I Was a Young Republican (Kinda)

Tell me if this sounds familiar: When I entered college, I was fed up with the status quo, and wanted change. So, I did what a lot of people did at the time and started (kinda) identifying as a Republican.

Image: TBS/Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

I can only speak to my own experience; nevertheless, I felt a responsibility to write this because there may be college students out there who are seriously considering joining the conservative majority, even if they don’t agree with it. For me, it was a combination of factors; maybe it was stress or depression, or maybe it was a want to be on the winning team. On the other hand, there were significant differences between retro, early-2000s neoconservatism and the Tea Party; like your parents probably say, it was a different time: Hannity had a liberal cohost. Remember Colmes?

Anyway, when I entered school, I wasn’t gung ho about limited government, closed borders, and lower taxes, despite passing government class with an A+. I came in as a staunch Al Gore supporter who sternly lectured Green Party voters on how they were essentially voting for George W. Bush, which didn’t make me a riot at parties. Turning 18 less than two weeks after Decision 2000 may have come into play here; I felt like my voice didn’t matter. And if you can only beat ’em in the popular vote and not the Electoral College…

Actual photo of liberals and conservatives in 2000.

Conservatism: Yeah! Yeah!

I find it hard not to see a parallel between certain erratic behavior in public and my intermittently explosive ravings during those years. I wrote off people I barely knew as incompetent, I attacked others with no basis in reality, and I didn’t think before acting. I spouted off all of the conservative talking points, thinking that I was being “politically active” and edgy, when I didn’t know how racist and classist I came off to other, more informed people. Perhaps I was stressed from homework, and that pent-up resentment, combined with a lack of interest in therapy, made me more destructive. My white privilege was totally unchecked: I didn’t have time for therapy, man, even if it was for free.

Perhaps I cared too much about what others thought, enough to lie about it on the regular. I used my standing as an upper-middle class white kid to justify my belief in tax breaks, even if I didn’t have a trust fund. Here’s another mitigating factor: After 9/11, neocon Republicanism was huge. Historically, the majority tends to go further Right after a major episode like an attack on American soil or a World War (although Republican laws often clear the runway for such episodes to happen, and Democrat Presidents ended both World Wars, but there will always be exceptions). Also, there was no real hippie resistance or counterculture for young people to latch onto in 2000, despite the Green Party’s protestations. Even my famously liberal school had a significant Republican contingent by the end of Bush’s first term. My choice to call myself a Republican during those years felt futile, and being a Republican in 2002 wasn’t necessarily a cause for shame either. Remember the 2000-era voter registration initiative Vote or Die? That term was scarily apropos. If a candidate as qualified as John Kerry couldn’t beat an unpopular President during an unpopular war that said President started, what chance did the Democrats ever have?

In light of 9/11, making fun of the President was a very sensitive subject, no matter what he said about “exquisite sex” (see below). Today, every other person on your Facebook feed might have an open hatred of present-day conservatism usually reserved for traffic but, at the time, celebrities were blackballed for speaking out against George W. Bush. In all fairness, most stars voted Democrat in 2000, but their DNC turnout wasn’t nearly as A-list back then. The GOP weren’t cool, but they were powerful — just look at how much more airplay Toby Keith got than John Legend. Besides, the general assumption was that Vice President Dick Cheney was doing all of Bush’s hard work. I didn’t have very many reasons to join the GOP, but I couldn’t find too many reasons to oppose it, either. So, my logic was this: If Colin, Condi, and Cowboy Troy were Republicans, maybe I could be on the winning team and still support feminism, affirmative action, the arts, and LGBT rights. #DecisionPoints

Image: Saturday Night Live/NBC

There was another reason that I’m kind of glossing over, and it’s this:

So, This Is Why the Republicans Hate Democrats (and Other Liberals)

Let’s face it, Democrats are more likely to declare “Hug a Tree Day”™ or wear matching costumes to a voting booth rather than propose a successful bill. They will wait in silent protest rather than expedite the process. If the Republicans are the random people who stand in front of the subway door who aren’t going to get off the train anytime soon, even though there are tons of seats left, then the Democrats are the “It’s Showtime!” dancers. They take up space and don’t do much of anything. There’s a strange kind of superiority that comes from acknowledging that you don’t like them.

There is a different learning curve for Republicanism, and a lot of it has to do with obstruction. It’s hard to want to be gay when you have to deal with an undue amount of persecution, as well as being told that your feelings are both unnatural and immoral. Republicans may benefit from the system, but it’s at the cost of rescinding rights to the immigrants who allowed them to be born into that system. In a Right Wing view, people who commit crimes deserve to rot in prisons or die at the hands of the government. Democrats, then, are seen as the bad guys, because they don’t (always) lower taxes, and may let dangerous criminals loose under the pretense of rehabilitation, among other things. They don’t (all) use phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism.” They don’t (all) hold fellow Democrats accountable for their past actions. Who was the last great Democratic general? Republicans, then, are seen as the real patriots; Democrats might as well hate America — and we had to deal with that accusation a lot in the early 2000s simply because we weren’t the ones writing jingoistic country songs about how evil Muslims were. Democrats, like anyone who isn’t in power, have to work even harder because they’re constantly being blocked by the majority.

