Friday, December 19, 2008

On Being Young, Republican & Sure About Life

There's an old line of reasoning that goes something like this: if you're not a liberal as a young person, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative as an older person, you haven't really lived. While I don't subscribe to all of this, there's nevertheless some underlying truth in it. I do know that the whole idea of a "young Republican" has always made me cringe in a way that being a Republican later in life, while not my cup of tea, never would.

When I lived in Washington D.C. during the Reagan presidency, the town was awash in this curious strain of humanity. Reagan's capture of the White House was something of a restoration for his party, and these young eager beavers flocked to Washington as if answering the distant call of some whistle pitched at a frequency only they could hear. But there were so damn many of them. The place was lousy with them, and they were easy to spot. The guys always wore a suit, or at least a sports coat, with the obligatory rep tie and tassled loafers. The women wore skirts and smiled a lot. We treated them as an oddly compelling form of local color, studying them mostly from afar. We took stock of these people not unlike we might have appraised a fascinating cult group or an ancient lost tribe we had stumbled upon in the outback. They seemed to have something to teach us about the world, however far from our experience they might be.

Anyway, I thought of all that when I came across this page of the Greater Cleveland Young Republicans' site. Four of the five officers have Jesuit educations, including three from my college alma mater, John Carroll. How sad, I thought, that their supposedly enriching educations had left these people with hardened attitudes about life and politics at such an early age. How much inquiry and exploration of a strange and invigorating world they're likely to miss by thinking they know most of the answers early.

Okay, so there they are: my political biases, on display for all to see. Have at me, Republican readers.


At 10:04 AM, Blogger Christine Borne said...

I just watched that new film about Lee Atwater. Afterwards I felt worse about the world than I think I ever have. Ever.

Did you interact with these people? What were they like on a personal level?

At 10:30 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

The question one must ask, though, is were they true, earned conservatives, or were they part of that wave of neo-conservatives that came to power under Reagan, and have dominated the GOP ever since. Even William F. Buckley had a problem with them, as they were not true conservatives so much as they were power-grabbing opportunists.

The couple of books I've read about the neocons, and the history of that movement, including their overt blockades of everything the Clinton Admin tried to do, excluding NAFTA, which they approved of, put the lie to idea that there's is a genuine conservatism of the old-age variety I believe you're talking about.

The neocons, for example, spend as much as the liberals ever have, while at the same time lowering taxes for the wealthy. It's the rise of the robber barons all over again.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That Atwater film is quite an eye-opener, isn't it, Christine? While it's revolting on several levels, I nevertheless think every American should see it, and think long and hard about the lessons it contains (among which is how no intelligent person should let themselves be hoodwinked by charm or charisma; what matters in politics is the actual policies, not the personalities behind them that can sometimes serve to obscure viscious intent).

I did interact with these 20-something Young Republicans professionally, as a journalist covering various agencies and Capitol Hill (though of course they tended to be more marginal players in most cases, if not actual interns, due to inexperience). But I'm sad to say that I cannot recall ever once engaging them socially (where I could have learned far more about them), as I would today. But then, I would have had to really make an effort to connect with them on that level, since one tended not to encounter many young conservatives in the natural course of life there. They were mostly off in their own walled communities, stitched together by affinities of faith, school and geography that were mostly invisible to the great mass of earnest young 20-somethings who flocked to DC after college.

Art, you've raised a whole other issue, about the true nature of conservatism, which I won't pretend to be able to tackle in any depth this morning (but would be happy to discuss later in the weekend if you like). Suffice to say for now that I think the old saw about how power corrupts, and total power corrupts totally is apt here. I also have come to respect the purity of William F. Buckley's take on conservatism. But he never held office, so it was easier for him to remain pure about that. The reality is that when ideology is combined with actual power in office, the power generally drowns out the ideology. Since 1980, Republicans have said a whole lot of things that they didn't actually practice while in power. But then, that's a story as old as humanity.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Those are all good points, well worth looking into more deeply at some point. power corrupts, indeed.

