If You’re Only Liberal on Social Issues, You’re Not a Liberal
The San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I make my home, is a well-known Democratic Party stronghold. The Democrats, and to some extent progressives in general, own California politics, but it’s especially strong here. You will not meet an avowed Republican. Instead, you’ll meet what we’ve all politely agreed to call a “moderate.” A “moderate,” in San Francisco, is the other end of the spectrum from a “progressive.” A “progressive” is everything the Koch Brothers are afraid of. A “moderate” is someone who likes gay people and thinks women should be able to do what they want with their bodies, but hates the social safety net. In other words, a San Francisco progressive is what liberals are supposed to be. A San Francisco moderate is just a fiscal conservative, a Republican who’s not a total asshole on things it’s easy not to be an asshole on.
But “moderate” is, to some extent, a politico’s term. Most San Franciscans and residents of the various Bay Area communities would not call themselves “moderates” any more than they would call themselves “progressives” in the way the term is used above. Most people here would say they’re liberals, Democrats, and yes, progressives, but only because they don’t really know what any of those things actually mean. So of course everyone here is fine with marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose. And everybody thinks there should be more bike lines and everybody loves to recycle. It’s all very nice.
I suppose I was only partially stunned, then, to watch how quickly all these nice progressives turned into rabid, rock-ribbed Republicans when the employees of BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, voted to go on strike. Suddenly they had skin in the game. Suddenly they were being asked to find an alternate route to work. Suddenly they were hearing rumors that BART fares might go up because the workers–the nerve!–wanted cost of living increases and to not lose their pensions. Oh, can you imagine the pearl-clutchery?
I’ve encountered acquaintances who posted signs and walked precincts for the No on 32 campaign, who waxed fulminant about the importance of organized labor, who damned the Koch brothers’ anti-union campaigns in the strongest possible language, suddenly get awfully hard-nosed about the BART workers. You know it’s a completely unskilled position, they babble nonsensically about the folks who safely guide hundreds of thousands of Bay Area lives to and from their destinations every day. Sacrifices have to be made if BART is going to be able to make capital improvements, they bloviate, as if payroll dollars could ever even put a dent in what the agency needs to build the San Jose extension, or to expand and modernize its fleet. Why should they have it better than anyone else in a recession, they whine about people who haven’t had so much as a cost-of-living adjustment since 2008.
And here’s the thing: not one of them actually cares about any of that. Nobody was bitching about how much the BART workers made relative to the average Bay Area salary two weeks ago. Nobody was talking about whether the positions were skilled or unskilled. No one even knew about BART’s plans for capital improvements except for transit nerds like me! They don’t care about those things. They’re just pissing and moaning because it’s harder to get to work for a few days.
When you get down to it, they’re not liberals. Not a one of them. They’re not progressives either. They’re moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road, don’t-rock-the-boat-as-long-as-I-get-mine Democrats. Ten years ago, they were the people who said they favored civil unions instead of gay marriage and thought they were being magnanimous. They’re still the people who say they believe in a ban on “partial-birth abortions.” They like the sound of “reforming” the social service systems. They think we should “cut government waste,” even if it turns out that “government waste” really just meant Medicaid the whole time. In the cities, they talk about neighborhoods being gentrified as if it was a good thing for the people who used to live there.
Oh, they’ll be right out there with you when the issues are easy, and when it’s easy to take the liberal position. They’ll stamp and scream about marriage equality in the middle of the Castro, or WeHo, or Chelsea, or Boystown. They’ll sing the praises of Wendy Davis and Planned Parenthood with all the confidence of people who’ve never even had to think about abortion on a personal level. They’ll put up a No on 32 sign in their windows, but just watch them talk about how right-to-work might not be such a bad idea after they’ve had a couple drinks.
And they’ll ride BART to and from work, or parties, or bars, or restaurants, or the airport, or wherever they have to go, day in and day out, for years on end. They probably won’t ever even notice or think about the people who drive their trains, who endeavor to keep them safe, who help them when their tickets and Clipper cards don’t work, who wave them through the emergency door when they’re too drunk to find their wallets but they need to get home, who clean up the messes they make, and who make this region function a little bit better by doing crappy, thankless jobs that garner a lot more negative feedback than positive. They won’t think about those people at all.
Until those people ask for just a little bit in return.