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Monday, March 2, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 19.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: This is my country
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I've always loved America, but I've never felt much like an American.

I live in a country whose dominant political culture is conservative, religious, imbued with a fervent worship of the free market, and rural- or suburban-oriented. My own politics and culture are liberal, unchurched, skeptical of unfettered markets, and urban-focused.

But the times, they are a changin' and, from my perspective, it's all good.

While today only about 20% of Americans would identify themselves as liberal, we are a much more liberal nation than we were in the 1960s, the last time most Americans actually embraced that label. If you're like me and you love the AMC television series Mad Men, you have a ready standard of comparison. In 1960s "liberal" America, we took care of business in smoke-filled rooms that were more or less exclusively populated by white males. You can certainly argue that we have a ways to go, but the smoke is gone entirely and the exclusivity is receding. Don Draper thought of himself as a progressive guy, but he couldn't imagine a nation in which being gay was not only commonly accepted but in which same-sex marriage was on the verge of being the norm in all but the most backward places (Wisconsin, for example). We may not call ourselves liberal, but by historic standards we are.

We are the most religious nation in the developed world, but those of us who aren't are becoming more comfortable in saying so. A recent poll found the highest percentage of Americans in history who were willing to say that they weren't affiliated with any church -- about one in five of us now. It was just bizarre to listen in on the debates in the conservative alternate universe about whether Barack Obama was a Muslim. He clearly wasn't but what if he was? What difference would that make? My guess from reading about him is that in his heart this president is not a very religious man at all, but he took on about as much identification as a Christian as was necessary to get elected. Or maybe I'm wrong and he does believe those things. It's all fine with me. I'm just happy to have a political leader who doesn't keep waving around his religion like a banner.

Speaking of Obama, it's just ridiculous to call him a socialist as some on the far right like to do. He’s solidly in the middle of the mainstream when it comes to his views on the economy. The mainstream view is to accept the free market as the basic way we organize our economy, but to layer on controls that make the market recognize societal values it would otherwise ignore. Who would really want to do away with child labor laws, minimum wages, or environmental protections? Would we really just want to leave all that to the whims of the market? So, the trouble for me in this regard is mostly just rhetorical. The language of an unfettered market is acceptable politics these days while the language of community, sensible regulation, and adequate and fair taxation has a harder time getting through. But the truth is that the national consensus can best be described as a market economy with lots of caveats and controls.

Finally, it has been a long time since America was a rural nation. Only about 2.5% of us make our living on a farm. About 80% of Americans live in an "urban area," although that definition incorporates suburbs and small towns that aren't really very urban. So, it's still amazing to me that our urban nation has no urban policy -- or even a discussion about one. Even some city dwellers still identify with a rural point of view. But more and more the images of and the stories we tell about our cities are changing for the good. Think the 1980s gritty drama Hill Street Blues versus the more recent cheery How I Met Your Mother. Crime is way down, transit usage is way up, and people are moving back toward city centers. Eventually our orientation will catch up to the reality of how we live.

And here's my last point before I break for the long weekend. I'm not arguing for a liberal, irreligious, socialist, urban-oriented nation. I'm arguing for all of those things and their opposites peacefully coexisting.

One of the promises of America is that it won't be just one thing. We aren't a conservative or liberal nation; we're one in which everybody gets to have a point of view and a place in the debate. We are not a Christian nation; we promise no "establishment of religion," Christian, Muslim, Jewish or otherwise. We're not a country with an unfettered free market; we want to smooth off the market's rough edges. And we're not a rural, suburban or urban nation; we're a place where people can live anywhere and love where they live without running down someplace else.

What's fundamental about America is freedom of choice and freedom of expression. We're becoming less rigid and more diverse, and so in that way, fulfilling more of our country's promise. And that's what's worth celebrating.

Happy Independence Day.

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