During this silly season when rhetoric on both sides of this U.S.
presidential election seems perfectly hollow, I think this is a good
time for all of us to examine the source of our convictions, (if only to set an example for our candidates).
How did you get your politics?
I grew up in a leafy little town called Hudson, Ohio, where it was once said you could fit all the Democrats into the phonebooth at Saywell’s Drug Store.
My dad was the son of a steel executive; he grew up in a house where the name "Roosevelt" was an obscenity, and he voted for every Republican presidential candidate from Tom Dewey to George W. Bush. (The first time; by 2004, he’d decided enough was enough.)
My mom grew up poor, in Detroit. Someone who eats spaghetti whose sauce is concentrated tomato soup is likely to vote Democrat, I’d say. When Dad said he’d vote for Carter in 1976 and then changed his mind and went for that nitwit Ford, Mom’s fury was noisy enough that I remember it, even though I was seven at the time.
So I guess I could have gone either way, and I think that when I arrived in Chicago, fresh out of college in 1992—my English major and my liberal college campus, at Kent State hadn’t swayed me much if any—I was neither liberal nor conservative.
And long after having landed here, I remember scoffing at people who defined themselves as essentially "left." I thought they were intellectual babies.
Now I open myself up to being called an intellectual baby by recalling the moments that I think drove me to the left, and ask you to remember moments that drove in one direction or another on the political spectrum.
1. I read Alex Kotlowitz’s book "There Are No Children Here," about a family trying to exist in the Henry Horner Homes housing project, on Chicago’s West Side. I read this while on the Lake Street El, which ran right by Henry Horner, on the way to work; I could see kids playing—maybe those kids—in the playgrounds where stray bullets sometimes killed people.
I thought: There are people living in circumstances so unfathomably different and more difficult than mine that I cannot tell them what it’s they’re responsibility to accomplish; I cannot talk to them about "personal responsiblity." I can only vote for those who advocate public policy designed to aleviate some of these conditions. (Or at the very least those who talk about these conditions. When was the last time John McCain uttered the word "poor"?)
2. I think of myself as an intellectual, but the question, "whose side are you on?" which I heard from one or another of the middle-aged liberals to whom I was gravitationally drawn for my Chicago friends, resonated in this brain. One of these guys told me he began to understand his own politics when, on a family vacation, his dad shouted out the car window a warning to some hoboes in a boxcar that the railroad cops were approaching. Oh, Eddie thought: That’s the side we’re on.
3. Woody Guthrie and Studs Terkel. It feels to me like you could go to hell for disagreeing with guys like these. And if you went to hell for agreeing with them, at least you’d be there with them.
4. My asshole lefty Uncle Randall, who is 17 times more persuasive on politics than my completely considerate conservative brother-in-law Lewis.
5. My wife’s job as a teacher in inner-city Chicago. Just for instance: While the right-wing argues that "throwing money at the schools" won’t solve the problem and claims that what the schools need isn’t resources but "accountability," my wife comes home with tales of kids passing out inside their classes because of the heat. Will installing air conditioning raise test scores? Let’s try it and see!
Of course I don’t consider myself a lefty baby; of course I try to approach every issue with a clear and open mind. Or, as the pandering, disingenuous CNN commercial says, "All Americans are independent thinkers."
But when I’m confronted with a political dillemma, I think I run it past the "Henry Horner Whose Side Are You On Woody Guthrie Studs Terkel Uncle Randall Can We Get Some Fucking Air Conditioning Over Here" filter, and I usually side on the left.
You weren’t born with liberal or conservative tendencies. What winds made you lean the way you do?
This is a GREAT question David, and I expect it will generate an equally great discussion, to which I am looking forward!
My perspective is actually based on two pretty simple principles:
1) Of those to whom much is given, much is expected – I am extremely fortunate in the life fate, or fortune, or whatever you believe in, has handed me. In fact, sometimes I’m almost embarassed at how blessed I am.
Because I AM so lucky (family and friends who love me, plenty to eat, a safe comfortable place to live, a good job, and the health to enjoy all these things) I feel I have an obligation and a responsibility to recognize, and, if at all possible, improve, the lives of those who aren’t as lucky (and there are way too many of those all around us).
For me that means two things: a) I do regular volunteer work, which I hope will help just a little bit and make a difference in even a few people’s lives; b) I support politicians and policies that reflect my belief that ALL the citizens deserve to be represented, not just the ones who can afford to hire a lobbyist or throw a swanky dinner party!
2) The other precept I go on is the belief that It ISN’T all about me! The world we live in today apprears to me to be increasingly based solely on the perspective that the only person that matters is “me” and that whatever “I” want I should have, whatever is convenient for “me” is how I’ll behave, and everyone else is on their own. This approach is, to my mind, largely responsible for a vast number of the sad, hateful, and ignorant opinions, actions and situations that currently exist around the globe.
