Thanks to social networking, I recently reconnected with people I hadn’t seen or talked to in 35 years. This was a mostly benign experience, though it taught me something: There are many ways to say, “It’s been a long time,” without actually saying it.
One of the more direct ways is to share political views. This happened only a few times, but enough to see that some of the friends with whom I once had much in common have reached different conclusions than I have about where the country is headed.
This doesn’t surprise me. But it did start me thinking about how I came to my own political views, which I acknowledge are unrepentantly liberal.
I grew up in an apolitical family, or that’s how I remember it. Of my parents, neither of whom went to college, my mother probably had a keener insight into current affairs. She read the papers and watched the news, and, every two years, she got out of the house to volunteer at the neighborhood polling station.
The only remotely political statement she ever made was to save all the newspaper accounts of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She wrapped them in good, thick plastic and put them on a shelf in my bedroom closet. I was 7 . The papers in the closet may have influenced my decision, years later, to become a journalist, but I doubt they turned me into a liberal
I can only guess my father was a conservative, though I wonder if he ever thought he had a choice. Jack was a draftsman by trade and a ruminator by nature. He left in the morning with an artist’s soul and came home in the evening with a worried mind. When he died, I gave a clumsy eulogy in which I thanked him and my mother for the cocoon of well-being that had enveloped my childhood.
The idea that the politics of the adult are formed in the youngster dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville, who in “Democracy in America,” wrote, “(W)e must watch the infant in his mother's arms; we must see the first images which the external world casts upon the dark mirror of his mind. ... The entire man is, so to speak, to be seen in the cradle of the child.”
This was informed speculation for almost 140 years, until 1974, the year I graduated high school. A landmark study, “The Political Character of Adolescence,” seemed to confirm that children adopt their parents’ political identity. Subsequent study of “politics and the life cycle” has larded the theory with caveats, of course. Events, such as war, economic depression and social upheaval, can lead to generational shifts. So, too, can the roles we assume in early adulthood.
I don’t know about my old friends’ parents, but if mine aligned themselves with a political party, they never told me which one. Moreover, while the Vietnam War, Watergate and the energy crisis occurred during my formative years, they did little to inform my politics, since I had none.
Indeed, I didn’t cast my first vote until 1980, when I was 24, though I don’t make much of it. I was in the Air Force and regularly reminded that the Cold War could heat up at any time. In April 1980, the Carter administration’s failed attempt to rescue the 53 American hostages being held in Iran ended with eight servicemen dead. It somehow followed that only Ronald Reagan could bring the hostages home.
I skipped the ’84 ballot to play golf. My partner and I justified the abandonment of our civic duty by taking note of the fact that our votes would cancel each other out. We didn’t bother to discuss why he supported one candidate and I the other, which seems odd now. So does the fact that, at 28, I had no political opinion worth expressing.
Twenty-five years later, I have to remember to express my opinions carefully or not at all. As George Packer put it, in his 2000 memoir “Blood of the Liberals,” “'Liberal’ has been a political weapon, a name no one answers to, the initial consonant drawn out in contempt.”
In the case of my conservative friends, it’s enough to tell them I’m a journalist, which is code for “liberal.” They have a point, but not the one they like to make: I didn’t become a reporter because I’m a liberal, but I did become a liberal because I was a reporter.
This became my role, not unlike how others become parents or soldiers or ministers or volunteers. Any role will acquaint you with the eternal struggle between individual rights and collective responsibility, but journalism gets you pretty close to the heart of it.
I became a liberal because, as inept and corrupt as government can be, capitalism can never stand in as the instrument of our collective will to, in Jefferson’s words, “show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs.” I became a liberal because, rather than fear government, I’ve learned to admire its commitment to protecting the vulnerable, not only from want, but from the fear of want.
If anyone has a better idea, you can find me on Facebook.
Brian Wallstin is a Columbia resident and a former city editor for the Missourian. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.