In 1999, while obtaining my Master's degree in sociology, I was taking a graduate course in demography with Professor Cheryl Howard at UTEP, where we were involved in a discussion about immigration policy on the Mexico/U.S. border. At the time, being that I was still a relatively conservative right-winger and opponent of the Clinton administration, I had commented to Cheryl that I believed people were responsible for their own actions and not influenced or determined by their social circumstances. She then, very seriously, looked me directly in the eyes and, in front of the entire graduate seminar class, asked, "If you truly believe that, why, in God's name, are you getting a degree in sociology?" I was dumbstruck and unable to answer her question. This started a quest that ended in me leaving conservatism.
As really good professors are wont to do, she had forced me out of my comfort zone and made me really think about the positions that I held. I am now able to appreciate her rather abrupt approach to making me question my own perceptual framework, but, at the time, I was forced to rethink my reasons for getting a graduate degree, particularly in sociology. You see, the very essence of sociology is in examining and analyzing the social factors and influences that make us as individuals do the things that we do. If societal factors have no influence on human behavior, and we are completely and totally responsible for our own actions (as conservatives like to stress), then sociology as a social science is a completely moot endeavor.
I thought long and hard on this point because, as Cheryl had made so very clear to me, I was embarking upon a pointless journey to pursue a degree in sociology. I became more concerned at the thought and decided to do some research on my own. I knew that in the relatively small sociology department at UTEP, I had encountered no sociologists in the department who were conservative, and I had taken classes from essentially all of them. As I began to research it, I found that "conservative sociologist" was almost considered to be an oxymoron, and if there were any out there, they were as rare as hen's teeth. I made the decision to press on and finish my degree program, thinking that there might be some way in which I could integrate my conservatism into my sociology.
It really wasn't until 2003, when I became a teacher of sociology myself at a local community college, that I began to appreciate the point that Prof. Howard had made to me that night in class. As any teacher knows, you really don't learn a subject in-depth until you begin teaching it. As I began teaching the Intro to Sociology course, I realized that the idea of "rugged individualism," which is at the heart and soul of modern, American conservatism, is a myth. Humans do not exist in a vacuum as individuals, and, indeed, cannot exist so. Numerous studies have concluded that humans in isolation cannot function properly and suffer from acute deficiencies, both physical and mental. The reason for this is simple. Humans are social creatures. We live and move in a complex, interconnected web of exchanges, relationships, interactions, communications, and associations that we cannot fully comprehend. Every facet of our life is affected in some subtle, and not so subtle, ways. As a result of this, it is next to impossible to credit any action we perform or any accomplishment we obtain to the result of mere individual will. This is not to say we have no freedom of will, we do. But our freedom of choice is restricted to the circumstances of our life, to include all of the relationships that have influenced and molded us.
For example, almost all of us have had the experience of having obtained a job due to having a friend or a relative who knows someone in the right place of a company. Can you really say that you got that job based on your own individual merits? You got it due to the circumstances of being in the right place at the right time. Almost everything you've accomplished in your life is due to the socioeconomic framework established by your family, community, neighbors, etc. Going even further, how likely is it that Donald Trump would have been the huge real estate mogul that he is had his father been a sharecropper in Mississippi instead of a successful real estate magnate in New York City? It might have still happened but it would have probably been far more unlikely. People do not normally overcome their circumstances and rise to the top. One is unable to pull oneself up by their bootstraps when they don't even have bootstraps. It really is not that difficult to understand that Donald Trump, being raised in the home of a real estate broker, would become a successful real estate broker himself, and a young man growing up on the streets of south St. Louis will not likely become a corporate tycoon in New York City. Those who are on top usually got there because they started in a comfortable position near the top. Out of the last eight Presidents of the United States, only one did not attend at a prestigious or Ivy League university. That president was Ronald Reagan who, instead, was a Hollywood celebrity. Occasionally, a person will escape from a low income background, most likely due to social circumstances we don't completely understand, but it happens so rarely that it is not the norm. Conservatives like to trumpet these rags to riches stories as examples of "rugged individualism" but these stories are not the rule. The rule is that people typically remain trapped in their circumstances no matter what they may try to move up. They may be able to move themselves up an income level or two, but they're not likely to break through the glass ceiling into riches and wealth without a socioeconomic foundation that puts them into a strategic position to be able to attain that level.
