I returned home from that trip completely discombobulated. For many years after that I continued to identify politically as a conservative, but I stopped listening to Rush and all other conservative radio almost immediately.
It didn’t take long after that for me to start to understand some things I had not understood before.
- Liberals aren’t who they were being framed to be
- The solution to poverty was often way more complicated than “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
- The people I had been listening to seemed to be devoid of basic compassion.
That’s what had changed. My heart opened up. I began to see people caught in the cycle of poverty as people, not simply as problems to be solved, or obstacles in the way of enjoying my own wealth to the fullest.
As I reflected more and more over the next few years, I realized my conservative radio mentors had nothing good to say about anybody outside of their group. They referred to liberals as “bleeding hearts,” which I increasingly began to understand as people who care about issues not only intellectually but also on a human level. All of the conservative solutions I was hearing and reading were intellectual. None seemed to come from people who had been where I had been and seen what I had seen. There was a coldness, an aloofness, about them that became increasingly unacceptable to me.
In my conversations with conservatives on Facebook and other social media, I often saw this same thing — a distinct sense of distance between the person commenting about poverty and the people experiencing it. “Us” and “them” thinking. I wasn’t in Chicago very long, but it rocked me hard enough that I began to take poverty personally, and impersonal, political or philosophical solutions no longer seemed appropriate. Perhaps in some ways, as Jonathon Edwards once said, I had begun to be seized by the power of a great affection: affection for the poor, for people who were suffering, whether from their own choices or otherwise.
For years I withdrew from politics almost completely, reading and listening to almost nothing. I didn’t know what the solution was, and I still don’t, but I just knew that Limbaugh, other conservative hosts, and probably most of Limbaugh’s fans were severely deluded, living in their little bubbles, thinking they knew everything.
One afternoon a liberal friend of mine at church was in my office and we got to talking about the upcoming (2004) election. I expressed my dislike of George W. Bush but admitted I was scared to death to vote for a new president who might make drastic decisions about the Iraq war that would leave America in danger. Joe’s feeling was that on those occasions where we must go to war, we should do it soberly and carefully, not with flag-waving and sloganeering about the bloodshed that is about to occur.
A few weeks earlier I had caught a few words in a newspaper from Ann Coulter and decided I’d try reading one of her books, I think it was called How to Talk to a Liberal (if you must). It was filled with some of the most outrageous statements I have ever read, like this gem. While I laughed at her brazenness and wit, being cut from a similar provocative cloth, I was stunned with how small and vicious was her view of the world. Joe had just finished reading Al Franken’s book “Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” We challenged each other to a duel. I would read Franken’s book and he would read Coulter’s book, and we would each try to be open to the ideas therein. Then we’d discuss our experiences and how we were impacted.
I don’t remember if Joe and I ever followed up with that discussion. But I was massively, persuasively, comprehensively, and unapologetically convinced by the arguments in Franken’s book. Where Limbaugh and all the other conservative blowhards, and Coulter, jeered and made accusations and called people idiots and claimed we should force conversions to Christianity at the end of a sword, Franken hired a crack team of researchers from a prestigious university to fact check his book and supplied hundreds of citations and footnotes to support his arguments. He clearly had little to hide.
Bottom line: Ann Coulter’s book was a screed, more of what I had always (and only) gotten from conservatives, while Franken’s book was thoughtful, precise, and of course hilarious. As a person of intellect this satisfied something very deep in me.
This ultimately tipped the scales. It would still be a few years before I would begin openly calling myself a liberal, but I was now willing to listen openly to liberal arguments for the first time and, not completely without exception but almost, liberals seemed to have better arguments. When I say better, I mean more thorough, embracing a much larger degree of complexity, showing an ability to think on many levels at once, and a willingness to let facts determine reality, not the other way around.
What’s more, I saw humanity in them. Their great flaw was naivety, thinking better about people than people sometimes actually were, and this can be dangerous. But the great flaw of conservatives, as I had seen it, was douchebaggery. Basic meanness, coldness, lack of expressed compassion, blaming the victim, and being sanctimoniously defensive when challenged about it.
I am not suggesting every experience I have ever had with a conservative has revealed this meanness or coldness. In fact the vast majority of conservatives I know, like liberals, are kind, warm, friendly, and doing their best to get along in this world. And I have witnessed incredible douchebaggery, coldness, ridiculous name-calling, and other miserable behavior from liberals. It’s embarrassing.
