10/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Chicago Made a Liberal of Me

This election is straining friendships and family relations. Angry accusations begin with the phrase, Since when have you been such a goddamn ...

It's actually a good question. Since when, indeed? We weren't born conservative or liberal. How did we get this way? I've been trying to answer the question for myself.

I grew up in a leafy little town called Hudson, Ohio, where it was once said you could fit all the Democrats into the phone booth at Saywell's Drug Store.

My dad was the son of a steel executive; he grew up in a house where the name "Roosevelt" was an obscenity, and he voted for every Republican presidential candidate from Tom Dewey to George W. Bush. (The first time; by 2004, he'd decided enough was enough.)

My mom grew up poor, in Detroit. Someone who eats spaghetti whose sauce is concentrated tomato soup is likely to vote Democratic, I'd say. When Dad said he'd vote for Carter in 1976 and then changed his mind and went for that nitwit Ford, Mom's fury was noisy enough that I remember it, even though I was seven at the time.

So I guess I could have gone either way, and I think that when I arrived in Chicago, fresh out of college in 1992--my English major and my liberal college campus at Kent State hadn't swayed me much, if any--I was neither liberal nor conservative.

But then:

1. I read Alex Kotlowitz's book There Are No Children Here, about a family trying to exist in the Henry Horner Homes housing project, on Chicago's West Side. I read this while on the Lake Street El, which ran right by Henry Horner, on the way to work; I could see kids playing--maybe the very kids I was reading about--in the desolate playgrounds where stray bullets sometimes killed people.

I thought: There are people living in circumstances so unfathomably different and more difficult than mine that I cannot tell them what they ought to be able to accomplish; I cannot talk to them about "personal responsiblity." I can only vote for politicians who advocate public policy designed to alleviate some of these conditions. (Or at the very least, politicians who talk about these conditions.)

2. I think of myself as an intellectual, but the question, "whose side are you on?" which I heard from one or another of the middle-aged liberals to whom I was gravitationally drawn for my Chicago friends, resonated in this brain. One of these guys, a retired Chicago paramedic, told me he began to understand his own politics when, on a family vacation, his dad shouted out the car window a warning to some hoboes in a boxcar that the railroad cops were approaching. Oh, Eddie thought: That's the side we're on.

3. Studs Terkel. Heaven or hell, I want to go where he's going.

4. The complete absence, at least in the Chicago I know, of the "well-read conservative." I'm often astounded, when I travel to other places, to find myself talking to someone who has read more than 50 good books and still identifies him- or herself as a conservative. This shock comes from the fact that in Chicago, I have never run across anyone who loves Shakespeare, Twain, Mencken, Vonnegut--and Rand, let alone Reagan.

5. My wife's job as a teacher in inner-city Chicago. Just for instance: While the right-wing argues that "throwing money at the schools" won't solve the problem and claims that what the schools need isn't resources but "accountability," my wife comes home with tales of kids passing out inside their classrooms because of the stifling heat. When General Motors pays its air conditioning bill--let alone the large salaries of executives trying to save the struggling behemoth--does anyone suggest the company is just "throwing money at the problem"?

Of course I try to approach every issue with a clear and open mind. As the pandering CNN commercials say, "All Americans are independent thinkers."

But when I'm confronted with a political dilemma, I guess I run it past the "Henry Horner Eddie Reardon Studs Terkel And Can We Get Some Fucking Air Conditioning In Here" filter, and I usually side with the left.

Since when have you been such a goddamn ...?