Politics & Policy

Living Liberal

A lesson for D.C. Democrats, from the backwoods of Wisconsin.

“Evil,” “corrupt,” and “brain-dead.” That’s how Howard Dean refers to his right-of-center counterparts, when he’s feeling charitable. “They want to kill me and my children if they can,” noted former Clinton aide Paul Begala last summer. It’s not terribly surprising, then, given Begala’s concerns, that Republicans didn’t have “any problem with Hitler”–at least according to Thomas Frank, the best-selling author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?. With enemies like conservatives, who needs that vision thing?

#ad#Well, just in case those on the left are looking for a backup plan–that is, if Howard Dean, John Murtha, and the impeachment crowd can’t find the road back from political purgatory–they may want to go outside the fricassee of Beltway politics: Deep in the Wisconsin backwoods, one family is trying to breathe life back into the decayed husk of liberalism.

Live Liberal is the name, and redefining “liberal” is the game. The infant organization, which was started last spring, is the brainchild of Daniel Bruch, an erudite man whose degrees form a veritable alphabet after his name (D.Min, Ph.D, Sc.D., etc.). “We’re starting at the simplest level: We’re first confronted with the reality” that “liberal” has become a negative word to many. The goal of Live Liberal, then, is to “just get the word out in the public eye again, and in a positive way,” he explained. This means avoiding the catcalls and bickering so dominant on the political scene; in fact, it means avoiding politics period, at least in the traditional sense. “We’re going to try really hard to stay above the political fray.”

Is there really a point to any of this, or is it just a rhetorical sleight of hand? Live Liberal’s origins, a humble confluence of events, may help explain its purpose. While cleaning out his basement, Dr. Bruch came across an old box of political gladrags, including a 30-year-old pin that read, “Proud to be an American liberal.” He fashioned it as a regular accessory during last year’s election, but something odd happened: Numerous peopled sneered at him, and those who didn’t would only whisper that they liked it. “This does not bode well [for our society] when one side of the political spectrum is embarrassed,” he said. And so, with the help of his daughter Sarah, Live Liberal was born as an effort to even the playing field. “To have taken a word that is etymologically negative [conservative] and casting it in a positive light, while concurrently making ‘liberal’ a term of despair,” Bruch said, “well, right there is a lesson from those we need to learn from.”

None of this means that Bruch and Live Liberal don’t have any political views. They do, and they are, as one might expect, decidedly liberal. (On their website, however, about the only hard policy stance is a brief mention that Live Liberal supports universal education and universal health care.) The intention is not to win on policy grounds, but to define a set of values the modern-day liberal can embrace. Bruch espouses liberalism in the classic sense, with a profound respect for individual liberties, as well as a focus on the common good. Hence the aphorism splashed across Live Liberal’s sleek website: “Less about me. More about we.” Still, Live Liberal is free-market and fiscally conservative (it’s a for-profit business venture, to boot, with a small portion of said profit going to charity).

“Government’s purpose is to help and sustain and improve the common good,” he explained. “There are certain things in the government best accomplished in unity, whether it’s road building or schools, it takes a common commitment by the people.” Conservatives might disagree with that, but there’s also a healthy dose of libertarianism in Bruch’s system: He is a strong defender of personal liberties, with one caveat–”Liberty is not license: It carries with it a responsibility to act in manner that conveys ‘good.’ “

Some of this rhetoric may sound banal, but it is at least a baseline for creating a cogent set of principles. And Bruch brings to the table a sizeable intellectual heft. He’s heavily trained in theology–that D.Min., for example, and stints as a seminary professor, a parish pastor, and a university chaplain. One gets the distinct impression that his religious compassion underpins much of Live Liberal’s philosophy, and he’s not afraid to tackle religious issues. The book he’s working on, The Literal Liberal: Talking Back to the Religious Right, has chapters on war, abortion, and homosexuality, and most of it is written within a religious framework. Rather than shy away from religious issues, he embraces them. And in the process, he offers a reasoned, serious analysis of some of society’s most contentious issues. Again, conservative may not buy his arguments in the end, but at least he’s speaking in a language they’ll understand.

Though still in its infancy, Live Liberal’s liberal wares have already started to sell briskly. (They have pins like “Liberals wage peace” and “Liberal is a good word,” shirts of a similar kind, and even pure Wisconsin chocolate, which this author attests is delicious.) Bruch and his cohort–most of his family is helping out in some way–have recently been on the lecture circuit detailing liberalism’s intellectual history, and they’re excited by what they’ve heard. People, even conservatives, seem to be listening–even if it sometimes takes a few minutes to warm up the crowd. And when he knocks conservatives, he’s polite–quaint, some might say. Bruch likens conservatives to packrats, people who are unwilling to discard anything in their attics, whereas liberals from time to time clear out the antiquated gear.

Contrast that with Dr. Dean & Co., whose fantasy seems to be the same as Dr. Frankenstein’s: Verbal lightning–over and over and over again–will eventually bring liberalism back from the dead, through brute force. Bruch’s necromancy is of a different sort. Much of it may sound trite, and maybe it is. But even so, Live Liberal’s early success seems to indicate that the Bruchs are on to something.

Refashioning “liberal” is certainly a tall order, especially with poison-powered Howard and his merry band of Democratic vaudevilles on the prowl. The Bruchs certainly aren’t likely to win over many converts among the true conservative believers. But if Democrats take a hint from Live Liberal, then we may find ourselves on sane common ground, where we can all continue sparring in good faith.

Alston B. Ramsay is an associate editor at National Review.

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