How I Became a Conservative

I think it’s hard to pinpoint a single event that makes any of us who we are philosophically. It’s a series of events spread out over a period of time. Much of the time, our early years go by without much that makes us start thinking about politics or the world around us. But certain scenes do stand out.

Like the time I was in middle school. I was in art class and the radio was playing really softly. I was the first one to hear the news interrupt the music and hear the announcer say that President Reagan had been shot. I told a classmate next to me, who said I was making it up and should tell the teacher if I wasn’t. So I told him and he turned the volume up. The teacher, who’d probably been through a similar experience when he’d been around my age and the shot president was Kennedy rather than Reagan, blanched and called the principals office and within the hour we were all sent home to watch the news. Of course, Reagan lived. But it made a deep impression.

About a week later, affected by the experience, I told my art teacher the whole turn of events had me thinking that someday I might want to run for office, which I suppose was a bit of a preteen/early teen whim on the heels of that experience.

Suddenly, the man who’s seemed so shaken the day Reagan was shot nearly snarled at me. “And if you run as a Democrat,” he said, “MAYBE I’ll vote for you.” It was one of the rudest moments I’d ever experienced a teacher have with me. That made a deep impression, too.

Then there was the time I found out, in high school, that I’d be old enough to vote in the upcoming presidential elections, one of only a handful of my classmates who could. When I told my dad, who worked at Hormel in Austin and was part of the P-9 Labor Union that I was excited about my chance to learn about politics, how our country ran, and wanted to take part in everything from the first district sub-caucus on up, he also answered with a lot of venom:

“Sure you can do that,” my father snarled – and he was a man who rarely snarled. “Just as long as you don’t do it with those G——N Republicans!”

That made a deep impression, to, but as I was still living under his roof, I promised to caucus with the DFL.

At the most local level, it wasn’t that bad. The small handful of us met at someone’s house and there were just enough of us that we all got to move on to the next level of caucus, so we were all happy. We took a straw poll for presidential preference; this was the year Mondale and Hart were battling it out to take on Ronald Reagan, who was running for a second term.

This being Minnesota, Mondale was just about the only one getting votes. But, being a diligent student of anything I took an interest in, I had reservations about Minnesota’s Uncle Walt. It seemed to me he was promising everyone everything they asked for, if only they’d elect him, and it reeked of desperation and financial insanity to me.

Hart, on the other hand, was about five years away from the Donna Rice scandal and what intrigued me most was that he wasn’t anti-military. He had interesting ideas about how to bring the US military up-to-date to fight modern wars circa 1983-84. I was enough of a student of the Constitution and politics to know that the federal government’s first and foremost responsibility was to protect us as a nation, “from all enemies foreign and domestic.”

So I was the only Hart supporter from my small town of 350, where the rest of the delegates went for Mondale. And I suppose if one more Mondale supporter had shown up that night, I’d have not gone on to the county caucus. But I did.

The county caucus was much larger and kind of scary. It was held in the P-9 union hall, as I remember, and pretty much everyone seemed angry for some reason.

I went to the caucus with really only one issue I was concerned about, beyond being a Hart supporter and wanting to just learn the ropes. You see, I was an adopted child. At that time, I had not yet met my birth mom or found out the circumstances of my conception, but I knew that the idea of abortion disturbed me for very personal reasons, as an adopted kid. So I wanted to take part in the pro-life sub-caucus. Not because I wanted to deny women choice or was particularly religious, because at that point in my life I wasn’t. But because I imagined that saying “abortion is ok” was pretty much on par with saying I shouldn’t have been allowed a chance to live.

I had been encouraged by a couple Catholic members of my hometown caucus that, “there is a home for pro-life voices in our party. We’re in the minority, but we are welcomed.”

Well, not really, we weren’t. Other than Congressman Tim Penny, every single politician who even VISITED with our little subcaucus had their candidacies shot down, right there in the convention hall. “This is what it’s like,” I was told, “but it’s important for us to be a part of things, and it’s better than going over–” cue the mean scowl and the gutteral growl “–to those G——N Republicans!”