But this reflects how I have changed. I can see unattractive qualities in people I might otherwise agree with now. When a liberal is being mean, pigeonholing people, calling names, etc., I can call it out, whereas when I was conservative, I felt I had to defend everything conservatives did. That’s the model Rush set for me.
Before I embraced the “liberal” label, more anything I wanted to avoid being labeled in any way. I knew the power a label could have, as Rush got me to buy into his labels for years before I found out I didn’t know a single liberal who was anything like what he described. So for several years I used the term “moderate,” trying really hard to see both sides of every argument. Today, I still try as hard as I can to learn as much as I can about an issue before I post about it on Facebook or otherwise bring it up publicly.
In fact embracing the label has been a good thing. I know how I viewed liberals when I lived in conservaland. When I see conservatives posting things on Facebook suggesting (usually saying, rather angrily) that liberals are this and that, I know where they are getting their information, and I know they are every bit as deluded as I once was.
You can tell very quickly the kind of person you’re dealing with by the way they refer to a president they dislike. When I was beginning my journey into liberalism, I gradually began finding George W. Bush distasteful in many ways. I had voted for him enthusiastically in 2000, and then out of fear in 2004 because of the Iraq war. As much as I disliked him, I called him President Bush, or GWB (in writing), or George W. Bush. I never called him a traitor or any other pejorative term. (I should also add, I read his book Talking Points, and it helped me have some basic compassion and respect for him, though I still didn’t agree with most of his presidency.)
When you’re talking with someone who dislikes President Obama, you should end the conversation if they refer to him as Obummer, Barack HUSSEIN Obama (meant to imply he is Muslim), Nobama, Barack Osama, etc. A person who communicates in this way isn’t open to reason, has been spoon-fed everything they think by someone else (probably Rush or Fox News), and probably is not capable of thinking for themselves. If you use terms like this, well…you do the math.
I left conservatism because I had gone from being a fiercely independent thinker to being a willing disciple of a person who I allowed to do my thinking for me. The temptation to find someone you think you can trust and just allowing them to think for you is alluring. Thinking is hard, and that’s why most people don’t really do it. When I began having real world experiences that revealed how thoroughly I had been duped, I lost interest.
I spent years evaluating my experiences, reading about politics and ideas, and examining the things I had been told and comparing them to the realities I had encountered, and discovered that conservatism was simply not based in reality. At least not Rush’s brand of it.
Since then I have not found conservatism to be a credible world view. That’s not to say nothing about it is valuable, of course, but as a world view, I just don’t get it. Conservatism, to me, majors constantly in the minors, strains out gnats and swallows camels, is based mostly in fear, tends to be reactionary (a pattern too many liberals fall into as well — ahem, Chris Matthews), is often backwards-looking, and simply doesn’t correspond with reality as I have come to know it.
There are champions for conservatism I respect, even if I don’t usually resonate with their world view anymore. David Brooks is one. I deeply respected George Will for a while, until he began making comments that revealed the basic cruelty at the heart of his beliefs. Still, he’s brilliant, and I’ll listen to his ideas any time. I have a few conservative friends who challenge me, who keep me sharp, and help make sure I’m not just towing the party line. These are people I respect and love, and nothing will challenge you more than becoming good friends with people who disagree with everything you believe and finding you love them. Try to do it all the time. That’s why I host conversations and disagreements on Facebook!
Maybe a huge reason I ultimately left the conservative fold is because I still enjoy being provocative. There’s nothing provocative about family values, about personal responsibility, about traditional morality (all of which I completely embrace). But challenging myself and others to look deeply into ourselves and find those ever-present roots of racism? Looking forward at new ideas and possibilities for America in terms of government? Daring to believe that the world conservatives think is going to hell in a handbasket is the same world that always can and will be the birthplace of deep human love, loyalty, commitment, and the very best things about human beings? Being open to science, no matter how much it may trouble my theology? Finding and calling out hypocrisy in other liberals and liberal ideas?
Sign me up.
Finally, a brief word to conservative-leaning people who have read these posts and honestly don’t feel I identified any truly compelling reasons for becoming liberal. I get it. If there were some inarguable list of reasons, everyone would be liberal. When I was a conservative, I wouldn’t have found these posts convincing in any way. The title of this series is How I Became a Liberal, not WHY I Became a Liberal. My purpose in posting this series was never to convince anyone, it was just to tell my story, to lay out the way my life, my background, my experiences, and my personality ultimately were leading me into becoming who I am. If you have read these posts skeptically and are still skeptical, all I have to say is thank you, sincerely, for reading.