Friday, December 28, 2018
Changing Political Parties
As should be clear to anyone who has been reading this blog, I am a Democrat. But I used to be a Republican. Something Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne wrote this week got me thinking about the journey that took me from one party to the other. His column was about identity politics. Here’s what he said:
I’m a reasonably well-off white male liberal who grew up in a middle-class family in a working-class city in Massachusetts where Catholicism and trade unions were important parts of life. I was born in the United States of French-Canadian heritage. I’m a husband, a father and a baby boomer.
I was also inspired by teachers, friends and books. I'd love to claim these various intellectual and moral influences as the primary shapers of my worldview. But social scientists and psychologists would be quick to point out that I’d be lying if I pretended that my demographic background has had no effect on how I think.
This last sentence made me wonder how unusual I am. I tend to agree with pretty much everything Dionne writes, but I grew up in a conservative, LDS family in Utah. My parents were not political at all when I was growing up, although I’m sure they voted Republican. I do recall watching the Watergate hearings with my mom during the summer of 1973, between my junior and senior years of high school, but I don’t remember hearing my parents discuss politics, ever. As they grew older, they started watching Fox News, which I tried to discourage at first but have long since given up. My mom passed away over five years ago, but my dad still watches the Trump Propaganda Channel every day.
So, how did I transform from an apolitical Republican to a very politically invested Democrat? Well, oddly, it all started in 1980 in BYU’s MBA program. As I’ve documented previously on this blog, I discovered something about myself in the crucible of the MBA curriculum. I learned that I am not a fan of the corporate system. In fact, even though I taught in the Marriott School for nine years, I was deeply troubled by many of the concepts I was teaching. I started looking behind the curriculum, though, and what I found was a set of values that were diametrically opposed to the values I espoused as a Mormon and as an American. These values are ubiquitous in the business world. They subtly insist that organizations are more important than people and that some people should be used by others, treated as commodities and resources rather than human beings with free will and an innate desire to reach their individual potential.
At some point, I started seeing things at a systemic level. Beneath the organizational values I found a system that promotes those values, and that system is part of an even deeper system that functions not on an organizational level but on an economic one. So, my discontent with the corporate system led me to examine the economic assumptions that that allow the corporate system to exist in its present form.
Now, both of our major political parties are held hostage, to one degree or another, by these economic assumptions. But in about 1980 the Republican Party began to change. Ronald Reagan became a devotee of a discredited economic theory called supply-side economics. In the nearly forty years since then, the GOP has done what any party would do when forced to choose between espousing an economic theory that simply doesn’t work but is politically persuasive and doing what is actually best for the majority of people in this country. The Republicans chose supply-side economics, which necessitated lying about the effects of tax cuts for the wealthy. Two of the side-benefits have been the shockingly unequal society we now enjoy and the massive federal debt we are saddled with. But they made their choice, and we are now living with the consequences.
In spite of my concerns about the Republican economic project, I stayed with them for several years, likely because of my demographic background that the social scientists and psychologists indicate is a strong predictor of political loyalty. The escapades of Bill Clinton probably had something to do with it too. But by the time George W. Bush and the supply-siders pushed through a tax cut and tried to pay for two wars and Medicare Part D with it, I had had enough. I left the Republicans and became an unaffiliated voter.
By this time, though, it wasn’t just supply-side economics that troubled me. The GOP seemed on a trajectory across the board that felt like a refusal to deal with serious issues. From climate-change denial and gun laws to health care and immigration, the GOP agenda seemed like an effort to return to a world that never could exist again. So, by the time Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination for president, I wanted no part of the Republican worldview.
I was voting almost exclusively Democrat by this time. One notable exception was Gary Herbert, Utah’s governor, who got my vote only because his Democratic challenger, Pete Corroon, ran such a negative campaign. But when BYU Studies published the Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture by David Magleby, a political science professor who retired at the end of the just-completed fall semester, I changed my status from unaffiliated to Democrat. Magleby pointed out in his lecture that there are very few truly independent voters in America. Many are unaffiliated, but like me they tend to vote overwhelmingly for one party or the other. He suggested that if you’re voting for one party most of the time, why not commit and get more involved. So I changed my status. I’ve never regretted that decision.
So, although my demographic background suggests that I should be a Republican, I am not. And it has been interesting to recollect the various experiences and influences that created that transformation. I suspect that the Trump phenomenon is causing many Republicans to reconsider their party affiliation. The GOP is, in fact, shrinking. Whether (after Trump is either removed from office by impeachment or voted out) the party can recover and return to what it used to be is a good question. Personally, I doubt it. Because Trump is not an aberration. He is where the GOP was heading anyway. He just came faster and more offensively than many Republicans expected. But most of them have embraced him—some willingly, some due to political expedience. What this means is that the GOP will continue to become smaller and less relevant as more moderate Republicans disaffiliate themselves and as American demographics continue to shift away from older white voters to younger, ethnically diverse participants. Eventually, these trends will overcome GOP efforts to gerrymander and to suppress minority votes. When that happens, we have to wonder whether the Republican Party will do the politically expedient thing and join the twenty-first century.