“We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy”
One of the most meaningful, yet sobering, realizations I’ve had in my life was when I came to understand how much of what we fervently believe is a product of the time and place into which we are born. It took me thousands of hours of studying and debating history and numerous trips to other states and countries for that to really sink in.
The implications of this are more than a little disturbing. If we grow up in a place and time where women are limited to certain roles, that seems normal. If we grow up in a place and time where belief is valued over knowledge, that becomes our normal. If we grow up in a culture where certain groups of people are feared or discriminated against, that becomes our normal. And this doesn’t just impact ordinary people. I’ve spent countless hours reading the works of Thomas Jefferson — in fact, he’s the thinker more than any other who set my mind free to submit all matters to “the tribunal of reason” as best I can. Yet even Thomas Jefferson, a man of incredible intellect who was able to see far beyond his time, sadly remained very much a part of his own time by owning other human beings his entire life. If an intellectual powerhouse such as Jefferson failed to fully escape the prejudices of his own time, how much hope is there for me?
When we read about the horrible things humans have done to each other in the past (and are still doing to each other now), we assume we’d have been on the “right” side if we’d been there. We’re always the heroes in the stories we tell ourselves.
However, going deeper, it’s apparent that most of the people on the side that we now clearly identify as the “wrong” side were quite convinced that they were on the “right” side. And religion is certainly no insulation or protection from finding oneself on the wrong side. In fact, many of the worst actors often invoke God and religion to justify their horrific practices. Leaders have always exploited religion (and other dogmatic ideologies) as a catch-all to shut down questions and opposition without having to defend their actions using reason or principles of fairness. The people in those old pictures from our history textbooks holding signs like “don’t mix the races” were probably convinced of the absolute righteousness of their cause. The police officers beating up civil rights protestors in the pictures no doubt believed that they were on the “right” side, “defending” law and order.
And that is truly disconcerting to reflect upon. I like to tell myself “well, surely I would have done something to help.” But I don’t really have much evidence of that, and I know I’m not doing enough to help now. Even worse, most of my life, I held beliefs that were hurtful to my fellow humans; such as that poor people just needed to work harder, gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry who they love, and that non-Christians were going to hell and were somehow less American than Christians (even though that directly contradicts Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Paine, and the very idea of America). I also believed Democrats were less American than Republicans because Sean Hannity, Jerry Falwell, and Rush Limbaugh constantly told me so.
Could the right charismatic leader have pushed me over the line to act on these prejudices? I like to think not — I was always raised to treat everyone around me with kindness and consideration and am fairly gentle in my disposition. But I’ve read about the Milgram experiment, so I’m not so arrogant as to presume it would have been impossible.
Since becoming disillusioned with conservatism and the Republican party, I’ve held myself out as a moderate. And it’s true, even in the most recent midterms, I still voted for two Republicans because they hadn’t said or done anything crazy and I found them to be better credentialed than their opponents. So, I very much share the desire to want to appear “impartial” and “unattached.” I understand the impulse to say, “both sides do it,” engage in “what about”-isms, or bemoan the fact that there’s only two viable options in national elections.
I fully understand the desire to say, “politics is ugly,” “my vote doesn’t matter,” or “things won’t change.” I’ve felt all of that cynicism and more. And, like so many others who were devout conservatives but have since become disillusioned, I also wonder — how can I trust my own judgment? If I was bamboozled by one political party, why do I think any other might be different?
And so, for the last decade, I’ve thought of myself as an independent — very much “above” political affiliation. I voted in whichever primary I felt the most strongly about and then researched every single race to decide which candidate to vote for in the general election. I always limited my advocacy to a specific election or issue.
I’ve followed politics more closely with each passing year and I’ve learned a lot. My views on Democrats have gradually shifted. At first, I was outright hostile towards them — after all, I was one of Sean Hannity’s “great Americans!” Over time, that hostility softened to skepticism. Skepticism, in-turn, gave way to a reluctant and annoyed understanding that Democrats might be the only party currently interested in governing responsibly anymore (debt ceilings, shut-downs, science, education policy, healthcare policy, etc.). But lately, I’ve noticed something different.
