How And When Did You Form Your Political Beliefs? Was It Yesterday? 40 Years Ago?
We know that people don’t change their minds.
The New Yorker told us so. But how do we make up our minds to start with? Where do our politics come from?
I’ve already explained my theory that our underlying emotional makeup is responsible. I think much of how we vote is set in childhood. But we don’t build beliefs about a specific tax code with Lego.
Although that’s not a bad idea.
Do we research our way to political views? Do we set out to understand the world and its systems, to build a considered model of how everything works? On the whole, nah. We go about our lives and stuff happens.
We invent our politics in moments. What we don’t bring with us from family and childhood we pick up along the way like magpies decorating nests. Here’s my story. Which is valuable only inasmuch as it causes you to examine your own.
What do you bring from your early years?
I grew up in a privileged family of lifelong Democrats who believed, deeply, in good behavior and the social contract. No spanking, no church, lotta vocabulary. I have a rational but impassioned nature; I think logic can solve almost everything; I rage at harm endured by the weak and marginalized. These are my underpinnings — I suspect they would be shaken only by the equivalent of a personal earthquake.
But some of my other beliefs about controversial issues probably came about like this:
5 moments of formation
1. The Problem Of Abortion
In my sophomore year of college I had a brief pregnancy scare. I remember looking down my dormitory stairs at stone depressions in each step left by centuries of undergraduates walking. Of course those students were mostly boys. I thought, “I cannot have a baby now. It will ruin my life.” Ten years later I watched my daughter roll in my belly. I thought, “I could not have an abortion.”
Neither of those thoughts were true.
In the end, we have to test emotional reactions against the reality of implementation. Abortion is neither a god-given right to privacy nor the worst thing ever and it’s going to happen anyway so we need to think about how to support its necessity well.
I believe the right policies lie somewhere in the middle of our current conflicting ideologies. But discussion of that middle takes place in a blasted heath from which few return. If I believe neither in restrictions on abortion in the 1st trimester, nor that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy whenever she likes, can I align with an existing faction? Probably not.
All I can do today is try to figure out why I believe what I believe. And wait. And grimly watch the middle be defined by whatever doesn’t burn down in the fight.
2. Capitalist thrills
I had an economics professor in business school who lectured wearing his yarmulke. I remember he accumulated chalk in his hair from pushing the black cloth circle back up his head as he spoke. Brilliant man. He told us, “I believe in capitalism. You know why? Because people are greedy, and we mitigate the impact of greed by decentralizing. Corruption flourishes when all the power is held by a few people.”
His thinking made so much sense it stuck. But have I stayed current since?Have I reviewed the literature analyzing which political and economic system in fact delivers the best life to the most people? Of course not. I’ve just lived.
By the way much of that living has been in Silicon Valley, surrounded by swirls of mobile talent and wealth creation. Some days you feel it in the air like pollen. Achoo. Meetings are not boring, they’re addictive. Capitalism, literally, capital, is a drug to the risk-takers, the creative, the ambitious.
Of course I looked for ways to reinforce what Professor Leff told us. Who can say no to rainbows and pots of gold?
3. A safety net, but a simple one
I was extremely well-cared for as a child. And I see clearly how much of what I’ve accomplished has been based on privilege. Don’t get me wrong, I have a healthy respect for my talents, possibly too healthy. But I think a conceptual model can support two ideas: both unfair advantage and natively strong skills. So I can’t help but feel we need to give as many people as possible a good start.
This isn’t about rights. Americans are always talking about “rights.” I revere life; those “rights,” as defined in a constitution written centuries ago I simply respect. Does the fact that my great-many-times-over half-uncle drafted that constitution’s preamble make a difference? Nah. I just like to put it out there in case someone might be impressed and pay attention to something else I say. The examined self.
So let’s look at implementation. Back to business school. It’s a quick trip from an emotional confession of privilege to economic logic. Isn’t that how many of us think about those things too big to understand? Crossing rivers jumping, rock to rock?
I remember one of my finance professors lecturing about tax codes and social programs. Apparently, the more we try to systematize human behavior the more humans figure out how to trick the system. Which reminds me of college, and Physics for Poets, and the Heisenberg principle. Measuring something changes it.
So I think I believe in both a highly simplified income or sales tax, and a basic income guaranteed to all American citizens. But really I just want someone who understands this stuff to figure it out for me, logically. With intelligence and minimal yelling. My feelings aren’t knowledge.
4. Coming to the country
Which brings us to immigration, where maybe feelings are knowledge. I remember my manager at Sun Microsystems standing to speak at a town hall meeting. He said, “I came from Latin America to this country with $11 and a suitcase. And here I am.” He choked up. How on earth could I believe in closed borders? My Chinese-American colleague told me, “This country treats more people better than anywhere else.” That’s the American dream and I have to hope it’s still ours to realize.
Besides, my family immigrated. We were middle-class Scots who came over to make our fortunes and find freedom from England. How can I believe in closed borders?
I’ve traveled a fair amount. See that privilege thing. Much of my deepest sense of self is built on moments spent with my feet in the sea of a foreign country. How can I believe in closed borders?
Surely we could implement a logical immigration policy with relative ease if we just stopped blaming ills on The Other.
5. Allowing traditional social roles to dissolve
It seems that religion is the single biggest proponent of social tradition. I don’t belong to any particular church. So that’s out of the way.
Then let’s talk gender. I was late to develop. At 14, skinny, broad-shouldered, decisive, assertive I was not “girlish” at all. But a little flesh can do a lot and by 16 I looked the way girls were supposed to. I was treated accordingly. For in better, but more often, in the 70s and 80s, for worse.
So of course I support the release of traditional roles, having never assumed one comfortably in the first place.
Let’s talk sexual orientation. My son is gay. Are you going to tell me that he’s not a man? Or that he can’t get married? Just effing try it. I don’t swear on the Internet but if I did it would be now.
Let’s talk race. Wait, let’s not. I am white and have little to add except support for the long and grievously bloody trudge towards equality.
So of course I support the dissolution of traditional roles. They haven’t served me or anyone I love.
We are not set in stone.
Life is sacred but messy. We’re born that way but we’re not done. I suppose at 60 I’m finally admitting that we have to keep learning. That other people just might know better and our time is well spent listening to them instead of polishing our own positions to a high gloss. Shiny surfaces show us only ourselves.
And you? You are the most important thing.
How did you come to believe as you do? No, not what do you believe, but, looking back, how did you get there? Immediate personal experience? Family traditions? Religion? And, my real question, should you stay there or should you do some homework?
(If you are interested in how some other people answered this question, try this comment thread on my blog.)