This is a little essay I have been working on in my spare time to try and flesh out how and why I started off as a Republican, and the journey toward becoming a Progressive. It's a break from the economic, data-driven essays I have been writing, but I'd like to put it out there and see if anyone can relate.
Plenty of ex-Republicans or, staunch critics of the GOP, have written eloquent pieces slamming the Republican Party for being anti-science, anti-common sense, and anti-reality. Bruce Bartlett in particular has made good points to that effect. Another is David Frum.
Instead of a stinging critique specifically of the GOP, this essay serves more as a personal account of my ideological journey, from my entrance into the political world after 9/11, until now in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Please comment & criticize at will!:
People often ask me how I could have supported a guy like George W. Bush.
The vote I cast in my first federal election, in 2004, was in support of Bush and his proactive policies against terrorists and their safe havens. I continued to support him throughout most of his two terms, and today I wouldn't change my vote or my support, even with hindsight. His tough talk and actions post-9/11 were what I wanted, and it's what I got.
As a new high school graduate that year, I was going off to study Economics on a scholarship (state-funded, but I didn't care, since I saw it as restitution, not benign support from the state) and was with all certainty going to be a wealthy businessman of some sort. The issues guiding me at the time could be easily wrapped up into two parts:
1) Free markets – Low taxes, low regulation, letting entrepreneurs ride
2) Strong national defense – Revenge, bloody vengeance against the Islamic fundamentalists who had anything at all to do with 9/11
And it was these two issues which made me gravitate toward the Republican Party from the beginning. It wasn't until later that I would realize that I wasn't a true GOP supporter, merely a “9/11 Republican.”
Click below, and I will take you on a journey through my adult life, and my personal growth from Randian conservative to modern Progressive.
Reaction to World Trade Center Attacks
I'll spare you the emotional manipulation of talking through the details of what happened for me personally on 9/11, when I was merely 14 years old. Just know that I didn't directly know anyone who perished that day, but my father happened to be flying that day, which certainly didn't help the stress levels.
But like many people, I was glued to the television from that day onward, weeks or months, just waiting for information, to learn what was going on. Before then, I never really cared about the news or politics or had any real ideological compass. Since I wanted 24/7 information, network news wasn't going to cut it, and I wasn't much of a print-media reader at the time.
It just so happened that the channel I used for continuous coverage to understand Al Qaeda, bin Laden, and other foreign policy issues that were gripping me was Fox News Channel. At the time I had no clue how slanted it was, because I didn't have any context, nor did I really care. I was mad as hell about 9/11 and wanted blood, and Fox News helped assuage my rage, by riding the war horse without any nagging pacifistic inertia that other networks broadcast.
However, as the coverage of 9/11-related stories wound down on Fox News and I was just becoming a major-league news junkie who couldn't stop taking in information, I was slowly being indoctrinated into the conservative world view on a whole host of other issues.
The Evangelical Political Effect
I had been a regular attendee to the Evangelical Covenant Church since around the age of 12, but I saw it merely as a tradition, and couldn't actually convince myself of the story of Jesus Christ, nor any of the related faith-based stuff. I really did, however, appreciate the role of religion in society as a stabilizing institution that had a net positive effect on people.
After 9/11, my involvement with the church became a bit stronger, as I began to better understand the political issues being discussed from the pulpit. And make no mistake about it, Evangelical churches always preach political issues. I recall even “praying” (uncomfortably sitting in a pew with my hands folded counting the seconds until we would stop as a group) with the congregation over Supreme Court appointees being favorable under George W. Bush. But personally, I never really did believe in the real-life consequences of pro-life policies. But the politics of it fascinated me. I even excused violence against abortion clinics as valid resistance, without any regard for the societal ill that such violence was perepetuating.
However, church was always that annoying thing we had to do for tradition's sake, a three-hour period on Sunday where I couldn't swear and had to play along with the whole charade. Occasionally I would be moved by a sermon given by the pastor and found lots of insight from some of the points made from behind the lectern. Like any worldview or philosophy, even Evangelical Christianity had its valid points.
