I Was a Teen Conservative: How I Learned That Life Is Too Complex for Right-Wing Ideology
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Where this story leaves me at the end isn’t really important, but since it began as my story, I should finish it. I’m keenly aware that my present identity as a political nomad may be no less about my ego than knee-jerk obstinacy was in my adolescence, that perhaps I repeat the pattern of my youth in reflexively staking out the vantage point of a contrarian. My politics were right when the country was left, and then moved left as the country moved right. The most flattering conclusion is that my previous life as a teenage right-winger inoculates me to ideology altogether. Consistency isn’t always the hobgoblin of a small mind: Every amendment in the Bill of Rights can’t be interpreted so broadly as to extrapolate from the fourth not simply a right to privacy but to an abortion, while at the same time the Second Amendment is strictly construed as being about a militia rather than the larger freedom of the citizenry not to be disarmed by the state. In turn, the Second Amendment can’t be interpreted broadly, ignoring the actual language, while the other nine are interpreted narrowly. At a social gathering following 9/11, I was dismayed that friends to the left of me condemned what I considered George W. Bush’s legitimate military action in Afghanistan, given the complicity of the Taliban in its alliance with al-Qaeda; the war against Iraq, on the other hand (having nothing to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11 or phantom weapons), made me angrier than anything that any American government has done.
I have my own kids now. Despite gratifying evidence that my 15-year-old son knows who the Koch brothers are, the allure of memorizing all the presidents in order escapes him. My seven-year-old, on the other hand, was reported by neighbors to be heard railing at her playmates, “And don’t even get me started on Paul Ryan!” I honestly believe my children are best served by a free politics that needs two wings to stay airborne and a push-me/pull-you tension between what is a right and what is a privilege, what is entitled and what is not, what reasonably progresses and what responsibly conserves. As recently as five years ago, I voted for a Republican for statewide office, and 12 years ago in the California primary, I voted for a Republican for president. I’m sorry to say that I don’t foresee doing it again. While the man in the middle clings to the vanity of fair-mindedness, contending that both sides are equally right and wrong, perfectly balanced by perspectives that are equally valid and flawed, conservatism has too irrevocably exhausted not just its philosophical credibility but any moral mandate. Run amok, the authoritarian, corporate, and theocratic impulses that were troubling a quarter-century ago have become appalling and indisputable.
Caught between know-nothingism and a faux populism that disguises a predisposition to favor the financially powerful against the disenfranchised, the new right is born of that awful howl that rose from the convention floor in San Francisco and so startled me. This is the ferocity that animates the right’s most prominent spokesmen in politics and electronic discourse. Some will argue it’s gratuitous to characterize a movement in terms of its gratuitousness—debate audiences cheering executions and booing gay soldiers in Iraq. I don’t think so anymore. At its most unforgiving, the incontrovertible id of today’s conservatism insists that an American president is not really an American and not really the president and tries to reject not solely his ideas but also the very fact of him. Over the past four years, the right, exuding bad faith at best and collective psychosis at worst, has intended not merely to end a presidency but to discredit its existence. Even before conservatism betrayed itself so conspicuously I’m not sure my right-wing teenage self thought conservatism was about shipping 12 million Latinos out of the country or supposing that people stupid enough to get sick when they can’t afford it should die. Pressed on the point, I should like to think that I would have allowed that being a country involves the sustenance of a social contract and the recognition that we’re more than 300 million free agents who happen to be roaming the same piece of real estate.