I’ve changed my mind on politics three times in my life. When I say “changed my mind,” I mean in a big way—major shifts. And because I have done that, some would say I’m inconsistent. I wish that I had been able to get where I am sooner, but don’t we all. I see a guiding thread, and I want to trace it here because I think it will be instructive to a lot of people. I think my story of mind-changing is not that different from other people’s, even though I’m a professor of political thought. In fact, that’s part of the puzzle—why do people’s political ideas often have so little to do with “facts?” Anyway, you may see yourself in parts of my story, and if you do, I think my own story might be able to offer at least one path beyond the oscillation between right and left, religious and secular, in which most of us dwell.
First, I was a liberal, in the US sense of the term—in other words, I was progressive or leaned left. Then I was a conservative in the US sense of the term—in other words I was a fan of classical liberal theory, including the defense of free market capitalism. Lastly, I became something not in-between those two—not a “moderate,” but someone who melds ideas from leftism and a different and older kind of conservatism, classical conservatism. The latter is way of thinking relatively unknown in US Republican/conservative circles but which is actually the original, and I would argue still the best, meaning of “conservative.” But before I explain how one can be a type of conservative and entertain some leftist ideas, I want to tell my story, including how I started out, why I changed my mind, and what the guiding thread really was.
I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, a working-class town on the Mississippi River when John Deere and International Harvester dominated the local economy. My dad was a high school teacher and my mom was a secretary when she worked. Dad was a veteran of WWII and the Korean Conflict. In his youth, he’d left rural Kentucky to join the Army before getting drafted into WWII. He was, as far as I know, the first person in his family to earn a college degree, which he did thanks to the GI Bill.
Dad grew up poor, and he learned great mechanical skills. His dad was a skilled roofer but also an alcoholic, and his family went from pillar to post and couldn’t get ahead. Dad learned how to grow food, and every year I lived in Rock Island I helped him grow a rather extensive garden in our backyard. I also learned a lot from his mechanical know-how, and I’m still doing so because he’s still alive at 92 and living right next door. My mom is too. She came from a sort of middle class background. Her dad was an International Harvester dealer in Iowa. He too had alcohol problems but managed to keep it together so that the family was at least financially better off. Both my parents were kids during the Great Depression and they remember what it’s like to be insecure and relatively food-deprived. Because of my parents’ backgrounds, I grew up learning how to be frugal, self-reliant, handy and inclined to grow food.
My mom came from a Republican family, but my dad, being from the South and originating from a working class background, was a Democrat. When he was growing up, Democrats ruled the South, and that only changed when the Civil Rights movement caused people to take sides on race. When the Democratic party decided to align with the Civil Rights movement, it precipitated a realignment. The party that had fought to free the slaves, the Republicans, moved into the South to collect the constituents there who weren’t ready to be color blind. This is why the South became so Republican, and after awhile, the Southerners absorbed the rest of the Republican ideology, including free market economics–but that was a long time after my dad had left the South.
Dad was a Democrat for another reason. He still aligned his thinking with blue-collar working class people. As a high school business teacher, he taught many students skills so that they could get office jobs, but he saw them as working class too—which they are, by economic measures. Many of his students were young black women, and he was convinced that because of previous history, our society needed to make sure that African Americans got the help they needed to have real equal opportunity. More than that, dad thought that the working class generally, people of every color and creed, needed to be supported in their quest for equal respect and economic opportunity. As the 80’s came on, he saw in Republican politics an attempt to peel away the social safety net the poor and working class needed to live dignified lives.
My family’s politics aligned with my dad’s as I grew up. I went to college in the mid-80’s and I didn’t think much of Ronald Reagan. But I got into Political Science, and after graduating, I decided to go for a Master’s degree. At that point, we were in a recession. There were few jobs and I was thinking I didn’t have much to lose by going to grad school, especially since I was able to get a position with the department which paid for tuition and gave me a stipend to live on. As I learned more about political philosophy, my area of expertise, I was introduced to divergent ideas. Many of the professors and grad students at the school were intellectual conservatives. Still, I was skeptical, and remained on the left, having lively debates with these well read and intelligent people. As I neared the end of my degree program, several things happened that led to me changing my mind about being a “liberal.”