Sure enough, sex, cannabis, and alcohol turned off all the illogical social conservatism that I was already resisting at the time. By the age of 16, all of that stuff was an act in the name of supporting tradition, pure and simple, until I rejected the church entirely after leaving to go to college. That isn't to say that I wasn't swept away for a short period by the arch-conservative religious ideology, as an angsty Rand-loving teen who wanted to be part of a persecuted minority fighting the system (like Paul Ryan, I conveniently rejected Rand's points about atheism, but took what I liked out of Objectivism.). But in the end, fighting abortion, protecting the “sanctity of marriage” and taking up other socially conservative issues was no longer something of which I could be a part. I was then essentially a social liberal.
However, I still supported very much the institution of religion, and historically it was hard to find any powerful American leader who wasn't openly religious, a Christian. Something inside of me persisted, beyond the age of 18, that made me really believe in Protestant work ethic and American exceptionalism.
To Become a Rich Asshole, You Gotta THINK Like a Rich Asshole
Aside from 9/11 and associated foreign policy concerns, economic issues were topping my short list of priorities. I had been deeply influenced by movies like Wall Street and Boiler Room, books like Atlas Shrugged and Capitalism and Freedom. I was also morphing into an avid student of American history, which seems to have a distinct Libertarian slant, with philosophers like Adam Smith and John Locke having a major influence on my favorite founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in decidedly anti-authority, small-government tones in defiance of the British.
By the time I was 17 and began my first internship with a bank, I had been thoroughly brainwashed by Fox News coverage of the 9/11 attacks and a flury of anti-government, pro-market philosophers, economists, and businessmen. It was then par for the course that I would meet numerous bank managers and traders at work who only confirmed what I had suspected: that successful financial players simply had a certain worldview that governments were disruptive and markets were perfect. In my mind, I had to think like them in order to reach the same levels of success.
I didn't care much about the records of past Republicans. My family wasn't very political, so I didn't grow up with much of a push toward either party from family. One exception may have been my grandfather, who worked as a lineman for the power company, often talked about how Reagan defeated the Soviets, and seemed to speak of him in a positive light. Yet he also mocked Bush for not busting up obvious monopolies. Either way, there was no pressure to go to either party, and my family was basically an "independent", as my mother would say. So the major influence on my political philosophy came from the wealthy idols in society that I would run across.
I was hardly one to cite the records of Nixon (who Republicans barely mentioned due to the shame of his departure from office) or Reagan. Although I thought institutions like the EPA and SSI programs were positive, and created (or at least accepted) by Republicans. The way Fox News seemed to present Reagan as a modern hero never really stuck with me or impressed me. But one Republican event was fresh in my mind: George H.W. Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, which was broken.
I didn't care much about the effects of inequality or the natural imbalances in the economy that the regulatory and tax framework was enabling. I cared only about minimizing my own taxes and maximizing my own freedom. Believe it or not, this classified me as a "fiscal conservative": if you were for low regulation, limited gov spending, and tax breaks especially for the rich, this put you in that group! But the meme of "oh yea I'm a social liberal, but a fiscal conservative" was just a cop-out that guys like me used to justify voting Republican. There's nothing fiscally conservative about the GOP, and there never was.
Thus, I had no party loyalty, but the Republican party as I had viewed it at the time was in line with what I was shooting to become in lilfe.
Socially Liberal, "Fiscally Conservative" (Economically Neoliberal) -- Libertarian in Name Only
I recall very vividly that around 2005, my mother had been dating someone from work, a very intelligent guy, a liberal who worked in the publishing industry, and we debated a few issues at the dinner table one night. I remember him responding to my views with shock, asking me “what sort of right-wing media are you exposing yourself to? I truly am concerned for you.”
I was amused, because I knew that most of the successful greedy rich guys had to deal with such do-gooders pushing back against the wisdom of markets and entrepreneurs. I was thoroughly for states rights and limited federal government interference in basically anything, mostly because of historical American figures parroting the same line. If only I had understood better at the time what he was getting at, that is, the context he was giving my views. But, it was nothing that I wanted to acknowledge at the time.
