Terminus: Grand Old Party
Since the build up to the 2016 election, news outlets from across the political spectrum have regularly churned out thoughtful, considerate thinkpieces exploring the “economic anxieties” that drive middle America Trump supporters to vote ostensibly against their own interests.
These articles have always struck me as strange. It really doesn’t require much investigation to extrapolate why lifelong Conservative voters, who live in conservative communities, have continued to vote with their chosen party. As Pierce Brosnan explained in one of the greatest films of the ‘90s, Dante’s Peak: if you toss a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put the frog in cool water then slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will stay put and boil to death. I don’t know if that’s true of frogs or not, but it sure is true of people. Both are good with a lemon butter sauce and a nice Chianti.
We know that people tend to stay with their communities. This shouldn’t be surprising because it isn’t new. Whether the draw is family, housing, economics, or overall community ties, people generally stay where they are. Where you are inevitably influences your worldview. It shapes your fears and concerns, your definition of success, your belief in what the world should be. The vast majority of Americans grow where they’re planted, even if their community is sick or dying.
What I am interested in are the frogs who felt the water getting hot and abandoned ship. Human advancement is built by those rare individuals who reject the status quo, often at the expense of being rejected by their communities. These are the people who look around their world and say, “I think this could be better.”
I reached out to five people – veterans, active duty service members, military family, and one hardy civilian – to talk to them about their conservative roots and why they walked away. One message came out loud and clear from each interview (almost verbatim in three of the five): they didn’t think very much about the needs of other people, until one day they did and there was no going back.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed or left out to protect the privacy of these individuals.
Those people over there
“I graduated college in 2007 with an economics degree and I was very much convinced that a totally free market with no government intervention in anything was the only way,” said Terrance, an Army officer and Missouri native. “I was generally agnostic to hot button social issues that didn’t really affect me personally, like abortion and gay rights.”
Terrance described his upbringing as fundamentalist Christian in a predominantly white area. Like most of my interviewees, he grew up poor. His community, in particular, relied heavily on tax-funded social welfare programs.
“A lot of people on Medicaid,” he said. “Over half my school district on free [or] reduced lunch programs. I think it was just the lack of self-awareness about who else used these programs and why they exist.”
Despite their reliance on social welfare, Terrance explained that his community remained staunch conservatives.
“I think the general skepticism of the government made people feel like it was fine to take the benefits because we were owed them somehow.”
“Othering” has been a political strategy since, well, the dawn of politics, but here in the U.S. we can trace modern conservative othering (aka the Southern Strategy) back to the 1960’s when the Republican party established itself as the anti-Civil Rights Act party. Their endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, himself a staunch opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, started a trend that resulted in the modern GOP. The Goldwater candidacy served as a siren’s call to disgruntled (mostly Southern) conservative white voters. By positioning poor black voters as the enemy, they also positioned themselves as heroes to an expansive demographic of voters who felt left behind by a rapidly evolving Democratic party.
The party’s evolution from moderate to hard-line conservative can be traced by tedious reading party platforms throughout the years. Even while promoting a candidate like Goldwater, the official party platform enthusiastically endorsed civil rights well into the 70’s. It’s important to note that conservative voters of each party shared opposition to the Civil Rights Act. The act served as a tipping point, after which conservative voters began moving to the GOP and liberal voters to the Democratic party.
Othering is a heady drug for anyone, but for people who feel they have no power, it provides a sense of superiority and security in a world they feel is taken from them.
“You’d watch the news and see all these big cities [with] a diverse population, with high crime rates compared to our small town and then make that next step: that black people must be terrible because cities have crime and that’s where ‘they’ live,” said Braden, a Coast Guard vet and current civil service employee.
Sarah*, an active-duty Marine and Maryland native, described relishing the comforts of hyper-conservative Christianity because she felt she succeeded at meeting the expectations set for a so-called “good Christian girl.”
“In some ways, it gave me a chance to feel empowered,” said Sarah, “but it was based on how I compared to other people and especially other women. I wouldn’t realize how toxic I was until I’d been a bill-paying adult for some years.”