All that had a deep impact, too.

And when Mr. “Promise Them Anything to Get Elected” Mondale beat back Sen. Hart with a toss-away line from a Wendy’s commercial, I started looking a lot more closely at the fella who was already president and seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it, a guy who had breakfast with the fella who was his arch-rival, Tip O’Neill, in the morning, even though the Speaker would stab him in the back on the House floor later that same day. Speaker O’Neill’s response to a dismayed Reagan? (I imagine the same mean scowl and gutteral growl, but of course I wasn’t there to hear it.) “Mr. President, that’s not personal. It’s politics.”

Of course, it never stopped Reagan from sharing breakfast with the man — a classy way of handling a rival. A standard a lot of today’s politicians could learn from, on both sides of the aisle.

That also left an impression.

I never caucused with the Dems again. The hostility, the mean scowls, the general atmosphere of anger just didn’t sit well with me. By the time the next presidential election rolled around, I was no longer under my dad’s roof. I was in college and decided to try the GOP on for size. While they weren’t perfect by any stretch, there was a lot less anger and outright mean looks. And, as a pro-lifer for personal reasons, I wasn’t automatically shut out.

At college, I eventually got my own political column in the student paper, after serving a lot of time in the arts and entertainment section. (Not necessarily a happy home to conservatives… heck, in the entire paper, I was the only conservative.) But I had some friends on staff who saw talent beyond the politics and got along great working under several liberally-biased editors, who saw me as the token they could flash to claim balance in the paper, freeing them up to be even more outspokenly liberal. It helped me appreciate what George Will must feel like. That was fine by me; I was able to give voice to a lot of students who otherwise had no one who spoke for them on the paper.

Of course, along the way, I had plenty of run-ins with the “loving, caring, peaceful, hug-everyone” left. Like when I wrote a column saying that Huckleberry Finn shouldn’t be banned for using the N-word because it was reflective of the times and anyone who could read Huck Finn and only see racism was missing the whole point Twain was trying to make… AGAINST racism. Fairly standard free-speech point, right? But a lib wrote a letter to the editor saying I probably thought a whole long list of other racial slurs were OK, too, and he proceeded to list about 20 of them … 18 of which I’d never even heard before his letter. I’m confused, which one of us was supposed to be the racist again?

Or the time one of my best female English Dept. buddies – and I do mean buddies, since we were only friends – got elected head of the Campus DFL, while I was the campus conservative column writer and hanging out with the College Republicans. She knew me and was encouraging me to run for CR leadership, because she felt together we could make the campus a better place for political debate. I felt complimented, but I wasn’t really a power-broker in the CR’s and the guy who was, was not as easy to get along with as me.

Then there was the time she and I were walking back from English class. We lived in the same dorm. Some of her fellow DFL buddies saw me and started hurling nasty insults because they didn’t care for my column that week in the paper, and with elections nearing, emotions were running high. On my behalf, she told them to calm down and back off and get back to spreading literature around campus. She could do that as the Campus DFL prez. Without her there, I might have been the victim of an “incident” on campus. All for writing an opinion the free-speech-as-long-as-you-agree-with-us libs on campus didn’t agree with.

All of this made a deep impression. And before long my feeling of being at home among the conservative set became a lot more established.

Now, it’s not all about friendliness or feelings. Sometimes it’s been about the traditional rebelling against the status quo. Now, most folks consider that if someone is to rebel against the status quo, that’s gotta mean they’re a liberal. But what the Vietnam-and-Woodstock generation failed to realize is that as their radical rebellion turned into positions of power, THEY became the status quo. And so, to really be a rebel, one had to be a conservative, not a liberal, by the time my generation rolled around. Heck, FAMILY TIES, which is probably THE sitcom of my generation, was built off the very premise of conservative kids raised by liberal parents – thought to be revolutionary at the time, given that most sitcoms used the conservative parents/liberal kids formula.

And, truth be told, as I grew in intellect and became more politically aware, the more I studied and read, the more that liberal solutions just didn’t add up, to my way of thinking, while conservative solutions did.

But that’s enough for now.

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