02/20/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Now Is a Great Time to Reclaim the L-Word

For the last several years, many Americans with progressive, open-minded and open-hearted political viewpoints have been ridiculed with the term "Liberal," despite the term's origin in free market libertarianism. Indeed, being a "Liberal" in the U.S. has been such an easy epithet from a right-wing standpoint that employing the term was tantamount in some circles to giving up any possible credibility in national political discourse.

However, things may be looking up for the "L" word. The reelection of Barack Obama derailed the more conservative momentum of the Republican Party. Shifting popular attitudes on social issues, such as same-sex marriage, suggest the over-inflated, if still very well-funded, nature of opposition to American diversity and equality. Americans in general will soon find themselves, like citizens of every other Western democracy, protected by health insurance. Just this past weekend, tens of thousands of Americans converged on Washington and elsewhere to protest against the particularly environmentally noxious Keystone Pipeline project.

Even the seemingly iron grip of the NRA on Congress may be loosening in response to a wide range of Americans' anger at what our country's unique refusal to regulate weapons of mass destruction has wrought in Connecticut and elsewhere. Taking a cue from trends such as these, the president himself has come out with an agenda that is stronger and more progressive than nearly anything he pushed during his first term. Part of what is behind this agenda is the calculus that the right-wing ideologues who ignore evidence that their policies are either wrong-headed (global warming) or cold-hearted (pro-gun industry) do not actually represent most Americans. For now, at least, the White House seems to reckon that fighting for ordinary citizens' rights is a more winning strategy than trying to compromise with the most obstructionist of Republican politicians.

So those of us who are tired of shielding ourselves from the venom of ruthless, well-funded, anti-populist right-wing demagogues simply because we sincerely believe in rationally-grounded state policies geared towards helping the majority of our fellow Americans are at a fleeting moment of opportunity. With the billionaires who threw lots of money unsuccessfully at the national elections last year licking their wounds, thus is a time to take back the "L" word, and other words like it. Soon enough, the dominant American trope is likely to reemerge that politics can't change, or that somehow it makes sense to try to compromise with a group of politicians who are funded by well-organized narrow interests, driven by anger and close-minded to change. For now, it is refreshing to see both activists and politicians arguing that it may, in fact, be possible to influence society in a way that is likely to save or enhance American lives.

If this is a moment for Liberals to come out of the woodwork and reclaim proudly the "L" word, this does not mean we should gloat or be heedless of or condescending towards the real, often heartfelt, disagreements between us and many Republican voters. Instead, trying to find common ground with people whose faith or other deep-seated commitments make legalized same-sex marriage or a woman's right to choose genuinely vexing remains useful. Part of the point of current political engagement should be to make it easy for lower middle class and lower class Republicans to find common ground with the party that actually engages their economic interests, rather than the party that has increasingly been co-opted by a narrow group who appeals more to people's insecurities and anger.

As has been true with many issues that have helped revive the "L" word, the state political level has been fruitful to contesting politics in a Liberal direction. Indeed, at the moment, there is exactly the sort of issue that can help buttress politics that benefits a wide range of citizens in my home state of Massachusetts. Governor Deval Patrick has recently produced a progressive state budget for 2014, the exact kind that liberals have claimed is difficult to enact in the U.S., which is why many of my smart economist friends in the state are pushing people to support it. Already some local media are suggesting that this budget may not be realistic, although it contains well-balanced tax adjustments that would raise public education funding just enough to make real improvements in a state in which high educational standards are critical.

I hope that Massachusetts residents, especially teachers, and my students, will look closely at the new budget and support it. This would be a true step on the road to making the revival of the "L" word more than just a political blip and, instead, a term offered unapologetically to represent a trend of inclusive social opportunities that has been, in the past, as American as apple pie.