Then again, the arts and education are viewed by Republicans as a waste of taxpayer dollars that should go to the military, but the military already gets far more funding than it probably needs compared to the tiny sliver reserved for public programs. To them, it’s the fault of the Common Core standards that children are failing out of schools, but it’s hard to reform education when taxpayer money isn’t going toward it. Republicans claim to create jobs,and sometimes that theory holds water, even though it’s statistically easier to find a job and get health insurance during a Democratic presidency. Democrats typically lead to surpluses, because they tax the rich; Republicans often lead to recessions because they create loopholes and tax cuts for the rich. However, one could have said the opposite about, say, Presidents Carter and Reagan, because their plans had very different outcomes than intended. It’s called good business, then?

So, maybe Obama didn’t live up to expectations. But just look at the mess that his administration had to clean up after eight years of Bush; he might as well have been Catherine Hardwicke getting passed over for the chance to direct the second Twilight because she was too “emotional” on set.

Now Everybody Do the Propaganda

Being a Republican during the Second Gulf War gave me an excuse to be paranoid. I remember watching The American President for the first time, and thinking that I was crazy for not wanting to ban guns: I had to be a Republican with a guilty conscience. Here’s the exact unedited quote, via Wikipedia:

But would cops just strangle people with their bare hands?

Bear in mind that this is an idealistic work of fiction. At the time, “fake news” only referred to “The Daily Show,” but the Internet and cable were nascent, and FOX News exploded after Bush won. However, the liberals already controlled MSNBC and its cornerstones, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and “The Ed Show.” These hosts considered the opposing argument and treated it with respect, or the occasional sassy joke. Republicans would often dismiss the Democratic point entirely, or talk down to it. There were no comparisons here, only contrasts, especially when one considers that the purpose of news is to educate and inform, while propaganda essentially bullies its readers into agreeing with its one side.

Examining the media’s influence on partisan politics in the early 2000s would take at least 5 additional articles, but a good place to start exploring the idea of spin is Senator Al Franken’s book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which disseminates hours of conservative media footage. Not to mention how institutional sexism, racism, and other –isms play a role in how political rivals are portrayed. I was reminded of that earlier quote when Hillary Clinton clarified the myth that Democrats want to abolish guns in the presidential debate, even though her opponent insisted that this absolute was the truth, but I suppose the people wanted empty, sensationalist spectacle and paid more attention to that. It was hard for me to stomach viewing the debate as anything other than enabling the other side, but, I swear, every Democrat I knew told me, “Yeah, but you have to watch.” Gee, I wonder if this had any effect on the outcome.

And Now, Your Moment of Zen

To quote Omarosa, who was just a kitschy reality TV star back then, being the President is the ultimate revenge, but it comes at the steepest cost possible. Running for office, especially in the top three branches, is like working four full-time jobs at once, plus two part-time gigs as a rideshare driver. Being any kind of leader may put you on top, but it doesn’t rule out the ultimate work-related stressor: Everyone turning on you.

Back then, we didn’t pay any mind to kitschy reality TV stars, because their political opinions didn’t matter. Hardly anyone’s opinions mattered, because the Republicans were running the show in all three branches, plus, a Republican had just been appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the trickling down of their less popular decisions was inevitable. Despite our futility in the matter, Democrats aren’t perfect either. If Democrats lie or betray a promise, it’s usually because they had to choose a less compromising decision over a destructive alternative. Yet this explanation is rarely, if ever, evoked in conservative media. While there will always be exceptions, a Democrat is more likely to cave into the needs of self-preservation or sacrifice rather than those of lobbyists and corporations. Democrats typically don’t lash out after a stumble by asserting that they’re the best and everyone else is a weak loser or hater. Most Republicans didn’t either, at least, back then. I won’t begrudge anyone for their belief in limited government, closed borders, and lower taxes; if it crosses the line into outright discrimination, gerrymandering, or pay-or-play, then I might need to question their values system and who, exactly, it serves. Then again, there’s always working across the aisle.

So, dear readers, and this goes especially for college students who thought that both candidates were equally bad: If you’re wondering why so many people are nostalgic for George W. Bush, look at some of the positive things that he did. He gave an unprecedented amount of money to AIDS assistance. He supported the arts. He discouraged the stereotyping of Muslims, hired a diverse staff, and had a special relationship with Mexican President Vincente Fox. He smiled in his presidential portrait. Sure, he gave us No Child Left Behind, but he also established the Department of Homeland Security. Political opinions and parties tend to change with the times. For example, the P!nk song “Dear Mr. President” only accuses Bush of turning a blind eye to suffering. Compare that to the current raft of media and the accusations that they make. Bush had a low bar to clear, due to Clinton-era prosperity and a budget surplus, but his changes were sweeping enough to enhance major problems within the environment, surveillance, education, human rights, and agriculture. It was very easy to be angry at Bush, but that anger was unproductive, even if you really wanted to like him. Bush kept a cool head, and he stabilized his popularity by legislating cautiously and being a gentle man of the people. As a former governor, he knew what he was doing.

What Comes Next?

I don’t believe that I was ever a Republican. I was never willing to give up my support for Planned Parenthood, confused by how Republicans refused to acknowledge the Pulse massacre, and eluded by the appeal of trickle-down economics. I’m pretty sure that I was apoplectic during those years because I knew that Gore would be a President aligned with my values and the election seemed stolen from him, in a way.

Trying on a different identity was a reaction to being uncomfortable in mine. However, if today’s young people are thinking about joining the Grand Old Party, I can’t discourage them, but I can suggest that media literacy is especially important in this new era. No matter what you believe, it may be a very long time before the two-party system goes back to, in the words of “South Park,” having its cake and eating it, too.

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