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I Was a Teen Conservative: How I Learned That Life Is Too Complex for Right-Wing Ideology

In the early ’60s, the right's emphasis on individual freedom was enormously appealing. What better way to rebel against liberal smugness?

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Politics is always personal. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the changes I was going through, especially at the ages of 18 and 19, were entirely philosophical. Suffice it to say that when I glanced back over my shoulder at my first 17 years, I didn’t much like what I saw—someone rigid and judgmental, with politics to match. None of this examination took place inside the hermetic seal of my own thinking and feeling; a cultural explosion rocked the decade around me. The facts of the civil-rights movement became as inexorable to me as worries about democracy and totalitarianism. The national dilemma of race, and that dilemma’s resolution, became crucial to my evolving patriotism; not having had a single acquaintance before college who was African American, now I was living with African Americans in the college dormitory. Jeffersonian individualism remained my ideal, but there were more and more examples of how sometimes only the dreaded federal government had the power to protect the freedom of the individual from states and localities. Over and over, the notion that government necessarily becomes more responsive and better suited to protecting liberty the farther down the line from federalism it gets was proved irrefutably false.

By the end of the ’60s, it was clear that the conservatism I so ardently adopted was wrong about the two great issues of the day, civil rights being the first. The other was a war in Southeast Asia that no military or political figure was capable of explaining, a war for which every guy I knew was fodder. One night in 1969, three weeks before Christmas, a great raffle was held in Washington, D.C., in which my fate was drawn from a glass jar. All men of draft age received a number that would determine how soon, if ever, they would be called up for service and combat. Mine was 345, a very good number as numbers went in a situation that nonetheless underscored the absurdity of the lottery and the war itself. The proposition of bolstering an inept and crooked Indochinese country for the sake of American national security was one that few in the country accepted any longer, and when four students were murdered by the National Guard on a campus in Ohio the following spring during a demonstration against the war, what died as well was the last semblance of support for the war and an ideology that justified it. To a Jeffersonian, the brandishing of state power in order to conscript people to fight in a faithless conflagration and then to oppress the right of assembly stipulated by the First Amendment was repellent. 

The 1960s were a Rorschach decade. No interpretation of the era’s inkblot is altogether wrong. Conservatism and liberalism were realigned in the process, creeds reassessed; liberal Democrats first escalated the Vietnam War, while some conservatives suggested that if this was an endeavor we couldn’t win, we should withdraw. But while the likes of Goldwater raised ever more blunt questions about the war and the draft, the vast majority of self-identified conservatives supported the state. Up to a point, this was an understandable response to what many ordinary Americans perceived as growing turmoil; faced with chaos, people like my parents had different ideas than I of what was to be conserved. None of this, however, changed the fact that in its deceit about the war’s unfolding and what was and wasn’t at stake, the state itself bore accountability for much of this chaos, and in the conflict between freedom and order, while the Jeffersonian conservatism that I signed up for gave the benefit of the doubt to freedom, a new conservatism now chose order. This state-imposed order was manifested by duplicity in the form of government misinformation and intimidation and surveillance, as well as by an implicit lack of faith in America itself—in an American’s right to know, in the American fabric’s ability to weather such fraying of and even rips in the national life. “If it takes a bloodbath,” Reagan said upon quelling a demonstration at the University of California, Berkeley, during his first term as California’s governor, “let’s get it over with,” a battle cry that not long before would have confirmed everything about the state that conservatives feared.