Why I Abandoned Conservatism


To most people who don’t know it already, here’s something that will probably come as a surprise: until about two years ago, I was a far-right conservative.

No, really, I was. Here are some things that I believed when I was a conservative. I believed that there is no real racism or sexism anymore. A Black man is president and women can work outside the home, so none of that. I thought same-sex couples should not be able to get married because that’s not what marriage means. And they definitely shouldn’t be able to adopt children because then the children would also become gay and we can’t have that.

I thought that the government has no right to tell people how to live, except when it does. It has no right to take our taxes and use them to help poor people, because poor people just don’t try hard enough. I thought that lowering taxes makes people spend more, always. I thought that affirmative action is exactly the same thing as racism, because after all, you’re doing things based on people’s skin color.

I believed that the United States has the responsibility to spread democracy throughout the world, by use of force if necessary. Needless to say, I applauded both of our recent wars. I thought that global warming was either a lie or at least an exaggeration, and even if it wasn’t, the government has no right to dictate what we do with the environment, anyway.

I pitied the women who went out carelessly and got themselves raped. I thought the justice system generally does its job, so if rapists weren’t getting convicted, that probably means they didn’t really do it. I thought false rape accusations were a much bigger problem, in fact.

I adored Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Antonin Scalia, Ann Coulter, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. I reserved a particular hatred for Al Gore and Barack Obama.

I believed that abortion was murder, and that it should be illegal in almost all cases.

I figure I’m supposed to be terribly ashamed and contrite about all of this, but truthfully, I’m not. I was a teenager, first of all, and second, I don’t know what I could’ve done to find any other narrative. There are a number of reasons why I was a conservative, and they were chiefly these:

  • because my family was
  • because I grew up in suburban Ohio
  • because our K-12 education teaches us that the American government is Good, that laws are Just, that the justice system Works, and so on
  • because children tend to believe that their values and morals should be everyone’s values and morals
  • because I didn’t have access to the sort of critical analysis that encourages examination of one’s politics–until I got to college

So there you have it. Once I got to college, I took some sociology classes and quickly became a moderate. Then I took more classes, read more, made more friends, read much more, got involved in sexual health activism, got involved in other types of activism, started to see how everything in our society interacts with each other, read some more, and developed the ideology that I have now.

That ideology is something I call progressivism because I favor change in a positive direction. I don’t think that things are fine as they are. I don’t think we should just calm down and stop whining. I don’t think humanity has reached its potential and I don’t think it’ll reach it for a very, very long time. I think our intellect and our compassion are two human qualities that do not get used nearly enough.

People always ask me how I made such a 180-degree shift in politics. I don’t really know how it happened, perhaps because it happened while I was in the midst of a major depression, which means I don’t remember anything too well. But everyone asks that–my friends, my readers, my professors. My therapist asked me today.

I think the way I changed is that I started looking beneath the surface more. Why are there so many Black men in prison? Is it because Black men are naturally predisposed to crime? Apparently not. For instance, in California in 2011, African Americans were 12 times more likely than non-African Americans to be imprisoned on drug-related felony charges, but studies show that African Americans are no more likely to use and sell drugs than anyone else (in fact, they may be less likely to). What’s going on?

That’s just one small example. I learned dozens upon dozens of such examples over the past few years, about everything. About women, people of color, the environment, food policy, agriculture, mental health, disability, LGBT folks, the poor, drug policy, city planning, wars, guns, education, sexual assault, business, discrimination laws, religion, the media, language, abortion, sex ed, obesity, scientific research, healthcare, elections, the Supreme Court, college, advertising, fashion, feminism, queer theory, money.

My head is overflowing with this information and yet I learn more and more of it every day. Whereas I used to think that each person is an individual who makes choices that are absolutely his or her own, I now know that we are acted upon by countless societal forces at every moment. I still do believe that people should strive for independence, but that can’t happen without gaining a deep understanding of these forces.

Do I have a solution for all of this? No. And frankly, I’m kind of tired of people demanding me to provide them with solutions. If I thought I could save the world, I’d be a politician. And I’d be wrong.

But sooner or later, we as a society will stumble upon solutions, slowly but surely.

Everything is connected. Everything is politics. Everything affects you, even in some little way, somehow.

That’s why I am no longer a conservative.

That’s why this is not “just a phase,” “youthful idealism,” or “naivete.”

My exact views on specific issues will change throughout my life, but what won’t is my awareness of the fact that none of us live inside a bubble, no matter how much we may wish that we did.

The graphing calculator I used in high school had a big ol’ John McCain 2008 sticker on it. I rocked that damn sticker. Now I have stickers from Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and Occupy Chicago. It’s kind of both fun and sad to look back at who I used to be. But I’m not ashamed. We all did stupid things in high school, and honestly, I could’ve done worse than plaster McCain stickers on things and rant about how evil feminism is.

Comments

  1. says

    This is such a cool article!! I’m the same, but opposite, if that makes sense. I started off life leaning extremely far to the left, radically, even. (My parents had been radical and idealistic hippies in their youth). At college I learned about what it means to be a libertarian, and I was a very left leaning libertarian. Then I lived in England and had my children: I realized how broken their socialist system truly is. (National healthcare is horrific, even private because… they can be, what’s the alternative?) I’m a centrist libertarian now.