As these realizations came to me during my first couple of years teaching sociology, our country was in the midst of being governed under the conservative principles of the George W. Bush administration. With that administration came the onset of two wars, the Patriot Act, excessive government spending, a breakdown of our country's infrastructure, the deliberate dismantling of the Bill of Rights, and the eventual nosedive into the abyss of a recession that crippled our country's economy. It became abundantly clear to me that there was something inherently wrong with conservative ideology when it was implemented into the real world of political governance. With my sociological imagination piqued, I was interested in doing more research on the quantitative results of conservative vs. liberal governing policies. I am a sociologist, so I need some numbers and data to help me draw valid conclusions. What I found was astounding and radically altered my view of conservatism.
The first bit of data that I looked at was the national debt as it has varied under different presidents. The following chart speaks about as loudly as possible in showing the stark contrast between liberal vs. conservative policies when it comes to the national debt.
The initial period of the national debt graph at the link is the time just as we entered World War II. At that point, there is a large spike, for obvious reasons, as we spent a large amount of money to fight WWII. After the war, however, the debt begins to go down sharply and continues to decrease until we get to the Nixon/Ford administrations where it begins to level out and start rising ever slowly. In the Carter administration, it drops back down a slight amount and then takes a sharp upturn as we enter the Reagan/Bush administrations. It rises steadily until we enter the Clinton presidency where it once again makes a downturn and begins heading back down. As soon as we enter the period of W's presidency it turns back up and begins climbing again. It makes a sharp turn up as the Obama administration takes over, but, yet again as in WWII, the U.S. at this point is in a drastic situation requiring an inordinate amount of spending. The conclusion couldn't be any clearer. Conservative policies drive up the national debt and liberal policies tend to bring them back down, except in cases of a national emergency.
The next set of data that I analyzed was the contrasting statistics of red states vs. blue states. Assuming that red states tend to be mostly governed by conservatives and conservative policies and blue states tend to be governed by liberals and liberal policies, what are the outcomes of those different policies on index statistics?
Well, let's start with divorce. Out of the top 10 states with the lowest divorce rates, six of them are blue: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Massachusetts is number 1 with the lowest divorce rate of 2.4 divorces per 1,000 people, and Massachusetts is widely known to be one of the most liberal states in the nation.
Only four of them are red: Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, and Kansas.
When one looks at the lowest 10 states with the worst divorce rates, they are ALL red states.
Next, let's look at percentage of citizens with health insurance coverage (this is prior to the passage of the Healthcare Reform Law). Out of the top 10 states with the highest percentage covered, 7 of them are blue and only 3 of them are red with Minnesota (blue) in the number one spot. The bottom 16 states with the lowest percentage of healthcare coverage are ALL red, with one exception, California. The red state of Texas ranks at the very bottom.
The next set of data is the infant mortality rate. Out of the top 10 states with the lowest infant mortality rate, 6 of them are blue and 4 are red. Out of the bottom 10 states with the highest infant mortality rate, 8 of them are red and only 2 are blue.
The life expectancy rate is the next important data set. Yet again, 6 of the top 10 states with the highest life expectancy are blue and only 4 are red. The bottom 14 states with the lowest life expectancy are ALL red, with Mississippi ranking at the very bottom.
Starting to see a pattern yet....but we're not done....
Out of the top 10 states with the lowest homicide rates, 6 are blue, and 4 are red. The 10 bottom ranking states are 7 red and 3 blue.
When we look at the rankings for poverty, IQ, pornography use, and illegitimate birth rate, we observe almost identical trends. The conclusion is inescapable. Conservative policies contribute to disastrous conditions under those policies. The "let alone", "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philosophy fares poorly when it's applied in government. There's a reason why that is the case. It's because we humans are not individuals. We move, work, play, interact and survive in social groupings. Liberal ideology recognizes that and adapts its policies to account for that. Conservatism doesn't. And its constituents suffer horribly for it. When one bases their policies and actions on a flawed view of reality, one gets flawed results. The data clearly shows that conservatives have a flawed view of reality. In fact, the rankings and statistics of a few red states reach the levels of some third world countries. Those U.S. citizens who live in red states live in some of the most crime-ridden, poverty-stricken areas of the country. And they have their conservative leadership to thank for that.
Thanks to a journey I had begun due to the prodding of one very engaged and brilliant professor (thank you, Dr. Howard), I had now arrived at a well-reasoned and fact-based conclusion. There's a reason why I, and most sociologists, are not conservative. The data speaks volumes, and conservatism comes out on the losing end. In fact, one need not be a sociologist to see the clear message being conveyed by all of this social data.