From age 18 (year 2005) onwards I began to self-identify as a Libertarian (and registered as such), even after voting for Republicans in 2004. But I couldn't justify the socially conservative views against abortion and personal drug use and other issues where the GOP openly advocated state interference in the private lives of citizens. It seemed unAmerican(TM) to me, based on my reading of history and philosophy adopted by the likes of Rand and Friedman.
As an underclassman in college I did a lot of odd jobs including food delivery, where I would spend the days listening to Conservative talk radio in my car, including Rush, Boortz, and even Michael Savage. I agreed with a lot of it, but viewed it mostly as entertainment. The more radical and extreme they seemed, the more I wanted to listen, to compare my own views, and adopt some of theirs. I went to school in a liberal university town, but surrounded by country folk, and the locals were definitely on the conservative redneck side.
I began to go to the local gun range to practice shooting an array of military weapons, which I had only previously encountered playing rounds of Counter Strike in my home town's internet café. I even bought a Glock 9mm and a Remington 870. I embraced southern culture in that respect, but always maintained a generally liberal attitude socially. Dropping N-bombs with my fellow white privileged suburbanites while discussing social issues was not unheard of, though. But my main focus still was maintaining my economics studies and personal financial independence while maximizing my partying, including sex, drugs, the whole 9-yards.
I was still supporting Bush's aggressive foreign policy actions, but the hangover of 9/11 was indeed beginning to wear off, and I struggled to win debates with liberals over the wisdom of the Iraq War (god damnit, find the WMD's!). However, I was a pretty staunch social liberal at the time, and would merely tell people that I voted Republican because I prioritized economic issues and strong foreign policy, and didn't have a problem ignoring the dopier social conservatives that I was forced to support in order to push my main agenda.
After all, they weren't really that loud, and there wasn't a lot of talk about any true damage to the progressive social beliefs that I held. The religious social conservatives were merely useful idiots to me, which would push the same views I liked regarding low taxes/regulation, as well as strong foreign policy.
Despite the registration as a Libertarian, I would vote Republican, and debate like a Democrat. And this is how I lived with myself in those early years since voting for Bush.
The Failure of So-called Fiscal Conservatism (Actually Neo-liberal Economics)
Fast forward now to my 20's. I'm a sophomore in 2006 in Florida, sometimes called ground zero of the housing bubble, and I'm working for a contractor for Countrywide convincing clients to take out HELOCs (home equity lines of credit). Essentially, I was cold-calling clients that had significant home equity thanks to a surge in market prices of real estate, and convincing them that prices would not drop and they essentially could tap into this equity as if it was a credit card.
We were openly encouraged to break various rules against disclosure of risks, and to just focus on production, since we would always get a “rip” from any HELOCs we could close (with residual bonuses for when the credit lines were being used up). Like any sales-driven work environment, everyone was competing heavily for volume and everyone who did well had a Type A personality that didn't care much for human impact of actions. In my mind, 'fiscal conservatism' meant low taxes, low regulation, which was universally positive in all circumstances. Then came 2007, with lots of signs of the real estate boom being a bubble popping up, with professors of mine divided over whether this was sustainable or due to collapse at any time. People at work were suddenly being laid off due to low production, and the top producers were showing lower numbers than ever.
As 2008 loomed, it became clear what was going on in America.
After being laid off as a HELOC-pusher in my senior year in 2008, with the world markets crumbling before my eyes, I had a sort of mid-life crisis at the ripe old age of 21. Could it be that people with my world view were fueling this horribly irresponsible market activity? Could it be that greed wasn't good? Could it be that regulation was socially beneficial and helped to prevent larger costs that accumulate in the absence of supervision?
My worst fears were confirmed just before the 2008 election, when Alan Greenspan issued a sort of mea culpa to the world about the downsides of inadequate market regulation and the failures of his Randian world view.
This realization was only compounded by the outspoken billionaires like George Soros claiming that financial market equilibrium theories were downright wrong and Warren Buffett talking about the downsides of unregulated derivatives markets, which I had at that point constantly referred to as “tools of financial innovation” (I shit you not).
