary humbleness and decency, something we can all recognize and perhaps aspire to (other than the guns and duck prints), and they tell their voters that the liberals want to kick Aunt Lucy to the curb and smother her with lesbians and cocaine. And then, once they've spun up the indignation flywheel, they carry on with their merry little program of looting the national purse, your purse, my purse, and Aunt Lucy's purse.
Republican leaders are not conservatives. They're radicals. It's not that they don't believe in mom, pop, and apple pie (sometimes a pie is just a pie, folks), but that they don't believe in anything other than enriching themselves and screw the rest. But they use the gauzy, happy images of American decency to get away with a policy program that would horrify almost anyone who really, truly believes in what this country is about, no matter how they feel about abortion, gay marriage, or gun control. Republican leaders have no clothes, which must be why Little Johnny Ashcroft was so eager to cover up those nasty, nasty boobies at the Justice Department.
So what does that leave us? Liberals admit to being liberal, to being progressive, to having the honesty to identify what is wrong and propose ways to fix the problems. But (here's the next punchline), we also have most of that other stuff that conservatives claim: we love our moms, we love our country, we get misty-eyed when the evening news shows a video of a soldier coming home from Iraq and surprising his kids at Christmas by jumping out of a box. Yeah, we've got all that. Some of us do other things too, like protest the war, protest companies that dump waste, protest corruption, protest Bush, but at the end of the day, we're the same decent people as most of the Republican rank and file are. We don't believe the same things that a lot of them do, but we also don't disagree on some of the important points. To quote myself from yet another retired-but-beloved talking point, "Republicans and Democrats have some serious policy differences, but I bet individual voters, as modern Americans, agree on about 80-90% of the big issues pollsters don't bother asking about because they're so universally accepted."
I don't necessarily think that I, as a liberal voter, am better than a (so called) conservative voter because I recognize that we're almost all pretty decent folks but that liberals have the audacity to turn that decency into action, that we're never satisfied with the status quo, that we can always find a dirty nook to clean out or an injustice to make right. I do, however, think my ideas, as a liberal, are (1) better, (2) more honest, (3) more useful, (4) happier, and (5) easier to understand (after all, once you accept the obvious argument that the world can be made better than it is, it's not such a leap to believe that it should be better than it is).
On the other hand, I also don't see myself as a crusading individual, leaving those poor fools on the Right behind. I see myself as an American, one who desperately believes in the promise of this country and who cannot imagine a world in which thirteen stars, a blue field, and a scattering of stars no longer stands for hope, integrity, and honor. Does this make me a "conservative"? Yeah, because I want to conserve the essential character of what makes this country extraordinary. And I bet most of the workaday conservatives - folks with regular families and regular jobs, not talking heads - would pretty much agree. A large number of them have been steered by the loving, embracing imagery of Americanism to believe in things that are utterly opposite, such as hating gays, hating brown people, hating San Francisco, hating the Clintons, hating, hating, hating until they are convinced that they are hating out of love.
But most of them don't really believe that crap. Most of them know a gay couple down the street, and then fall back on "hate the sin, not the sinner" to "excuse" their sin of loving their neighbor. Most of them would be pretty offended if you suggested that they might want to stick Black folks back in bondage and roll the country back to 1725. Most of them have a liberal uncle who comes to family gatherings and causes an inevitable commotion when Bush comes up at the dinner table, but they love 'em anyway, because they're family, even though liberals apparently walk with Satan, abort babies for fun, and want to take scoring away from soccer!
Here's one more punchline. The reason conservatives get away with calling us names and demonizing us is that we really haven't done a very good job being liberals. Our leaders don't do anything inspiring, don't move boldly to fix what ails this great country, sit idly by while Rome burns, no matter who lit the fire. If conservatives aren't really conservatives because most of us in America meet (or aspire to) the basic ur-citizen characteristics that Republicans claim for themselves, then maybe liberals often aren't really liberals, because, in contrast, we fall into the same traps of saying but not believing, of acting but not doing that we accuse Republicans of substituting for policy.
Democrats can't win, but Republicans can't govern. I think that's how it goes. But implicit in that is that when we do, somehow, manage to win, we do a pretty damn good job of governing, because America, when they see what a real, passionate, and principled liberal has to say about the future of this country, they can believe in it, because it speaks to the same core principles that we all hold dear. It speaks to them and expands them into a boundless, fantastic future where flying cars and spaceships and swooping cities with clean air and bright citizens are the reality.
But we can't win if we don't step up. We can't win if we don't start telling people, yes, we love our mothers, and yes, we like parades, and yes, we do love our pie (see comment to previous gratuitous pie reference, supra), and oh by the way this America, our America, our children's America is hurting, unjust, and spoiled by wrongheaded policies that need to go away now.
We can't win if we play their game, passing the ball again and again and again without realizing that we're not going anywhere (but we sure do look fine in the pads and jersey).
So. At the end of all this, I finally come to my point, the call to action. Get out there. Tell your friends and neighbors that you love America and that's why we need to break this cycle of mediocrity and delusion. Tell your elected officials that they'd better love America and start breaking the cycle of mediocrity and delusion. No matter who our presidential candidate is, work to get that person into office, and demand that they break the cycle of mediocrity and delusion. And tell yourself that you need to do something every single day to start breaking the cycle of mediocrity and delusion.
Remind people, gently at first, that the Republican leadership has only managed to mortgage our future, gut our military, piss off the world, and even used and abused religion... all because Republican leaders don't believe in anything other than using rhetoric to make themselves rich and powerful. Then get out there and show everyone that you believe in leaving this country better than you found it, and they will believe, because that's America.
But, he says with an ironic smile, try not to be so damn wordy about it, because, really, it's not that complicated.