We used to be a society of people who believed that communities were important and valuable. We used to be a society of people who were (occasionally, at least) willing to sacrifice to help someone who needed more than we did. We used to teach children that there were more important things than what sneaker brand they were wearing, or what video game system they had.
You can call me foolish, a dreamer, or just plain nuts, but I choose to believe we can again be a society that cares for the less fortunate, that believes it is unacceptable for people to starve in one of the richest countries in the world, and that people should be more valued than the almighty dollar. This is how I live my life and make my choices.
If I can convince 10 other people throughout my lifetime to adopt some or all of these ideas because I behave this way, I will feel it has been worthwhile.
David Murray says
Very thoughtful, Kristen. Not sure if I quite share your nostalgia for communal values of yesteryear–I’m never sure how to process what I see as a tradeoff of losing tight-knit provincial or racially homogeneous or oppressed communities and being stuck with NO sense of community (“if we didn’t have nutty communities, we’d have no communities at all”). But I share just about every other feeling you express here.
Not sure whether this’ll draw conversation. It’s kind of an essay question; who’s ready for that on a Wednesday? But I would like to hear from anyone who’s inspired ….
Joan H. says
I grew up poor, too, in a community where nobody had much of anything. Well, let me preface: after we moved to Alaska, in 1968, that was the case. My parents had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of a now-legendary couple: Joe and Vi Redington. They saw what straits we were in, and, along with making sure that we got ourselves a dog team (like there was enough money to feed 15 or more dogs), they helped us figure out how to live. Joe and my dad would make a run into Anchorage about once a month. They’d stop at the Sunshine bakery and load up with whatever baked goods were being tossed. They’d hit the grocery store and grab all the food that was being discarded. They went to Salvation Army and got all their rejects, as well. Then they’d come home and we’d start the salvage operation. Most days at school, the lunch my mom sent consisted of stale white bread spread with previously frozen Velveeta cheese, with whatever pork renderings she could get mixed into the cheese. Most of the time the clothes they brought home didn’t fit anybody, but because we were short on blankets, every night at bedtime, my mom would come in and pile masses of clothes on top of us kids. We’d burrow down into them and sure enough, we were warm. The neighbors taught us how to poach salmon in the summer with a set-net out in the inlet, and got my folks over their fear of poaching moose in winter. All of a sudden our diet included real protein.
After the pipeline construction started, everybody’s life got better. There were jobs and food became affordable. Opportunity was there for pretty much anyone. Oil development in Alaska completely changed my life and the lives of most people I knew.
In her later years, my mother, remembering the hardships when she had, at 36 years old, moved into poverty with four kids, became benevolent–but nearly always anonymously. One time she had me go withdraw $2,000 from her account–and she was not a wealthy woman by any means; she generally lived pretty much month-to-month, but permanent fund dividends had come out and she had a little extra. She told me to take that money to a young couple she knew from church, because she knew they were struggling to make their rent and were in dire circumstances. She said, “it doesn’t make any sense to give a little, because that won’t make any difference. They need enough to get ahead, and then they should be okay.” She bought extra food and took it to a crazy lady down the way, and bought her a battery for her car one time when that had failed. My mother gave of her substance.
And then I worked for a local office of a national non-profit public interest environmental law firm. These guys wanted to shut down anything: timber contracts, mine leases, ANWR, any kind of resource extraction. They were “preserving the wilderness.” They were children of wealthy families who had the luxury to take low-paying (for attorneys) jobs and indulge their ideals. Oh, and of course, they had the means to do the rafting trips in ANWR, and the physical health and high-end gear to hike through Denali, and the money to afford a McNeill River bear viewing venture. When I proposed that a few more roads into Denali would open up that great pleasure to people like my brother, who is paraplegic and can’t hike in, they told me that it was too bad disabled people couldn’t go where they themselves could, but that was the price we had to pay to protect this national treasure. Oh, these same lawyers, when given a socially-conscious investment choice for their 401(k)s, declined to make use. When I asked one of the senior attorneys why he his investment choices included shares of R.J. Reynolds and oil companies, given the work he did and claimed to believe in, he told me “it’s not the same–this is my retirement fund.” Right.
I don’t claim a leaning to right or left. Government seems more often to hurt than help, and to feed its own bloated bureaucracy than to assist those of us who provide the fodder. And yet I drive on paved roads now, where there were none when I moved here, and don’t have to leave the state to find good health care. I can thank Uncle Ted (as most of us refer to Senator Ted Stevens) for his many contributions; he has done everything in his power to improve the quality of living in Alaska, and yet he is now vilified for his attempts to civilize our wilderness–possibly for good reason; I don’t know. Alaska’s political corruption scandals continue on and on. I do know that, like after the pipeline, life with Uncle Ted at the helm got better.