The so-called fiscal conservatives in power at the GOP supported TARP, the pseudo-nationalization of the finance industry, which meant that they were willing to use the tax payer funds and the government to buttress a failed Wall Street. That much I could understand, as it was a systemic issue, but it could have obviously been handled differently so as to support the system without rewarding the bad behavior of bankers. However, the GOP were still unwilling to really use the government to support the underwater mortgage holders of every day Americans, or to help support them as they were marginalized by the financial crisis. This was a disconnect that I could not rationalize, and the Republicans finally lost me and showed their true colors in this time period.
What did "fiscal conservatism" even mean? Some people wanted to balance the budget, something I knew wasn't smart, as Reagan and Cheney had said "deficits don't matter," and they help fuel private surpluses. Certain people were pushing the issue of the national debt and the need to balance budgets, but it wasn't consistent with the ideas of fiscal conservatism that were pushed by supply-siders in the 1980's. All I knew is, the Republicans were okay with lowering taxes on everyone, and seemed comfortable enough with deficit spending, so what in the heck was "fiscal conservatism" but just neo-liberal economics?
The concept became rather abstract and asymmetrical to other views, and I finally realized that they were full of it over at the GOP the whole time. Either you're for limited government spending and balanced budgets, or you're for tax cuts and deficit spending, but you can't support both and then just label yourself a fiscal conservative, it didn't seem to make any sense. I was in a crisis of personality.
A Stubborn Failed Conservative's Last Stand
By November 2008, around election day, I felt dejected, angry, and alone. I was graduating with a Bachelor's degree into what looked like the second coming of the Great Depression. Religion wasn't there to console me, and a world view that was years of studying and deep thought in the making had apparently failed miserably in application.
I'm not sure exactly what guided my vote in 2008, maybe I was in denial, maybe I was just frustrated and angry. Either way, I was convinced that America was not ready for a black president and I wasn't about to throw my vote away on a Harry Brown (even if I was a registered Libertarian). It was perhaps the height of my personal intellectual dishonesty that I couldn't vote for the right man for president.
Voting for McCain/Palin was the last ditch effort of a desperate and broken man, as I was unable to accept the failures of a personal philosophy that had clearly caused the destruction of so many lives. I had open disdain for Palin and her ilk, but thought McCain would still be somehow a good leader, and would be a better choice than Obama, and thus voted in the minority for the Republicans, perhaps for the last time in my life.
That election, I also shamefully voted against legalizing gay marriage in the state. It was a really close vote too. It seems odd to me now, four years later, that I actually voted against the freedom of my fellow American to marry the person they love. I was even a social liberal at the time, but maybe I was just angry at the world and voted against the right things just out of sheer frustration and ignorance. I didn't want to believe I had been essentially living a lie, and made a last stand in protest of everyone who had contributed to moulding me into whom I had become.
Suddenly, I'm a Liberal?
Over the next couple of years after the election of our nation's first black president, as I was working in economic consulting (seeing hardship up close and personal) and going to graduate school in Europe, I came to grips with the realization that the federal government isn't evil when it reflects the will of a democratic society, markets aren't perfect, and that regulation was useful and necessary to prevent overly exuberant, socially destructive market activity.
I saw colleagues lose their jobs, friends go to jail pointlessly for posessions of substances, friends unable to graduate due to student loan debt, and people's homes get foreclosed on. Living overseas in northern Europe has shown me that there are alternatives and they do work, and we've implemented them before in the United States as well. Back home, however, the damage was already done.
I found it hard to re-label myself from being a rogue conservative to then being a mainstream center-left progressive. I would even debate people at parties and still not admit to being a liberal, but people would listen to what I had to say and rightfully associate me with liberal philosophies.
I still very much believed and do believe in the power and beneficial effects of markets on resource allocation, but believed equally in the need for a democratic society to tame the markets and steer them toward an end which would benefit the people, rather than the greed of a select few.