First, when applying for jobs, I was treated by many of the schools that brought me out for an interview as a “token woman.” I had a classical political philosophy education. My dissertation was a comparison of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides and the 17th Century British social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes. I had not a single class in feminist theory. It wasn’t that I took an active dislike of feminist theory, or that I wasn’t some kind of feminist in the sense that I wanted women to have equal rights, but simply that I was interested in other things. I found out that, at that time, it was unacceptable to simply be interested in other things if you were a female faculty member. So, I got treated rudely, dismissively, and with incomprehension in many of my interviews. It was a hair–raising experience for a young job candidate. I ended up working for a year at a college in Virginia, on the recommendation of one of my professors. There, I was the only female faculty member but the rest of the faculty didn’t give a hoot if I taught feminist theory.
While I found a great job at Kansas State University the next year and was able to teach what I was trained to teach, I never forgot that experience. That experience took the sheen off of academic liberalism. They were intolerant, rude, and frankly not too well-informed. They also thought that they were really the shit, which they were not—they didn’t realize what I’ve since figured out, that they’d been comfortably sidelined in their ivory towers where they would have little to no influence on our culture in the next few decades, despite the railings of the right wing I was about to join.
In short, after being hazed by prospective employers, I had a moment—an “I don’t want to be a part of that club” moment. Once that happened, I re-evaluated everything I believed. I started to read more widely in contemporary conservative literature, including the ideas of black conservatives Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. I began to question why in all the decades past the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights movement, our country still had (and has) such a problem with poverty, and particularly with black poverty?
Conservatives had an answer to that question—the fault lay with the liberal elite, which had made homes for itself not only in academia but more importantly in government service. They had no real interest in finding solutions to poverty. Instead, liberals wanted to keep people dependent so that government employment, their employment, could continue. They took their constituents for granted, including women and minorities, and sold them hope with each election but never really delivered. After realizing what middle class people actually paid in taxes by paying them myself, I was indignant to say the least about why Democrats had failed to deliver on their promises to raise people out of poverty, improve public education, and provide an even playing field for people who wanted to get ahead in America through hard work.
Here’s the kicker—those accusations are not wrong. The Democrats did fail at all these things. There probably is a great deal of truth in the concept that they do not want things to change drastically because it would lead to them being dislodged from their cozy perches. There’s definitely a lot of truth to the idea that the Democrats moved away over the decades from the advocacy for the working class that my dad remembered.
Democrats had in effect moved to the right, though no one had an interest in pointing it out. They were no longer openly critical of capitalism or the rich. They stopped being openly affiliated with trade unions and watched as the unions were deciminated by Republican policies. They began talking about race, gender and sexual orientation more than class, with the effect that they could move ever rightward in their economic policies while being progressive concerning identity groups. This was the origin of practical left leaning “identity politics,” race and gender consciousness, that still grips the Democratic party today. But identity “wokeness” is largely an experience of middle and upper class people, and meanwhile, the lower classes in America got bigger and bigger in areas not easily unionized, like food service, retail, low-paid office and tech support, etc.
Democrats didn’t know how to communicate with these new types of working class people, but Republicans did. I felt the Democrats’ disregard for lower economic classes because I still had the same concerns I grew up with—concerns that the poor, particularly blacks, were trapped in a vicious cycle in America. Democrats’ disregard was felt by a whole lot of white working class people, too, who picked up on the new focus on identity and grew resentful that their identity no longer received the Democrats’ attention. So, they turned even more to the Republicans, who were making a concerted effort (following on Reagan’s initial huge success at peeling off white Democrats).
