Author's note: "Our nation needs essays far more than it needs bumper stickers." That's a line from early in my book, Tales of a Real American Liberal. The book is a collection of 60 essays that explore current events and issues from the unapologetically viewpoint that liberals are the standard-bearers of the American values, despite right-wing propaganda to the contrary. This article is an excerpt from the book's introductory essay. More information about the book follows at the end of the article. Many thanks to Rob Kall, publisher of Op-Ed News, for inviting me to post this excerpt from my new book, Tales of a Real American Liberal.
How I Became a Real American Liberal
Back in 2008, Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin said, "the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the 'real America.'" I was struck by Palin's strange comment because someone running for high office saying that one place in America is somehow more "pro-American" than another place is simply ignorant and insulting. And her words hit me hard on another level. I grew up in rural southern Pennsylvania, an area that Palin would certainly consider "real America." But Palin would be shocked to discover that I'm the kind of person she wrongly dismisses as an over-educated, elitist, America-hating leftist. In fact, as a unionized teacher now making my home in liberal Massachusetts, Palin and her extreme-right-wing comrades would probably want to put crosshairs over my face and rant about "reloading."
My upbringing taught me many essential lessons that form the core of my liberal viewpoints. Most importantly, I was taught by my parents and my community that we are all in this life together. If relatives were having a hard time, people in our corner of "real America" took them in or helped them get back on their feet instead of blaming them or casting them aside. If the barn at a neighboring farm burned down, we didn't say, "tough for them" or "God must be punishing them." We pitched in to care for their animals and helped them rebuild. They worked hard for themselves while we worked hard right beside them.
When our gardens came in, we took bushel after bushel of tomatoes, peppers, beans, and cucumbers to our neighbors, friends, and relatives--whether we had extra or just barely enough. We didn't question who deserved the food that we worked so hard to produce. We spread the fruits of our labor around because it was the right thing to do.
When new people moved to the area, they were often greeted with those bushels from our gardens. We didn't immediately distrust them because they were new and different from us. We welcomed them into the community. Of course, in the rare cases when they turned out to be jerks who abused our sense of community, they were crossed off our garden list.
A small percentage of the "real Americans" I grew up with resembled people like Sarah Palin today. They ranted about "commies" or "darkies" who didn't want to work and just wanted to take everything we had. They kept a rifle by the door because, as they warned us, those "darkies" were coming from the cities to take our money. Worst of all, some were convinced that the government would swoop in and capture us all and make us renounce our faith in Jesus.
When we heard that kind of raving, we mostly just shook our heads and ignored it as best we could. In our community, we understood that a few people weren't quite connected with reality. Mostly, there seemed to be a communal agreement that these people were to be pitied more than anything else. "There's one in every family," my mother would say sadly. On the other hand, if they brought their ravings to our door, my father would tell them in clear terms, "We don't talk that way in our home." I wish my father were alive today to tell Sarah Palin, "We don't talk that way in America."
My parents also believed that education was the most important way that I could improve my life and that their tax dollars had no higher purpose than funding our public schools. They taught me to pay attention in class, study hard, and respect my teachers. By contrast, Sarah Palin and her Republican friends these days tell teachers that they are overpaid and underworked radicals who corrupt young minds with their evil socialist, liberal, homosexual agenda. My parents warned me that if I talked back to a teacher in school, then I could expect a swift kick in the rear when I got home. Republicans these days have nothing but backtalk and budget cuts for teachers.
My fellow middle-aged friends sometimes tell me that they are nostalgic for "real America." They point out that things were different "once upon a time," referring to a vague period in American history when our parents grew up and, to a lesser extent, when we came of age. On many levels, my friends are right. America's middle-class boomed in the middle part of the 20th century. But what the nostalgic people seldom point out is why things were different. It's not that people were somehow naturally more virtuous in the past. Those were the days when water fountains were separated by race and women weren't allowed to be a major part of the work force. Racism and sexism are not virtues. Instead, very specific political and social forces created a vibrant middle-class in the mid-20th century--progressive forces that conservatives of the day fought against.
Conditions improved for many Americans beginning in the 1940s. The progressive reforms and the labor movement in the early part of the century combined with the liberal New Deal legislation to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor and create the middle class. Programs such as Social Security and tax policies such as a much higher rate on personal, corporate, and inherited income at the upper levels helped build the middle class. Later progressive programs such as Medicare, Civil Rights laws, and common-sense financial regulation broadened the middle class. Before all these changes, the Gilded Age was a time of the robber barons where there were a few super rich and a vast class of working poor.
I'm grateful to have been born into a progressive America rather than the regressive one of only a few generations earlier. My parents, siblings, and I were able to live a more-or-less middle-class life while I was growing up despite many drawbacks. My father suffered a heart attack when he was in his early fifties (about the same age I am now) and was never able to return to his job as a construction steamfitter. Because Dad had fought in WWII, he had access to government health care, so we didn't have to go broke to make sure he got the medical care he needed. His union pension and a small income from our little farm helped. And Mom became a working mother in her fifties, something rare in those days, getting a job at a historical museum in a nearby town through a government-funded program. When Dad passed away a decade later, Social Security benefits kept us financially afloat. Considering these experiences, I have a hard time keeping quiet when I hear conservatives demonizing progressive government programs. Yes, my parents worked hard all their lives. Yes, I also worked hard to make my life a success. But to claim that we did everything ourselves with no help from anyone would be self-aggrandizing to an idiotic degree.
In contrast to the progressive forces that created the middle class, what are the big plans embraced by today's Republican Party, beginning with the "real American" hero, Ronald Reagan? Privatize Social Security, strip workers' rights, break unions, deregulate the financial sector, and reduce tax rates for corporations and the wealthy. Basically, Republicans want to repeal the advances of the 20th century and destroy the middle class. Republicans pretend to support the middle class while demonizing those terrible, anti-American liberals.
As someone who grew up in the progressive "real America" of the mid-Twentieth Century, I've never understood why liberals are labeled by conservatives as frivolous and lazy people living beyond their means. My wife Betsy and I are liberals, and we live within our means. I've been employed since I was 15 and had several jobs during college and graduate school, often working full time while carrying a full load of classes. Before that, I did more work on our farm each day than many of my childhood friends did in a year.