So what do you do with that, David? I don’t know. I don’t have your filters. I do have the experiences of community–dysfunctional community, by the way, it wasn’t all rosy; nobody ever turned in the guy that we all knew was having sex with his teenage daughter; that’s the flip side–but the experiences in my life have taught me to value the beauty of this wonderful state, and yet to acknowledge that its resources have changed our lives, pulled us from poverty into a chance at a regular, middle-class life. I claim neither Democrat nor Republican. I vote for people, not parties, and maintain “nonpartisan” in the party designation on my voter ID. My philosophy from when I was in my 20s was that the only place I can really make a difference is in my own back yard and I rarely pay much attention to national politics because I feel helpless to change anything. But I’ve managed local political campaigns and got people elected to local office who DID make changes that improved this back yard of mine.
So I guess I don’t really have an answer, David. Maybe things are just more black and white in other places. I live in a place with myriad technicolor shades of gray.
Joan H. says
I also seem to have quite a knack for stopping a conversation in its tracks. Sorry–I just don’t know when to quit.
David Murray says
Joan, this is just a really complex, personal comment you’ve given here and it’s not easy to react glibly.
I really appreciate everything specific you say here (I’m HONORED to have prompted this comment), but I don’t understand the conclusions you come to.
I’m asking you to explain how your experience has brought you to your attitudes about government and politics, and you give me these wonderful examples, all of which more or less BELIE the attitudes you say they’ve created:
“Government seems more often to hurt than help, and to feed its own bloated bureaucracy than to assist those of us who provide the fodder.”
But … what about Uncle Ted! Where in your life have you seen evidence of all this bloat and waste? It may well be there, but I personally don’t see it. I realize I may be blind. But to be outraged by it, I have to see it. Where have you seen it?
“I claim neither Democrat nor Republican. I vote for people, not parties, and maintain ‘nonpartisan’ in the party designation on my voter ID.”
Uncle Ted wouldn’t have gotten elected by a bunch of noble independents like you; he needed a party organization to get elected.
“My philosophy from when I was in my 20s was that the only place I can really make a difference is in my own back yard and I rarely pay much attention to national politics because I feel helpless to change anything.”
You may FEEL helpless, but … somebody at the national and state levels decided to greenlight that pipeline, and … and Uncle Ted!
“But I’ve managed local political campaigns and got people elected to local office who DID make changes that improved this back yard of mine.”
Of course you’re right: Local elections often don’t require political parties or leanings (as a mayor I interviewed said, “potholes aren’t Republican or Democrat.” And many of us make the HUGE mistake of focusing 100 percent of our energy on presidential elections and none on local politics.
“Maybe things are just more black and white in other places. I live in a place with myriad technicolor shades of gray.”
No, things are gray here in my neighborhood, too. And they’re usually gray in my head. I’m just explaining which way I lean when I don’t have time to pick the nits on a complex issue.
And I’m trying to explain why I lean that way. I appreciate your attempt to explain the same. We owe it to ourselves and each other not to pretend God gave us these inclinations of ours, don’t you agree?
Joan H. says
Doggone it, David. I had composed a reply that included specific examples of government waste and an explanation of how that affected my view of government generally, and hit–well, I have no idea what I hit. Some key that completely deleted everything, and trust me, it was no short reply. But perhaps that’s best–my responses tend to be overly long anyway. So I’ll try again, and attempt to crystallize what I wanted to express.
The pipeline/oil boom completely altered Alaska. While this had a net positive effect for most of us, it also led to us being invaded by carpet baggers who saw opportunity to make a lot of money. Some examples: a facility in Seward designed to export the as-yet-ungrown barley from a state-funded agricultural project in Delta Junction. The Alaska Industrial Export and Development Authority was created by the legislature to encourage new commerce in Alaska. It funded the failed loading facility. It also funded a huge fish processing plant in Anchorage, that also failed, and is now a church. The Point MacKenzie Agricultural Project, designed to renew dairy production because most dairies had closed, their fertile Matanuska Valley land being converted to more lucrative subdivisions. Huge subsidies to the farmers, but most of those farms have failed. The state bailed out the Matanuska Dairy, took ownership, and recently sold what was left of the facility at a loss.
