The hardest thing for garden variety American liberals to grasp is what a truly politicized and hateful place much of America has become—one long mean ditch ruled by feral dogs where the standards of civility no longer apply. The second hardest thing for liberals is to admit that they are comfortably insulated in the middle class and are not going to take any risks in the battle for America’s soul not as long as they are still living on a good street, sending their kids to Montessori and getting their slice of the American quiche. Call it the politics of the comfort zone. (Joe Bageant)
In my last post, I spoke of the thankless task of being a liberal. Now I’ll talk about the privilege.
One of the most obvious factors of the liberal demographic is its position in American society. Liberals on average are among the wealthiest and most educated of Americans. In their class privilege, they are only second to libertarians. On top of that, there is race privilege as well, since most liberals (like most libertarians) are white. All of this while living in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, a country that of course has had a white majority for centuries.
That is some major privilege. I don’t simply mean that in the sense of, check your privilege. This is also a privilege in the sense that offers resources and opportunities, maybe not unlike how some consider it to be a privilege to make a living as an artist or a privilege to live in a time of peace. Being a liberal is a rare and fortunate condition. Self-identified liberals represent a narrow spectrum of society. Most liberals are professionals in specialized fields. This is why one can accurately speak of a liberal class, not just a liberal movement or liberal ideology.
I know this personally, as a liberal among liberals. I don’t exactly live in the lap of luxury these days, as my lifestyle is now working class and severe depression is a constant struggle. Still, all in all, my life has been a thousand times easier than the majority of Americans.
I grew up in a middle class family, although our class status fluctuated a bit. My parents were highly educated professionals who ensured I got everything I needed growing up. I didn’t worry about anything as a kid, other than the typical kid stuff. My parents were teachers who were able to help me with my learning disability in a way few poor kids would ever be lucky enough to experience. At one point, I went to a wealthy suburban school where I got cutting edge help with my reading and memory issues—that suburb by the way is known for having been a sundown town that kept poor blacks out.
After that and while still young, my family moved to a fairly wealthy liberal college town. It’s where I live now, after having spent time elsewhere in the country. This town is fairly white and was even moreso when I was a kid. I had the privilege of being racially oblivious, as race issues didn’t negatively impact me nor did I have to see or recognize their negative impact on others. I lived in a bubble, a comfortable protected world. I didn’t have to worry about poverty, homelessness, underfunded schools, violence, crime, police brutality, racial profiling, school-to-prison pipeline, or any other crap that other less fortunate kids had to deal with.
It was an easy childhood, not that I realized it at the time. I could go where I pleased and do almost anything I wanted. It wasn’t always a happy childhood with my school problems, but damn it could have been far worse—and it is far worse for so many others.
As I said, I still live in this liberal college town. It’s a nice place to find oneself. There are plenty of jobs. Because of the university, research centers, hospitals and writers workshops, this community was barely touched by the economic recession and housing construction didn’t even slow down. There is a constant influx of state and federal funds supporting the good life we have here. Within walking distance of my apartment, there are numerous healthcare centers and public services, recreation centers and parks and trail systems, public and university libraries and also bookstores, museums and art galleries, and so much else. I’m surrounded by people who are economically well off and well educated. Even many of the bus drivers, taxi drivers, janitors, postal workers, bartenders, bakers, etc have college degrees. This is a hell of a town to be working class, even if like me you don’t have a college degree.
This is what it means to be of the liberal class. It’s not just college towns and wealthy suburbs. There are tech hubs like the Bay Area in California and Boulder in Colorado. There are other creative class cities like Portland, Oregon. There are the gentrified neighborhoods in all of the big cities. Then there are the expat communities abroad.
It’s not just the wealth, not just the resources and opportunities, not just the lack of overt racial oppression and other disadvantages. It’s a whole system of privileges and unearned benefits that makes the liberal lifestyle possible. This is what the liberal worldview is built upon.
Take health as an example. Most liberals take for granted being healthy. This is because most liberals spent their lives with access to nutritious food along with clean water and air, access to parks and recreation centers and gyms, and most importantly access to regular healthcare and dentistry. Liberals don’t have to worry about living in food deserts or having to travel long distances to find an emergency room for some untreated condition. This doesn’t just contribute to physical health but also to cognitive development. Consider major heavy metal toxic exposure—being free of this in childhood is no small privilege. Such toxicity, along with malnutrition and undernourishment, will stunt cognitive development and lower IQ, not to mention cause a whole host of physical and psychiatric ailments. And such illnesses and impairments can even be measured in terms of dollar amounts of lost income across the lifetime.
This isn’t to say no liberal has ever struggled and known hard times. I’m an example of that. I’ve dealt with learning disability and severe depression. I’m working class and at times have lived below the poverty line. Yet I almost always had the resources and opportunities to deal with my problems, no matter how hard they were. There were people around me to offer help or to lend me money. I’m certain that, if I had been born a poor minority, I would not have survived this long with what I’ve dealt with. I realize that, as shitty as my life can seem, I know little of what it means to struggle against impossible odds and feel like the whole world is against me. I understand just enough to realize how much worse life is for those less fortunate and advantaged.
It is a privilege to be a liberal and of the liberal class, even on the lower end of the liberal class. With privilege comes responsibility. No one born into this privilege earned it. Immense humility and moral obligation is in order. Instead of judging the less fortunate for doubting the liberal dream, liberals should seek to ensure all of their fellow citizens have similar access to resources and opportunities. Make that liberal dream a reality for everyone.