As an avowed atheist, I also have firmly put behind me all of the remnants of social conservatism that I had grown up with. I wouldn't dream of voting against giving equal rights to gay brothers and sisters, fellow Americans. I wouldn't dream of restricting the rights of women to choose over their own body. And I wouldn't dream of restricting funding for marginalized minorities and lower-income individuals.
Fiscal conservatism has turned into a failed ideology. Restricting spending in an age where deflation is a bigger threat than inflation is just devoid of any real purposeful beneficial end. Balancing budgets with a persistent trade deficit is irresponsible and sends the private sector on their knees to banks to finance the trade deficit. And deregulation has no place in a post-Lesser-Depression economy. In fact, this was really more appropriately referred to as a neo-liberal ideology of freedom of markets, which seemed to make identifying such views as conservative even more difficult.
Republicans no longer have anything to offer someone like me. I don't want their blind calls for lower taxes with no regard for the aggregate picture, I don't want their deregulation which would lead to high social costs later on. I don't want their anti-gay, anti-woman agenda to hinder social progress. And as for foreign policy, how could they possibly be more of a hawk than Obama, the bin Laden killing, drone-mass-murdering terrorist hunter?
The GOP instead seems like a broken party that is stuck pandering to the “useful idiots” that I referred to earlier, while marginalizing the moderates like myself who used to be able to put up with such things, as long as they pushed the right overall message.
But now they're just wrong, wrong on almost everything. The Democrats have taken the GOP's foreign policy hawk advantage, and have embraced sensible social policies. In an era where the private sector still isn't providing the optimal social circumstances economically, the government is a positive actor in the economy that can produce and distribute money for the good of the people.
Gone were the days where I dreamed of being the evil greedy capitalist who believed the raw pursuit of self-interest produced utilitarian outcomes. These were the characters who claimed to be all about free markets and taking risk, but the whole time, they relied on a model that had the government bailing them out anyway. What an utter failure of an ideology, I thought. Sure, they were clever enough to have an insurance policy by extorting the American people, but was that a group of people with whom I wanted to associate myself? And yet they still push deregulation and failed free market ideologies that got us into this problem. How could I just ignore all the evidence of the past few years?
Penance of a Former Conservative, Now Moderate Progressive
These days, I'm a big believer in government programs that address social ills that the markets won't, because of inadequate profit motive or what have you. The "free markets" simply failed, and it would be illogical to be against government spending in a time when private sector won't fill the gap that they themselves created.
The GOP and Fox News, since the days when I stopped watching regularly back in 2004-5, has become even more conservative. Back when I watched, they had Hannity and Colmes and an O'Reilly that seemed sort of moderate. But I didn't realize just how bad it had gotten until recently I viewed a stream of FNC for the first time in many years and saw just how illogical, conspiracy-laden, and downright stupid the party and these people has become.
Their stubborn insistence on being the party of anti-abortion, anti-gay big government policies has pushed me away too far. Their hypocrisy on government role in markets, inability to adapt to the new evidence we had from the housing bubble, has made it impossible for me to support the Republican Party. The message of “personal responsibility” that they tout is essentially meaningless in a time when millions upon millions of Americans are still marginalized by a nearly unfettered market that collapsed, and all the personal responsibility in the world won't fix a broken regulatory system.
Until the GOP changes their tone on social issues to be consistent with the idea of personal responsibility and limited government (the hypocrisy on guns/drugs is mind-numbing), until they accept that hefty regulation is a necessity in modern markets to help prevent financial crises such as in 2007-2008, and until they embrace government spending and reject balanced budgets as a necessity rather than an evil, then this Moderate won't be voting R any time soon.
Last Christmas I ran into the former boyfriend of my mother. Now a family friend, it was nice to run into him after so many years of being out of contact. As we caught up, politics naturally came up, and he noticed my world view had changed, in his words, “quite radically.” What else could I say, other than my opinions had changed in light of the evidence and facts. To which he responded, “I knew you would come around eventually.” Well, I did. And the way the Republican Party is headed, I don't think that I'll ever go back.