We humans are programmed to protect and show allegiance to our “tribes” (generally people sharing our language, race, culture, and religion). There’s nothing especially noble or unique about defending our own tribe — pretty much everyone will do that. It is a basic instinct ingrained in us by evolution.
However, in today’s Democratic party, you see atheists, Christians, and Jews defending the rights of Muslims. You see citizens defending the rights of non-citizens (who can’t even vote so there’s little direct political benefit to doing so). You see straight people trying to protect gay citizens from being fired or otherwise discriminated against because of who they love. You see mentally and physically able Americans advocating for those with disabilities. You see healthy people fighting to protect those with pre-existing conditions from being denied insurance. You see the currently living fighting to protect our air, land, and water for future generations. You see college-educated professionals voting to pay more taxes to help those less-fortunate than themselves have a better shot at education and social mobility. You see cisgender adults trying to protect transgendered children from bullying in schools. You see wealthy people fighting for the poor. You see native-born citizens standing up for immigrants and refugees.
Many of these groups do not even fully understand the other groups. But, they know that the members of other groups are also human and therefore “created equal” with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” just as much their birthright as anyone’s. It has really struck me how beautiful and exceedingly rare that is in human history.
Do Democrats represent all constituencies with equal vigor or effectiveness all the time? Of course not. Are Democrats terrible at messaging? Absolutely — painfully so at times. Will Joe Biden, if elected, accomplish even half of the things he proposes? Of course not, that’s just not how things work in any kind of consensus-driven system.
But are Democrats, as a party, trying to balance the impossibly complex set of interests that is modern America and govern responsibly? I’ve become convinced that they are.
This election is not like previous Presidential elections — after all, John McCain and Mitt Romney were both decent and capable people. Either of them could have competently protected America during the COVID-19 outbreak and neither of them would try to undermine an election or fail to promise a peaceful transition of power. Neither of them would be so consumed by narcissism and an incomparably fragile ego as to spew forth a near-constant stream of hateful bile and chaos into the world.
Unfortunately, this election is different. There is a clear wrong side here, and it’s painfully easy to spot: The side that acts as if criticism or oversight of their leader is unpatriotic or traitorous is always the wrong side. The side receiving enthusiastic support from neo-Nazis, wannabe Confederates, and other white supremacist groups is always the wrong side. The side that ignores or outright denies science and traffics in conspiracy theories is always the wrong side. And the side led by a man who has made more than 20,000 documented false or misleading statements is definitely the wrong side.
When our children read about our time in history books, they will shake their heads at Trump-ism the same way we shook our heads at all the other horrible reactionary movements in our textbooks, wondering “how was that ever a thing?”
I did not vote for Joe Biden in the primary, but I am proud to support him now. Our country is in desperate need of his competence, decency, and compassion at this juncture. His commitment to making progress without steamrolling or ignoring those who feel differently is the most responsible and reasonable position to take in a country this divided. I say that with full understanding that there are those who, in good faith, believe he is too moderate and will want him to go further in certain ways — and that is fine! Keep advocating and voting in primaries at all levels. But I’ve also come to appreciate that the Democratic party, like America, is not a monolith — it is a large and diverse coalition. That makes it unwieldy and frustrating, but it also gives the Democratic party the best claim to represent America as a whole. In fact, it is the only party even trying to do so right now.
The right side in this contest is clear — and I will be on it. That is why I am now proud to call myself a Democrat and to support the Democratic party as best I can — financially, by voting, and through volunteer and advocacy efforts.
Please vote — and try to do it early and in person if you are able, so we can foil Trump’s open scheme to discredit the election and plunge our country into further chaos if he doesn’t like the result. If you want more ways to get involved and help (or know of some you want to share), message me! I’m still getting my feet wet now and I admit it doesn’t all come naturally. But this is not a time to be timid or indecisive.
And if you identify as a Republican, please take it from me that your world doesn’t end if you vote for another party in an election — that was difficult for me to learn, but I promise it is true! America needs the person who receives most votes to actually become President and humanity desperately needs America to do much better than we have been lately.
Texas matters this year, y’all — let’s be on the right side!