What's been interesting to me is not something I've seen covered a lot in the media though, namely: the psychology of empowerment. It seems to me that when Reagan was elected, and then again when Shrub was elected, there were a lot more extreme right-wing whackos suddenly being visible and activist. It's as if they all suddenly empowered to be more open and activist by what was going on in D.C. The upsurge in both activism and talk radio was notable, in each case. This is part of the necon surge, I believe, this kind of psychology of "we're gonna get OUR turn, now." It's a mindset and a worldview even more than it's a political stance. I think a lot of reporting gets stuck on the surface politics and never looks deep enough to find the hidden agendas and psychological motivations.

As I age, I find myself becoming more of an anarchist than ever. But I also have a theory that the political spectrum is not a line, but a ring: if you go far enough left OR far enough right, you end up in the same place. So I share some ideas now with some of the libertarians who I otherwise think are full of crap; basically, issues of privacy, personal liberty, and responsibility for one's own actions.

Empowerment is a very powerful force in politics, and I don't think it gets talked about hardly at all.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

I was a Republican in my younger days and probably didn't understand all that it meant.It is only this year that I realized how drastically my way of thinking has changed. I do not attribute it to politics though - but to mere living.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Conservatism is indeed a mindset and worldview before a political orientation. The one thing naturally flows into the other.

Your point about conservatives feeling newly empowered by the Reagan and GWB presidencies is precisely what I was referring to when I mentioned earlier the "restoration" aspects of those presidencies, especially Reagan's. His win in 1980 returned the right to power basically for the first time since the 30s (Nixon wasn't really a creature of the right; the guy instituted national price controls and oversaw the founding of the EPA, for god's sake). So Reagan's election saw an outpouring of 60 years of pent up emotions on the part of the right that saw itself as being stifled by a center-left consensus that ran everything in the country (it actually did, for the most part).

This thread reminds me of a famous observation made a half century ago by the literary critic Lionel Trilling, which has driven conservatives crazy just a little ever since, because it nicely encompasses what they see as liberal intellectual dismissal of them as serious people. In dismissing the notion that there's any such thing as conservative thought, he said there are only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." Doesn't that sound an awful lot like the Cro Magnon right, people such as Rush Limbaugh and his ilk?

Diane, you nicely emphasize an earlier point of mine: how life experience moves us away from earlier views that were based on something less than full information about the world. Perhaps your views were formed by your family of origin, which is of course a huge part of this dynamic that we haven't touched on. We can't help but be marked by our parents' views, and sometimes it takes decades to get out of that orbit and settle into the views that feel more comfortable for us as individuals.

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Trilling's comment definitely gets at the heart of the reactionary forms of conservative, exemplified by Limbaugh and others—including Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, who at one point wasn't a reactionary but a more thoughtful man. Still wondering what happened there; unless it was all sour grapes about losing to Clinton.

Anyway, even though Trilling's comment stings, it stings because it does carry some truth: there IS a whole wing of the conservative sector that is genuinely reactionary. They don't come up with ideas—Buckley was an actual intellectual who came up with ideas, these folk are not—they merely react against what's presented to them.

Reactionary negation, knee-jerk rejection. Pretty much exemplifies that branch of the GOP that still is in thrall to the religious right. When all one's answer are handed to one on a platter, of course, one is not actually required to THINK anymore. That's why I always respected Buckley, even though I almost always disagreed with him. At least he was a thinker.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

He was quite a thinker. And he's rightly credited with carrying the torch--almost alone--for the thinking person's wing of the movement through the 50s and 60s, and even for ultimately getting Reagan elected. Ron Reagan admitted as much himself.

One of the saddest things has been watching how the old moderate wing of the Republican party, sometimes referred to as the Rockefeller wing after Nelson Rockefeller, has largely gone away in the last 10-15 years. I think TV has helped that along, with its reductionist and absurd pitting of the extremes against each other in a never-ending food fight, as if there were no gray areas in between. As I've said before, TV tends to ruin everything it touches.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

The problem is, moderation requires thought rather than knee-jerk reaction, nuanced discussion rather than soundbytes. I agree the moderates (on all sides) have been shortchanged of late. I think this is one arena (I use the word deliberately) in which the media really HAS changed the face of politics; the soundbyte coverage has increased polarization and partisanship, rather than thoughtfulness.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for the reminder that moderation is important on both sides of the aisle. You're absolutely right, of course.


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