That brings me to a general point: the "liberal who got mugged" expression is highly misleading and ought to be retired. It perpetuates the false notion that liberals live in ivory towers and that if they were better attuned to the real-world consequences of their policy preferences, they'd be conservatives. I believe that in many ways the reverse is true.
Where did this expression come from? A while back I searched newspaper archives for the answer, and with the help of The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum (previously known as Cynic, a commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog where we hung out), I found it. The line was apparently coined in 1972 by Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo when talking to a Newsweek reporter. "You know what a conservative is?" he asked. "That's a liberal who got mugged the night before." According to Appelbaum:
The article itself 'Living with Crime, USA' is a famous exploration of the intersection of crime and our fear of crime, written by David Alpern after he himself was mugged. Rizzo, a Democrat who ascended to the mayoralty through the police force, was making a point about the paramount importance of law and order. His point was that stopping muggings was a basic prerequisite for any other initiative. And most conservatives, at the time, were justifiably offended. The quip, after all, implies that liberals win in reasoned, principled debate, but that conservatives are fueled by fear.As the expression gained popularity, its original meaning was forgotten, and--perhaps owing partly to Rizzo's own reputation as a law-and-order Democrat who eventually switched parties--it soon evolved into a condescending indictment of liberals. Its new meaning was encapsulated by Irving Kristol in the late '70s when he declared that a neoconservative was a liberal who got "mugged by reality."
Liberals over the years have struggled to come up with alternative expressions. One I've often heard is "A liberal is a conservative who got arrested." Actually, though, that to me almost sounds like just another diss of liberals, implying they're "soft" on crime if not criminals themselves. (Maybe it would work better if it went "wrongly arrested.") One thing liberals rarely do is question the original expression, probably because they believe it has kernels of truth to it. And so it does. The problem is that it stacks the deck against liberals in a way that just isn't accurate--and that's something we ought to point out more often, instead of searching in vain for our own quips.
For one thing, it comes with an assumption that the liberal who gets mugged has made a wise choice by turning conservative, rather than having simply given in to base fears that may have little grounding in reality. Let's say a liberal's house gets burglarized, and he goes out and buys a gun to protect himself from future home invasions. He may have become more conservative, but has he become objectively safer? The evidence wouldn't seem to support that conclusion.
The expression stops making sense altogether once you move beyond the subject of crime. (Even on crime it is questionable and betrays a white perspective since it doesn't account for a fear of police, a big factor in the lives of African Americans.) On issue after issue, from health care to Social Security to unemployment and beyond, it is conservative elites who don't have to deal with the real-world consequences of their policy-making. Kristol's statement in particular looks ironic now, since the Iraq War was essentially a case of neocons getting mugged by reality. And as we can see from the story about the South Carolina man, the GOP's war against Obamacare has opened up new avenues for conservatives to be mugged by reality.
But let's not kid ourselves that this will create scores of new Democratic voters. What will prevent that from occurring is something that has been a great friend to the GOP over the past several generations: namely, good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance.
It's what gets people to go to Tea Party rallies declaring, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." It's what gets the actor Craig T. Nelson to say, "I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anybody help me out? No. No." It's what gets Kentuckyans to like their health-care exchange but hate Obamacare. It's what gets some of the reddest states in the nation to have the highest rates of food stamp use.
Getting mugged isn't going to change you when you've been brainwashed into thinking the mugger is your savior.