This is going to be a political post. I’ll say that up front, so that those of you not interested in my politics can surf on. And why should you be interested in my politics? I have a little bit of credibility when I post on writing and books. I have none at all when I talk about politics. (“Why then,” asks the perceptive reader, “do you write occasional columns for a political organ like The American Spectator Online?” The answer is that I write for them because they pay me. I’m a capitalist. At least I am now.)
20 years ago tomorrow, President Reagan made his famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech. That was 1987 (in case you were having trouble with the math), and it was just about then that I was going through my great political transformation.
I grew up a Democrat. Dad was a Democrat, heir to an old strain of Upper Midwest Scandinavian populism, embodied even today in the name of the Minnesota liberal party—the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. Those pietistic Scandinavian pioneers I like to write about had been political radicals back in the old country, and they continued pro-worker and anti-corporation in their American politics. Back in those days, nobody saw any disconnect in William Jennings Bryan being a fiery, Bible-thumping evangelical even as he railed against the oppression of the bankers. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, chief force behind Prohibition, was the mother of every liberal world-fixing organization that’s come since, from the ACLU to PETA to NARAL.
But during the Reagan administration I began to re-think all this. All my fellow Democrats despised Reagan. They called him “Ronald Ray-gun,” and described him as a superannuated, has-been actor with polyurethaned hair. But he was growing on me. I don’t think I ever voted for him, but I couldn’t help noticing that he kept saying and doing things I just liked.
And I was more and more uncomfortable in my own party.
The first thing that began to distance me from the Democrats was a thought—a thought that started as a tiny little shoot in my mind (planted, I think, by an article on the new phenomenon of the neo-cons in Time Magazine) and grew tenaciously once it put out roots. This thought went like this—“When you look at another human being and say, ‘That poor fellow is not capable of looking after himself. He must be cared for all his life, or he will die,’ you are not investing that person with dignity. You are treating him as subhuman (indeed the defenders of slavery had made a very similar argument). Some people may indeed be incapable of caring for themselves, but that judgment does not give them dignity. To expect a man to work is to treat him as a man.”
On top of that, my party was changing. I remembered when there were lots of pro-life Democrats, and when support for traditional marriage was not only the majority position, it was the only position. But it was growing more and more clear that there was no place for those opinions in the party anymore.
So one day I looked around me, and I said, “I guess I’m a Republican.”