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Mon Feb 18, 2013, 02:57 PM

How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’

The current debate over gun control is one of several signs that liberalism is back, sort of. President Barack Obama gave a second inaugural speech forthrightly celebrating liberal principles (equality, environmental stewardship, collective action) and didn’t get impeached. More Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it. Universal health care survived a Supreme Court challenge and a presidential election. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has lost its juju.

The catch is that it’s still not entirely acceptable to be a liberal. It remains common, when making a liberal argument, to shroud it in non-liberal language. For example, in 2004, John Kerry described his opposition to the Bush tax cuts as a sign of his fiscal conservatism. “Oh, he’s liberal, he’s liberal,” Obama said four years later, mimicking his critics. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has health care.” The lingering taboo is anthropological rather than ideological. Liberals are judged inauthentic because (at least according to stereotype) they live in cities, avoid church, and don’t own guns; they consequently feel the need to describe themselves using other terms.

This perceived illegitimacy has been a particular problem in the gun control debate, with its relentless use of first-person accounts of firearm use. And if one specific activity has ensured that the debate over guns occurs on the turf of those who use them, it is hunting. An unwritten rule says, if you’re going to argue for gun control, you must slap a halo on hunters. President Obama, asked recently by this magazine if he had ever fired a gun, affirmed that he had, adding, “I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations.” Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not. But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.

We think of rural-heartland dwellers as real Americans, but they currently represent less than 20 percent of the population; nearly all of us live in and around cities. We think of churchgoers as real Americans, but only 40 percent of Americans attend any kind of religious service at least once a week; most of us sleep in. We think of people who own guns as real Americans, but they represent only 21 percent of the population; the great majority of us don’t own guns. All these percentages reflect declines over the past few decades. The percent owning guns, for instance, is down by about one-third since 1985.



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