And yet the one project that would truly make a difference in the vitality of the entire state, the Point MacKenzie Bridge, has been deemed one of the two “bridges to nowhere” (the other, in Ketchikan, truly is a bridge to nowhere, and as far as I can see was only included because former Senator (and later governor) Frank Murkowski hailed from Ketchikan–that was a boondoggle, no doubt about it). The Point MacKenzie bridge would absolutely open up new commercial and residential opportunities and make a HUGE difference to us, but it will likely never be funded because Uncle Ted lost his credibility by agreeing to also promote Frank the Bank’s Gravina Island bridge. If over the years we had put our efforts toward that bridge instead of into all the failed ag and development projects, we’d have it by now.
And then there’s the self-preserving bureaucracy. A profession told me, when I was young and unwordly, that when a non-profit formed, no matter how good the goals that led to its creation, once formed and funded the focus shifted from the good works to preservation of the institution. He insisted that this was without exception. I didn’t believe him. And yet, how many examples can you cite of an organization that came into being, did whatever good work it was intended for, and then went away? Once people become dependent on the jobs, they’ll do whatever it takes to preserve those jobs, regardless of the goal of the organization.
Let’s move to politicians. I worked as a legislative aide for many years, and since then have worked on a lot of political campaigns. Most candidates run for office with a fervor for change–they have goals, they want to improve government and our communities. And yet, with only a couple of exceptions in my experience, once elected, the focus shifts from accomplishing change to getting re-elected. Every act is done with an eye toward how the voters will react. How many times have you seen a politician take a truly unpopular position? UNLESS that position leads to something good down the road for that politician: a cushy executive job in the industry affected by a stance unpopular with the electorate; or a lucrative lobbying job (guess who the clients are?).
And let’s look at public education. Overfunded administration, while teachers themselves plead with parents, or provide themselves, fundamental necessities like pencils, tissues and paper.
I acknowledge that we need a governmental structure, or we’d revert to a frontier mentality and have to all run around armed and afraid. We just can’t work cooperatively once we get beyond a certain number of people. I live a half-mile from the highway on an old homestead road that is privately maintained. Most of the neighbors chip in to buy and spread gravel, keep it plowed in winter, remove fallen trees. There are a few who never help, of course, but most do. But if that road were 100 miles long instead of a few miles, what do you think it would look like? Resentment would build toward those who don’t participate, and soon you’d have the kind of conflict that leads to people hurting each other. Establishing government is a path to the greater good.
But bureaucracies are self-preserving and stubborn, resistant to change. Politicians are adept at earmarks and designated funds that keep their constituencies voting for them–or donating to their campaigns. It’s corrupt, but it’s all we’ve got.
And you’re right, David–parties run politics. My refusal to participate probably just cuts off my own nose. But I can’t bring myself to join that self-congratulatory bunch of egos. It’s a forum for extremists and idealogues. I feel like I’m a part of that huge moderate middle, unrepresented, struggling to make good choices in a bad system.
So that’s my take on it, for what it’s worth. Which isn’t much–one wee voice in a cacaphony. Back to the Monty Python “Anne Elk” sketch, eh? “Well Chris, what is it that it is – this theory of mine. Well, this is what it is – my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine.”
And so I conclude.
David Murray says
Joan, you are the master of your politics. I can only hope to be someday as politically self-possessed.
Pamela Beck says
Your Blog address was sent to me via mutual friends, er, sailors,
of the kind you were cavorting recently on Lake Michigan–the
Father and son part of the team.
It was actually the wonderful wife of the witty sailor who passed along the quiet challenge to read your blog. She the lefty; Me not.
I confess I am older than you and thus Blogs feel wrong: like when my youngest teenager is playing X Box with a stranger in
China. Or maybe Jupiter.
Surprisingly, I am answering you. The question is thought-provoking.
You were raised in Hudson, Ohio.
I was raised in Pepper Pike, Ohio.
Your parents were a mixture of Left and Right.
My parents were totally Dysfunctional and I am
sure that if they voted, they voted for Money.
Sounds like we both are college educated, well-read
and informed people who have each been influenced
to some degree by another intellectual (s), great books
and Musicians! Guthrie!!! And I add Dylan!!!
You took the road to the Left.
I took the road to the Right.
But, I voted for Carter. It was reactionary after Nixon.
But after him, I pretty much voted vanilla creme pie.
And so I won’t take up too much space in the “blogosphere,” I
will make my point: It’s not about Left or Right anymore. In the most simple (and subjective) terms, it is about who will be the best Commander in Chief for our Nation.
Since 911, I have voted Left and Right. Since the Iraq War, I have voted Left and Right.
We have to change. Nothing is Black and White. Nothing is Left or Right.
What provokes me is blind dedication to the Left or to the Right.
Songs, Intellectual Musings, Books, Friends we punch in the arm
and Down a Good Dark Beer, Hometown, Mother’s homemade
spaghetti sauce helped make us who we are. But not who we decide to be.
So, back to your question: How did I get my politics?”
911 changed everything.