The Republicans, in turn, went about teaching people that it was big government that blocked economic progress, and that if they peeled back its power, opportunities would be unleashed that would lift up everyone, including women and minorities. They preached until recently that race consciousness was an obstacle to the country’s success. Strangely enough, then, the pre-Trump Republicans most often made an economic class-based appeal (albeit different from what the Democrats had done in their earlier support of blue collar workers) while the Democrats moved into murky territory where identity and equal rights for various groups took center stage.
I stayed quite conservative in the US sense through my early years in academia. I railed against the academic left, partly because they’d caused me so much grief when trying to find a job, and partly because I over-estimated their influence. Academics, like a lot of people, tend to live in a bubble where they see their impact on the wider society as bigger than it really is. To me it was a huge deal at the time that students were being exposed to left-wing ideas in their English classes, as though they’d go right out of the university and foment a communist revolution. I joined groups that tried to push back the leftward tide in academia. But over the years, I noticed that rather than breeding a leftist culture on campus, the so-called progressives gave way at every turn to corporate and political influences from the right. That was because they needed money badly, as the state kept pulling back its funding due to a general Republican disdain for higher education.
Though perhaps the majority of professors leaned to the (moderate, not radical) left, the programs at the university kept getting more and more about “getting a job,” emphasizing “STEM,” teaching only corporate approved farming methods, and making money from inventions and patents that could be sold to businesses. That is, I had to notice that the “liberals” at the university were having less than zero effect on the university’s overall culture or the trajectory of most of its students. The most convicted left-wing profs on campus got trotted out for “town halls” or other bull-sessions, special events, the dedication of a new building or the institution of some new program so that the university could say it was doing something about issues like systemic racism while not doing anything that made a difference. The financial power of the right vastly outweighed the largely obscure left-leaning scholarship in various humanistic fields.
Anyone who thinks that left wing professors in academia are a threat to conservatives has not spent much time on a college campus with their eyes open. We now live in a world where everyone’s skin is so thin that even a mention of an idea that they disagree with is cause for grievances and law-suits. In that sense, the right-leaning students and faculty are every bit as much snowflakes as those on the left. We had become a nation of whiners, and I had another aha moment—I didn’t want to be a part of that crowd, either.
That aha moment was greatly amplified by the candidacy of Donald Trump. I’m not going to lie—I was an early “never Trumper.” I was a registered Republican two years into his term, but I had voted with no enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton because I thought it was the only responsible thing to do. She seemed to me the least harmful choice available. However, at the point I did that, it had begun to dawn on me that the 2016 election was between a Republican (Hillary Clinton) and a representative (or tool) of right-wing nationalist populism, which is a different kind of candidate entirely, and part of a growing international trend. Again, as I realized that the people I’d long identified with, US conservatives, where acting badly, embracing ideas that were not within their stated principles, and indeed actually embracing a reality TV show host for president, I decided not only to drop the Repubican party, but to rethink my politics, and indeed to take a good look at how I’d made all my previous decisions.
I should have thought more independently all along. I should not have allowed my politics to be so tied up with my own personal experience—whether or not I liked or respected by representatives of a particular political view. Being insulted should not mean you automatically think the ideas of the one hurling the insult have no merit. And so I began a conscious effort to have a truly open mind, to read across a vast spectrum of political and economic thought that I’d previously avoided, including what could be called “far left” and “far right,” and I rediscovered some literature that had meant something to me in my youth, in particular the ideas of Jacques Ellul, Carl Jung, and Christopher Lasch. I picked up Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which helped me think about a longer historical trajectory in which the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution changed our experience of religion in ways that set us up for societal alienation. I got into the thought of agrarian Wendell Berry and then learned a lot about the environmental and food system threats we face. I realized that we had huge problems that cannot be answered by oscillating in our right-left pattern anymore.
We cannot afford to reject an idea just because the “other side” or some “crackpot” happened to talk about it. The old categories are showing just how old they are. Arguably not only the political parties but the country itself is in a crisis that resembles decrepitude, the inability to get bearings, the lack of hope, the lack of even concerted thought and effort. Rome is burning and Nero is fiddling. Under these circumstances, we have an obligation to rethink everything.