A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I was a registered Republican.
It’s true -- once I was a fiscal conservative. And Alex P. Keaton was my own personal hero. I was wearing a red Izod polo shirt in my kindergarten class photo.
Man, Michael J Fox knows not what he has wrought with his floppy hair and adorable baby face! It was the 80s, and a life built on capitalism seemed like a good plan. Cut me some slack, I was, like, 7 years old when I first concocted it.
When you feel kind of out of control, there is something soothing about the self-determination story that was, at one point, the heart of the Republican party. You can bootstrap your way out of wherever you are stuck! Talk about an empowering myth -- this concept sets each individual up as the hero of their own story.
That’s individualism with a side of ethical egoism (that means each individual should really only do what is in their own self-interest).
I grew up bitter that the Oliver North trials interrupted my summer viewing of Doris Day movies. (TBS used to do movie marathons over the summer, but Ollie North got more air time than "Pillow Talk" that year.) I watched Reagan (he was a lot of things, but that man could give a speech) and I internalized some things I still find to be true of politics today: They are a powerful game, where no one retains moral purity. To be a modern politician is to be constantly dealing with the devil, as metaphorical as the devil may be.
The Republican party of the late 1980s was very good at leading the devil around the dancefloor. I was fascinated.
I also spent a lot of time alone, and that time was spent reading. I joke that I was raised by Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke -- that I am 3 Laws safe but it is best not to push your luck. But the real thing all that reading gave me was a sense of how large existence is. And, I figured out, you can’t really dictate morality to people. After all, there are so many different folks.
A small central government, with an emphasis on personal liberties, seemed to be the best way to ensure all those different people could do all of their different things. Legislating morality just seemed like it would create more bureaucracy.
At least, that’s how I thought it should work. But that was never actually born out by things going on with the government. It was hella confusing, because there were these principles the Republican party kept saying it stood for but then we’d bust out more money for the Cold War.
I grew up, as children tend to do. I realized that, as much as I thought the government should stay out of our individual liberties, there were some Things Not Right with the world. I also wound up in a small, conservative North Florida town during high school. Church attendance was mandatory. And suddenly, I counted as a religious person.
Even then it was pretty obvious that you couldn’t be a liberal AND be into religion, not if you had any hope of being taken seriously when it came to political stuff. So, I figured, it was easier to be a liberal Republican than a religious Democrat.
And, that settled in my mind, I joined the Young Republicans.
To be fair to much-younger me, there was no Young Democrats club.
The Young Republicans had pretty much the same membership as the debate team, which I was also on. (I enjoyed Lincoln-Douglas debate for a while there, and I was good at it.) We never really DID anything, though going to local Republican party meetings as a Young Republican is how I wound up with a high school internship at a local law office.
Republicans know how to network.
At away-from-home college (which I have to distinguish because I went to college for two years while I was still in high school), I started out pretty focused. I was very driven and very unhappy. I was still grasping tight to that idea I could make myself into something powerful as a self-protective gesture. But it all crumbled -- I was friends with artists and writers and, let me tell you, for a totally wound little Type-A 17-year-old kid, that is a one-way ticket to identity crisis!
In hindsight, of course, it was a very good thing.
Took a semester off, changed schools, somehow fell in with a pretty radical crowd. More writers and artists. But in all of the back and forth and the moving (I moved cities three times in a year), politics took a backseat -- I was still a registered Republican.
I wish I could remember the chain of events that led me to be involved with a radical political bowling group. Red and Black Bowling was organized by a local communist activist, named Benny. Maybe I met him at a coffee shop. I went to a lot of coffee shops in those days, and drank water because I don’t even LIKE coffee. (Also, water is free and I had no money.)
At Red and Black Bowling, we talked politics, and they made me bowl in the right lane. Which cracked all of us up. I disagreed with them less than any of us was expecting, I think. I nursed a tiny crush on a radical animal rights liberation guy.
National politics kept playing out -– those were the Clinton years, and it felt like things were getting okay, like we were making some kind of progress. I didn’t have to like the guy (he always made me think of used car salesmen so I had a hard time trusting him) to look around and acknowledge that things could be far worse than they were in the late 90s.
I was voting, of course. I really love voting, even when I don’t vote for the winning side. I like civic duty. I even like jury duty. But more and more, I was voting for Democrats and Independents. I still thought there should be a way to somehow keep government small and cheap, but since the Republican candidates weren’t actually doing any of that, I didn’t feel compelled to vote for them.
And, also more and more, I was embarrassed by the Republican party. They kept saying these things. They kept trying to legislate morality –- which still didn’t make any sense to me. Even though I was still on-and-off going to church at this point, forcing other people to live according to my moral code really didn’t seem in line with, you know, personal freedom and individual liberty.
In 2001, I moved again. And because I was in a new state, I had to register to vote there. I didn’t even think about it when I registered as an Independent. And about six months later, when I moved back to Florida, I changed my registration again, to the Democratic party (I like voting in primaries).
Somewhere along the line, I realized that while I still value small government, that’s not what the Republican party, especially in its current incarnation, is giving me. I realized very concretely that although I still have my moments where all I want is to be rich enough that no one can tell me what to do (and, you know, that bootstrap narrative says you can make this happen regardless of circumstance), I care more about people than I do about corporations.
Which is not to say I don’t care about corporations -– I just think the rights of human beings are more important than a business not having to pay taxes.
The RNC is going on over in Tampa, about an hour away. Every soundbite that comes out of it, every speech, fills me with horror at what the party has become. You can’t control every uterus in America with small government. And that ain’t cheap either. You can’t tell me what every family MUST look like to count as a family and still claim to be focused on the preservation of civil liberties.
Somehow, I find myself a radical. And it makes me want to start Red and Black Bowling back up again. I think Alex P Keaton would even approve.