Whose party is it, anyway?
Just as conservative voters gradually left the Democratic party throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the GOP is undergoing yet another culture shift affecting otherwise moderate party members: hard lining.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’m defining hard lining as the rejection of compromise — the rejection of any idea that might be associated with liberalism and absolute loyalty to party over nation.
This behavior is prevalent in both major parties, but the Republican platforms provide a standard metric that traces the party’s evolution toward hard lining over the years, peaking with the current administration. For instance, the party promoted equality as the only path forward for America until the 70’s. As of 2004, the official Republican Platform stated that homosexuals had no place in the armed service, which is a significant departure from “continued opposition to discrimination based on race, creed, national origin or sex. We recognize that the elimination of any such discrimination is a matter of heart, conscience, and education, as well as of equal rights under law” (1964).
Flash forward to today and former moderate Republican voters are facing a GOP full of lawmakers who insisted Trump wasn’t qualified for the presidency, but now back his every play instead of acting as independent members of the legislature responsible for balancing the branches of government — inevitably fostering an environment of mistrust.
Voters across the spectrum felt that they were not appropriately represented by the 2016 presidential nominees. However, where the Democratic party has looked inward on how to change in a post Hillary/Bernie world, the GOP has redoubled its hard lining efforts. A party that once, according to its own platforms, purported to support citizens in achieving the American dream through equal rights legislation, wage controls, environmental protections, and more, now appears to be hellbent on demolishing all of these things: equal rights have become impediments to the free speech of businesses; wages are to remain stagnant in spite of inflation; the Environmental Protection Agency is being gutted;other social protections funded by taxpayers are treated as impossible expenses the nation cannot afford.
“It started with the value of human life,” said Braden. “I believe in this firmly. This cannot be negotiated. And then it branched out to: does our healthcare system support that belief? And I found it didn’t.”
During Braden’s time in the Coast Guard, he was part of several search and rescue operations that “ended badly,” at which point his guilt and anxiety began to eat at him.
“I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering if I could have done something differently that could have made a difference. This is when I started to have that moment of disconnect from what I thought I knew.”
Danielle, a former military spouse and Georgia native, said she considered herself mostly apolitical until the 2016 election began. While married to her now ex-husband, what she knew was simple: her Marine husband got better raises under Bush than Obama and the dearth of law enforcement officers in her family made her believe that police brutality had more to do with individual compliance than overarching racial strife.
A number of red flags began popping up in Danielle’s periphery that inspired her to question her conservative beliefs. When North Carolina conservatives wanted to push an anti-transgender bathroom bill, Danielle took a stand.
“With everything going on, were we really wanting to be the potty police? So much for small government and letting people live their lives the way they choose,” she said. “[A] friend said something to the effect of, ‘I can’t believe they are letting men in women’s bathrooms in the states.’ […] I was floored that she refused to acknowledge someone’s identity.”
On social media, she found herself even further distanced from conservative friends, particularly when she saw a pattern of rape jokes and just who was laughing at them. “I always used to think that you can respect someone [who] has a difference in opinion. I started to realize it’s not a difference in opinion I was noticing, it was a difference in morality.”
Brian, a writer and teacher from New Jersey, said he was a firm believer in the concepts of Manifest Destiny and the “American Dream” growing up. “If only they tried harder, or were more disciplined, or whatever excuse I used, they could have been richer, happier, more successful.”
Although he was raised as Catholic with the “love thy neighbor mantra,” Brian said, “I didn’t think about others very much at all, unless there was some kind of very clear human rights violation involved.”
For Brian, initially the Ferguson protests and then the most recent election that finally pushed him into the liberal left. When he couldn’t see a coherent reason behind the militarization of law enforcement and excessive force on display, he found himself reaching out to learn more about inequality and minority issues facing America.
“I likely would have gone through life as a moderately socially liberal centrist if [President Trump] didn’t win that election. I would’ve likely been appeased by some nominal protocol change in regards to protest and police aggression and never thought much more about it. I opposed the Iraq War and many of the things that George W. Bush did, but never to the point that it changed my fundamental views of the system. I was very much ‘don’t rock the boat’ before the 2016 election.”
