11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Liberalism, What Are You Going As for Halloween?

Each election cycle, it's always exciting to guess how the right wing is going to dress liberals up for the big spooky day. In the past, they've gone as paroled murderers coming for your family, big government coming for your wallet, cross-dressers coming to teach your children, and killjoys coming for your AK-47 assault weapons.

This year, it seemed certain that liberalism would show up at the Halloween block party wearing the costume of a self-loathing American -- a terrorist-loving, unpatriotic, non-flag-lapel-pin-wearing lefty. An obvious choice but always an attention getter. But like those FLDS women, whose seeming early lock on this year's grand prize was stolen by later entries Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, sometimes you need to make a last minute costume switcheroo. The economic collapse required some quick thinking on the part of Republicans and they've rallied in just the nick of time with the perfect new scary getup for liberals: Marxists looking to share your wealth.

You can't escape it now. Those three words, "share the wealth," are rivaled only in their unavoidable annoyance these days by those three other words, Joe the...oh, you know who. And if people are quoting Joe as if he were Adam Smith himself, they're also sampling his brilliant one-plus-one-equals seven reduction of Senator Obama's thoughtful conversation as well. Plenty of folks went bobbing for apples on this one, most prominently Barbara West of WFTV, who, looking to be a shoo-in for a local Emmy in the category of reading someone else's prepared questions, asked Senator Joe Biden, to his great bemusement, the following:

"You may recognize this famous quote, 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.' That's from Karl Marx. How is Sen. Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to spread the wealth around?"

Jaw-dropping, perhaps, but not exactly a surprise. After all, one sort of expects this kind of faux gravitas from a posturing local news anchor just as surely as you expect Governor Palin to flub the answer to yet another "gotcha" question. Not exactly a stretch.

What is surprising, though, is when someone as smart as David Brooks misses the forest for the trees, as I think he did in his Sunday New York Times lesson on the moderate middle ground of American politics. His explanation of the three basic "political tendencies" in America was certainly insightful. But like Barack Obama (or Michael Dukakis) during a debate, sometimes when you hear a long and bookish explanation, you secretly want to shout out a far more visceral response.

Brooks explains that while there are two major political parties in America, there are really three forms of political leaning: orthodox liberalism (way to create some bias from the get go, David), free-market conservatism, and the third, of which he goes on to discuss the origins, progressive conservatism. (Why there's not a fourth, a less-than-orthodox form of liberalism, makes one wonder.) Beginning with Alexander Hamilton and moving on to Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Brooks details how progressive conservatism has become the "great, moderate strain in American politics," a vehicle by which limited government can enhance social mobility.

But right from the second sentence, something smells as moldy as some of those eighteenth and nineteenth century figures themselves: Of the three tendencies, Brooks writes, the first, orthodox liberalism, is "a belief in using government to maximize equality."

Okay, stop right there. Skipping for a moment the quasi-pejorative use of the word "orthodox," which feels a bit oxymoronic and reminds me of my grandfather davening by the window, here we go again with the veiled Marxism and socialism. Maximize equality, steal from the rich, spread the wealth. You would think that all we liberals do is tiptoe around, looking for good people from whom we can steal something. All these encyclopedic explanations of what being a liberal means with nary a foot in reality.

I have scores and scores of liberal friends and I can't name a single one who would cite "using government to maximize equality" as its primary definition, though all of us believe fervently in equality and maximizing it. Nor would a single one of those friends cite "spreading the wealth around," as a goal, either. We're not Robin Hood and we're not Che Guevara. We don't want to unnecessarily tax and we have no desire to unnecessarily spend. We're not these things because it's impossible to scrutinize liberalism in only economic terms, even when compared against the stated goals of upward social mobility that Brooks links to progressive conservatism. Social mobility is still an economic construct and we liberals are a more well-rounded bunch.

When I ask my friends, my parents, myself even, to define liberalism, we all come up with some form of the the same basic definition, one that might lack the erudition of a Rhodes Scholar but gets the job done nonetheless: We believe in a tolerant and inclusive society, one in which citizens are free to pursue varying individual goals, lifestyles, religious beliefs, health decisions and -- gasp -- wealth acquisition without the burden of undue government interference. Moreover, we believe that government has a stake in the well-being of its citizens, whether it be through ever-improving access to quality health care, protection before and after natural disasters, a strong national defense, affordable and accessible education, and the compassionate nurturing of our most vulnerable members -- the elderly, the young, our newest immigrants.

We recognize, of course, that such protection comes with a certain price tag, in the form of taxation, but that without such taxes the government would be without adequate means of serving its citizens.

See that? So far, so good. No stealing from your pocketbook, no inherent belief in huge government or high taxes, no big brother. We like our Fidelity accounts and the stocks they hold as much as anyone (well, we used to) and we have no desire to pilfer from anyone. Yes, we believe in asking the wealthiest individuals and corporations of our society to contribute more to the tax base, and that doing so does not create an undue burden but rather benefits the greater good, just as community and national service does.

We want to live in a prosperous nation like everyone else, as strongly defended a nation as everyone else, and as culturally and intellectually vibrant a nation as everyone else. We believe that violence, especially gun violence, is a cancer on our society. We believe in a right to privacy. We believe in helping our neighbors, locally and globally, and striving to rid the world of famine, disease and war. We believe in listening to and learning from our friends and allies as well as standing up for our beliefs when the need arises. We believe in ridding the world of terrorism, though hopefully sticking to the countries where it exists. We believe in saving our environment, just as we believe in saving the jobs and industries of our citizens here at home. We believe in the pursuit of happiness.

I don't know -- it all sounds pretty good and pretty normal to me. This Halloween, maybe conservatives need to stop worrying so much about what liberals should dress as and start thinking about their own costumes.