I’ve been trying for weeks to get to the point where I can talk about how my culture and politics have fundamentally changed. Before I get there, though, I think I have to spell out exactly where my politics were. I have to take a step back so I can dissect exactly how they changed.
At home, I had a politically disengaged mother who would have voted for Ralph Nader if she had been registered, and a father who was deeply distrustful of government. He told my younger brother and I, in no uncertain terms, that we should never trust a government that wanted to take guns away from the people. On his desk, he had a “stop scabs” button protesting the temporary workers who come in when unions go on strike, and a MAD magazine cartoon picturing a museum docent in the background, explaining to a tour group that vikings believed they would be rewarded in heaven for their barbaric and violent behavior, and in the foreground, a crazed-looking man with “Arab terrorist” written across his machine gun strap exclaiming “Sounds perfectly reasonable to me!” The desk was a heavy metal thing that looked like it belonged in an office somewhere, and though I remember seeing his business textbooks from his courses at community college sitting on the desk, I have no memories of my mom using the desk when she was enrolled.
Sometime after we got a computer in 1996 or 1997, but before my father started taking online classes at the University of Phoenix, he shared a printout of racist jokes with my brother and me. It wasn’t our first time encountering them, of course. I had heard them traded at holiday dinners, especially when the pastor of my grandparents’ UCC church would join us. The pastor recited his contributions with a slight Pennsylvania Dutch accent, one that wasn’t nearly as heavy as my grandfather’s accent was when he interjected comments while listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Or when he told me to “turn that crap off” when found me watching Janet Jackson’s “You Want This” on MTV in the living room one afternoon. Or when my brother and I overheard mutterings about “the Mexicans” drifting back to us from the passenger seat of my grandmother’s minivan. We had learned about the evils of racism and prejudice in school when we studied the Civil War, and we were both shocked that it still existed, let alone in our own family and in the leader of the church where we went to Sunday school. Coupled with statements from my parents about how the Pennsylvania Dutch around me were ignorant and backward, it bred in me a low-grade revulsion that lasted for years and years.
In school I learned that the Republican Party was business-focused and the Democratic Party was people-focused, and at home I learned that all politicians were corrupt. In the high school sociology elective that I took after my parents’ sociology and philosophy textbooks piqued my interest, I got more information in the the form of a handout explaining the demographics of each political party. Republicans were generally rural, had a high school education, and were working-class. By contrast, Democrats were generally urban, had college degrees, made more money, and/or were often non-white. In my interactions with outspoken high school girls who were dressed in trendier clothing than me and had “the only bush I trust is my own” on their MySpace pages, I also learned that Democrats tended toward self-righteousness.
Because of the timing of my 18th birthday, I was late getting in my voter registration, which would have declared me an independent and given me the ability to vote for Bush in 2004. I didn’t do much research aside from a cursory Internet search, but I knew Kerry claimed to represent the interests of of the people while being one of the wealthiest men in Congress. Shortly after the election, my grandfather said something about boycotting Heinz products.
I became slightly more engaged with politics after my boyfriend (and later husband) and I got together that fall. His parents hailed from Catholic working-class and middle-class families in the Philly suburbs, and they moved around the Philly area and the Midwest before landing in our town when my husband was a toddler. We’d first met in the elementary school gifted program when he was a quiet fourth grader and I was an awkward sixth-grader, and in high school he sometimes came to football games and traded Monty Python quotes with mutual friends who sat with me in the marching band section. Instead of music clubs, he pursued debate team and scholastic scrimmage. The way he explains it to me, he was an “elite nerd” who enjoyed arguing with peers, and since his peers were primarily liberal, he had to take a conservative stance in order to have arguments. At some point, he started believing in the persona he had formed. It was reinforced by the beliefs of his parents, who often watched Fox News when we hung out in the evenings, and other respected adults in the area, who presumably understood the world better than teenagers.
My boyfriend/husband read political theorists like Machiavelli and Rousseau, as well as lots of history books, and he argued his stances with refreshing pragmatism instead of the unexamined gut reactions. For example, such-and-such government program sounded great in theory, but it would be prohibitively expensive. Or, so-and-so federal law was basically a good idea, but lawmakers had hidden a bunch of junk in it to appease their constituents. Or, so-and-so senator shouldn’t be writing this bill because he has no expertise, or so-and-so is saying this strategically but he actually votes that way. Or, this-and-this government program targeting that-and-that problem created dependence and actually perpetuated the problem instead of solving the root cause. Socially pretty liberal, but skeptical of implementation of social policies. He rolled his eyes at mainstream conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Bill O’Reilly. He was knowledgeable and impassioned, and his libertarian-esque beliefs and concerns mostly became my own. We believed everyone had equal opportunities for success and just needed to use their own talents accordingly, as we had.
His family ties to the Philly area – and the desire to go somewhere much more exciting than our town – led him to enroll at La Salle University and work towards a history degree, while also working 30 to 40 hours a week at the restaurant his father managed in the suburbs. I needed desperately to get out of our town too, and I joined him at La Salle after I finished up at community college. Through his social circle I met religious conservatives, a branch of conservatism that I hadn’t encountered in our hometown of mainline Protestants whose politics were completely detached from their religion, as well as business-oriented conservatives from well-off families. As mentioned before, I became friends with other socially liberal, fiscally conservative, moderate independents. We wondered at the narrow aims of our outspoken Democrat friends, who seemed solely concerned with social issues. My friends and I liked Obama’s personality but distrusted his message (and felt more than a little alienated by his dismissive “clinging to their guns and religion” statement), and we voted for McCain, the war veteran with years of experience, a message of ‘reaching across the aisle,’ and an immigration policy that was to the left of the GOP party line and more palatable to us and the undocumented workers we knew from our jobs.
During our time in Chicago and in New Haven proper, my husband fell into political nihilism, refusing to acknowledge any position at all. After what I’d experienced in Chicago, I wasn’t sure what to think, either. The Tea Party movement had gained traction within the GOP, and it quickly morphed from a libertarian opposition to excessive taxes into refusal to compromise with Democrats, calls for Obama’s birth certificate, statements that he was a Muslim with the implication that a Muslim president was a bad thing. It was a movement with racist undertones that I did not want to be part of. I didn’t register to vote in 2012, but I found myself somewhat happy that Obama got a second term. Despite my initial hand-wringing and the passing of the controversial Affordable Care Act, he had gotten us out of Iraq and started withdrawal from Afghanistan, slowed and stabilized the economic recession he’d inherited, and he had proved tougher than expected in foreign policy. He hadn’t been terrible, and might have even been good.
Plus I’d liked living in his neighborhood.