When Sarah left her conservative religious home to attend art school, she found herself “the weirdest catfish in a koi pond.” She cultivated a small circle of friends with similar upbringings, but they were all different enough to chafe at each other’s staunch beliefs. In order to build and maintain her friendships, she had to admit her negative characteristics.
“It was then that I started learning how much of a judgemental, unforgiving prick I was. So, I became less conservative in the effort to become a better person for the friends I had then,” she said.
After falling off the conservative wagon, she took baby steps – learning a little bit here and there outside of her comfort zone – until she began questioning everything she thought she knew and came to her own conclusions about the world.
“Conservatism openly denies various people human rights, services, or items that necessitate life, under the guise of upholding traditional values, financial concern, and resource management.”
Although she hesitated to state she has ever truly identified with a political party – her earlier political leanings having more to do with her religion than anything else and now, she harshly questions the existing two-party structure – stating that after her awakening, there could be no going back to her old beliefs. The GOP would have to come to her, aggressively renouncing racism, sexism, and all manner of bigotry while embracing a resource-driven society to earn her trust and respect.
“I want people to have access to the things they need. It’s absurd that the world should have a surplus of necessities, like housing, food, water, et cetera, but people still be homeless, starving and thirsty. I simply can’t understand this anymore.”
Abandoning conservative roots comes at a cost. Almost everyone interviewed expressed that their political evolution alienated friends and family.
It has been at least three years since Braden saw any of his family back home in Oklahoma. “I can generally have a short conversation with my dad a couple times a month, but everyone else is a pretty questionable. It sounds terrible, but I’ve even avoided making plans for holidays down there because I know we’d fight and I’d say something I would regret.”
“My parents took it personally,” said Sarah, “rejecting God, having sex, and beginning to live outside of church without any intention of ever coming back to it hurt them deeply. Regardless of how it hurt them, I knew I couldn’t go back so long as I believed God didn’t really care about the small, personal details of people’s lives, and I didn’t believe that anymore.”
On election night, Brian said one of his uncles called him just to gloat, “despite never having had a conversation about politics before.”
“He’s been some degree of angry with me ever since and I’ve yet to do anything to him other than point out actual things he has done and said.”
Despite some personal conflicts, there is hope to be had for the future.
“I still believe we should care about government spending and that the government could run more efficiently and we could do a lot better,” said Terrance. “Individual liberty and fiscal responsibility are what kept me a Republican for so long. Now there’s not really a party for that, so I’m out in the wilderness. I will likely vote for Democrats for the foreseeable future because I can’t support a party with a guy like Trump leading it.”
Terrance started volunteering in the campaign of a local Democrat hoping to unseat his current Republican representative and Braden said he’s donated to a number of political campaigns, as well as “harassing” his friends into registering to vote.
“I know a few who didn’t vote in ’16 [who] have expressed regrets about that,” said Braden. “The best I can realistically hope for is reinvestment into public education and welfare. People who work hard for 40 hours a week shouldn’t have to struggle to survive. We shouldn’t be so fearful of science and higher thinking.”
As both major parties grow and evolve, it’s hard to say what we can expect from them in the future. What is certain is that conservative politics in particular are at a major turning point.
Sarah’s hope for the future don’t come with a party tag.
“I think my biggest motivation is wanting others to experience life unaltered. I want people to be able to work and be fulfilled. I want people to be able to live the lives they want most as long as it isn’t actively inhibiting another person’s life or well-being. Life will be challenging enough without adding obstacles for other people.”
If there there is a future for either party, it lies in compromise and a return to the earliest shared values: freedom from persecution for all, strong social security and welfare to help needy families succeed, tax credits for college tuition to encourage higher education, a commitment to environmental protection so that present and future Americans can have access to our natural resources, wage controls to keep the American worker participating in the economy, strong leadership and allyship with NATO and the United Nations, and most of all a commitment to the nation first.