    • says

      Haha, plenty of people do become libertarians as they get older. I don’t think anyone becomes a Republican though. :P

      I won’t get into an argument with you about healthcare, but the way I see it, both the libertarian vision and the socialist vision are awful. I have no idea how to make it better, sadly. But luckily, I’m not a politician so that’s not my job. :)

      • says

        No, I’m with you on the healthcare, I believe in helping those that need helping. I’ve just seen how many people can fall through the cracks in a system like the UK. (I have horror stories for myself and my two children, I’m actually “fleeing” with both my kids to the US in a couple of months cause I can’t get the support my children need – even privately! It’s like they know you have no other options so they either bleed you dry or the private service simply doesn’t exist! I applied to for a student visa so it covers us and we’re leaving my poor husband behind for a couple of years…)

        My cousin lives in France and their healthcare is pretty awesome (unless you look at their views on Autism and then it gets icky – not that I’m 100% informed, just a few things I’ve heard). Healthcare is a tough one. In general though, I’m for small government (and have “live and let live” type mentality). I love your blog by the way! I’m usually more of a lurker though.

  2. says

    Gosh, this is just some extra proof that nasty, pinko Commie colleges and universities take good right-leaning God-fearing American kids and turn them into godless latte-drinking tree-hugging PC-extolling hippies. :-) :-)

    Great post!

  3. says

    This is a very familiar story to me. I went from fairly conservative and religious (Catholic), to leftist, feminist atheist. (All that while attending a Catholic college, but it was run by radically feminist nuns — the kind you hear about in the news these days. It was an all-female school, too, so we were all about women power.) I’m now a college professor and teach at a Catholic school. I don’t try to subvert my students’ conservatism, but I do appeal to their compassion. The school’s mission is “social justice,” which is a liberal-leaning agenda, even though the school’s admin is very conservative. The students figure out the tension between the ideas and then decide for themselves. Many of them lean left and go with compassion and “how can I help others?” over the idea that everyone can and should be self-sufficient. No one, of course, is perfect, but I believe that if we can help others, we should.

    I would argue that some people do become more conservative with age. First, the older you are (supposedly) the more money you have — which means the more you have to pay in taxes. That pisses people off and they start the irritated muttering of the upper class (don’t want to pay for slackers at the bottom of the heap… I worked my way up, so should they… I need my money to pay for my family’s huge agenda, so I shouldn’t have to contribute more… the government is too big anyway, and what they do help with is poorly done… if they government were more efficient, I’d be happy to pay more in taxes… etc. I’ve heard all of this from a friend who suddenly became very rich when her husband hit the big time.) Also, when you have children, you start becoming more concerned about playing fast and loose. You start freaking out about teenage sex — I mean, that’s your BABY after all. EEK! They can’t have sex! EEK! And then if the kid gets pregnant, then that ruins all the hard work you did for the kid and the kid’s life is ruined! EEK! (I’m not there yet. I have two boys – 6 and 2. But I like to believe I’ll be more intelligent than to freak about these things…)

    Anyway, I think that there is some pendulum swinging in political thought when you are at different stages in your life. However, there are some core principles that will always be a part of you — compassion, hopefully, being one of them. That makes a huge difference in how you live your life.

  4. says

    This is pretty similar to how my politics have changed over the years … you learn more, travel more, experience more, meet more people from lots of different backgrounds, and you become more liberal.

    I didn’t go through as dramatic a change as you have, since I started out more of a moderate than conservative (though this might be a distorted view because I came of political age in Kansas, where the spectrum is not so much left to right as it is center-right to hard right …), but I did have several of the beliefs that you list above. I didn’t think there was racism or sexism anymore (because I hadn’t experienced any! So clearly there’s none of it out there, right?); I was pro-life (I blame this on my being generally a very soft-hearted person. I also have always been very environmentalist, very interested in helping animals, and also very much concerned with protecting people from abuse by people stronger than them or in positions of power over them. You can see how, in the absence of any well-developed notion of bodily autonomy, a desire to protect the wee embryos would fit in fairly well with all of that!); I thought affirmative action was unfair (’cause I thought everyone was equal now and could be judged fairly on their merits); I tended to believe “small government” arguments because I have a strong anti-authoritarian streak and I saw it just in “government telling people what to do = bad” terms, and I knew nothing whatsoever about economics so I saw nothing wrong with total laissez-faire economic policies. I was never anti-gay because, well, I am queer myself.

    So, long story short, I was ignorant, self-centered and thought I knew a lot more than I really did. Ergo, I was more conservative then than I am now.

  5. says

    It’s funny. I went through a similar trajectory . . . except I would actually call myself a liberal now. For the first two years of high school, I was conservative. And then when I met more interesting people during the next two years of high school, and had a couple of teachers who encouraged us to critically think about matters, I started slowly going that 180. Although I think part of it does, weirdly, come down to 9/11. (I was in tenth grade when it happened.) My father is Arabic, and when 9/11 happened, the conservative narrative started to target Arabic people. My father, who had voted for the Republican party for the most part, drew away from them because of that. And I did, too, for the same reason. And then that also sort of induced me to start thinking more critically about other issues, too. I grew up in the Southern US, which as you can imagine is pretty solidly conservative. I remember the Iraq War began when I was in 11th grade. We had a debate about it in class, and I was the only one against the war, even arguing against the teacher. That probably doesn’t match what I was like in 9th grade.

  6. Igor says

    Cool. I used to be conservative too. Mainly because my parents are. That was early high school when I wasn’t really that interested in politics. I heard shallow one liners like “welfare will discourage poor people from working” or “forcing companies to hire minorities over equally qualified people is reverse racism” and believed them. Once I dug deeper, I quickly became liberal. However in college, when I studied a lot of macro economic, I then became a fiscal moderate. Economics is a lot more complicated than it seems so my stance on it may vary as the science progresses. A lot of social issues, on the other hand, seem like a no-brainier to me. I am likely to socially liberal forever.

    • says

      Yeah, I’m not too sure about economics. I would also be a lot more willing to support fiscal conservatism/moderation if that were coupled with efforts to educate people and spread awareness about issues that can be solved by private enterprise. For instance, we wouldn’t need environmental regulation (or at least, as much of it) if people “believed” in climate change and acted accordingly.

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