I consider myself a center-left individual. Interestingly, I considered myself a center-right individual for many years. However, as the right moved further from the center, my self-identification had to move with it. As a center-left, white male over 40 in ruby-red Alabama, I guess I am somewhat of an anomaly. I have always been a fan of self-examination, and this series is an attempt to decipher what factors, internal and external, make me believe and vote so differently from so many of my contemporaries.
Part II: The Beginnings of Awareness
My stepfather passed way in the spring of 1989. I went off to college at Troy State University that fall and began to be exposed to a much larger window of political content. I also began to be exposed to a larger cultural world.
Originally I wanted to study Broadcast Journalism, but during my freshman year, I took an entry-level Political Science course and was completely hooked. After the usual freshman year of adjustment, I found my academic groove in Political Science and History. As my interest grew, so did my political involvement.
I also experienced a cultural difference. In my second semester, I was assigned a new roommate, Charles. Charles was black, from Birmingham, and we had quite a bit in common. Of course, having lived in a segregated community throughout my teenage years and attended a school without a single black student, teacher, or staffer it took some getting used to for me. Culturally, Charles and I had different tastes in things like music, television, and movies, but we found a way to make our small dorm room work. We both were fans of Chicken McNuggets, so once a week we would go out and split a 20-piece. Thursdays were a big night for television in those days, and for that we needed rules. For example, on Thursday nights Charles had control of the television for him and his friends to watch The Cosby Show and A Different World. After that, I had control for Cheers. We both participated in watching the other’s favorite shows and shared the usual roommate conversations about girlfriends, tests, and minutia.
Even though there was a budding friendship, we never took it to a more personal level. I never invited Charles to come back with me on a break as roommates often do. While we were friends, there was always a distance. I have often wondered if Charles kept a distance, knowing that I went to an all-white private school in a small, segregated town. Whether it was racism, fear, or simply a reflection of the conditions within which one is raised, I wish I had explored that friendship more. The fact that I have had to wrestle with is that I avoided it because of the racial attitudes that I had been taught, and fear of what the reaction might have been at home. Those questions haunt me to this day. Nevertheless, it was a learning experience to again have access to a broader cultural sphere.
From a political standpoint, in those years I began to develop core principles that would define what I believe. I have always been a voracious reader since I was a small child. Without internet access in those days, newspapers and magazines were the preferred source of information, with a healthy dose of television news. Even though I considered myself a “neo-conservative”, center-right Republican, I constantly sought out differing points of view. At one point in my junior year, I had simultaneous subscriptions to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, National Review, and the Montgomery Advertiser. I had access to everything from the liberal perspective, to center-right, center-left, and conservative points of view. My two most influential professors were Dr. Brown, my advisor, who was a textbook northeastern Republican with a Libertarian streak, and Dr. Wessel, a self-described Socialist, who spent time in Europe after World War II and believed in heavy government involvement, even control, of industry. Some of my most fond memories are arguing the merits of well-regulated capitalism with Dr. Wessel in his office after class. My personal politics also reflected that diversity of thought.
As I became more politically active, I was involved with the Troy State College Republicans, becoming Vice President of the organization at one point. I was a pro-choice Republican (yes, those used to exist), and argued in favor of President Clinton’s “civil union” compromise. In the 1990s, those were heretical beliefs to some in the GOP, but in the days of such leaders in the party as Bill Weld (the pro-choice Massachusetts Governor who spoke at the 1992 convention), and Jack Kemp (who had worked as HUD Secretary with Democrat Charles Rangel to revitalize Harlem and other struggling inner-city areas through government action, investment, and planning), there was a vibrant debate of center-right and center-left policy. The extremes were left to their talk-radio shows.
As the ’90s wore on, some of the shine began to wear off on the Republican Party for me. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” promise of inclusion, outreach, and opportunity for all turned to a scorched-earth strategy of labeling everyone and everything in opposition to his party as “radical” or “liberal” or “communist”. The 1990s also saw demagogic individuals like Lee Atwater, using racist resentment and fear to smear candidates around the country by promoting white fear of black America. I initially thought of this wing of the party as an unfortunate minority that would surely be drowned out by more moderate voices. Of course, I would be proven horribly wrong.
The 2000 election cycle found me struggling with my vote for the first time. On the one hand, Vice President Al Gore was part of a successful two-term administration that produced a growing economy, a balanced budget, and successfully navigated the post-Cold War international environment. The other candidate, Governor George W. Bush pushed themes that I myself had promoted in Republican circles…fiscal responsibility, lifting up those left behind in the economy, outreach to forgotten minorities, and a strong focus on education. He referred to this as “compassionate conservatism”. Working on two Republican congressional campaigns, as well as local races, and engaging with other young Republicans in Washington for a time demonstrated to me that I was either out of the Republican mainstream, or the mainstream was moving.
Through the 1990s, as I moved into the workforce and out of my segregated hometown, I found my dedication to the principles of the Republican Party increasingly challenged by my own ability to read, think, and observe. There were truths being exposed about the American right-wing that was, at times, subtle…but impossible for me to ignore.
That would set the stage for my own conversion in the next decade.