Thursday, November 8, 2012

Politics and Beliefs

I remember when I was much younger how my parents would talk rather stoically about elections and political parties. They talked about how the political culture seemed to swing back and forth depending on what issues were most important at the time.  Thirty years ago, political conversations did not range into the topics they do today. Abortion, gay marriage, immigration, welfare reform, health insurance – these weren’t the topics discussed in my house - not as political issues, anyway. The line between social beliefs and political positions had felt separate.

The funny thing is that I was raised in a republican household and, for the most part, I think the general lesson taught was that politics should not mandate what we consider social services. Rugged individualism defined my parent’s, grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s lives. While my folks certainly supported gay rights and a woman’s right to choose – these were very personal beliefs that were not broadcast anywhere in our community, workplaces or social gatherings.  Politics was the platform for foreign policy and economics, certainly not a national stage to discuss when life begins in the womb – or if a rape victim has a right to abort.
For me, something changed in 1984. I had just spent an amazing week in Dallas – as a youth delegate to the Republican National Convention. I watched Ronald Reagan and his political allies ride a wave of popularity to stunning victory. But something began to become unsettling – I was noticing a trend that disturbed me. On the long bus ride home, fellow students and I read through the party platform, speeches and word bites and it was apparent that being anti-abortion and wanting prayer in school were explicitly linked to the party. Everyone went around stating whether they agreed or disagreed – I was the only one on that bus that disagreed with the party stance on those two issues.

I was asked what the hell I was doing on that bus.

Because I had a dissenting opinion on two social issues.
 I didn’t like that those issues were part of the new party dogma but what I thought was very disturbing was the inability of my peers to respect different beliefs. That level of fanaticism and inability to allow more moderate voices stopped me cold in my tracks. I had been raised, as I’ve explained, in a culture where personal beliefs and values didn’t belong in politics. To watch the Republican Party explicitly adopt a set of beliefs as “right” and “true” was disquieting.  I didn’t know how to explain that to those other kids on the bus – because they were attacking my personal beliefs which I had learned were meant to be held privately.  That September, Newsweek would publish its issue under the title of God and Politics – I wasn’t the only one who was noticing a change in the political climate.

That’s my story with one party and I could speak to dogma on the “left” side of the aisle that is just as polarizing and gives me pause. (*When I talked to Andy about this, he wanted me to give an example of liberal righteous story-making and I said “if republicans win, they will destroy the planet.” He looked at me for a long moment and then said he thought that example worked.)
It is still my natural inclination to not engage in political chitchat because it rarely comes in the shape of real dialogue or curiosity. Dialogue asks us to set our “truths” aside, be willing to learn from others, manage our fear and anxiety as our paradigms are challenged, and see if something new can emerge. I didn’t learn about that in my family – God no – but it’s become a lot more important to me as I’ve gotten older. And when it comes to politics, I have rarely found any person who wants to understand what I think as opposed to telling me what they think.

Now, social concerns, religious doctrine, and belief systems dominate our political conversations. Our basic philosophical and personal values get wrapped up into those debates. Today’s political dogma – on both sides of the party line – is drenched in deeply polarized value sets. We’ve ended up building our political identities on top of our personal, fundamental values – to challenge the former is to challenge everything regarding the later. This is hardly new and yet, is it possible, as we begin to truly understand that we are a country of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, geographical cultures, levels of privilege and wealth, that we are witnessing a painful unraveling of how we have thought of ourselves as a nation of people? We may be finally letting it sink in that the USA is truly the melting pot of the world.
I looked at the electoral college map Tuesday night and I felt my heart go out to all the people in the Midwest and the South – because I knew they were looking at that same map and watching how the northeast and the west coast carried the election away from their candidate. Especially in states like Wyoming and Utah where almost 70% voted for the other guy. Space and territory doesn’t mandate power in this country – population density does. But the image is still visceral in terms of culture and identity.

And now I vote according to my personal belief system regarding social and environmental issues as opposed to issues like fiscal responsibility, foreign policy, state’s rights and other issues where I am fairly moderate. I do this because I also have come to identify my values with fears about losing certain freedoms.
 Just like everyone else out there.

I voted for the guy most likely to protect what I value.
And maybe that’s what my parents did all those years ago – I was just too young to understand.



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