The examined life: One conservative's journey

When I was 17, I was a socialist.

Seriously. When I was 17 years old and a senior in high school, I announced to everybody who would listen that I was a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. And I was fervent about it. I was a true believer.

I turned 18 in November of 1990, three and a half months after Saddam Hussein rolled his tanks into Kuwait. George Bush was in the White House, and we all saw him on CNN declaring that the Iraqi invasion would not stand. War seemed inevitable. And war, as every college freshman knows, is something that must be opposed with protests and signs and chants. Mostly because that’s where all the girls are, the pink-cheeked teenage girls in their cut-off jeans and their tank tops with peace signs on them.

Between the endless succession of vainglorious anti-war extracurriculars and the sudden post-U.S.S.R.-era tackiness of that old-time proletarianism, 18-year-old me came into the 1992 election cycle as about as rasa a tabula as you could ever hope to see. I knew that war was bad because the hippie chick with the bandana and the jeans with the hole you-know-where told me so in between attempts to teach me how to French kiss. But on the other hand, I knew that the Gulf War had been about as bloody as a Pearl Jam concert and had lasted only slightly longer. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton delivered a few stump-speech platitudes and a Ray-Banned sax solo, and it was a done deal.

That November I went into a booth and I pulled a lever and I was proud to be an American and a Democrat.

Throughout the 1990s, I was an unapologetic, though not always proud, member of the Democratic Party. I had lost none of the fervency of my high-school days; I really believed. I was twenty years old. Of course I believed. Believing is what unreconstructed idealists do best.

But in 1998, the whole world came crashing down. That summer, news broke that the President — my President — had had a protracted and wildly inappropriate sexual relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. And not only did he have an affair, but he lied about it defiantly and forcefully. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he said. He said it to the press, he said it to the whole country. He said it to me. And it was a lie.

“Oh, everybody lies about sex,” they said. You know: they. The faceless voice of the conventional wisdom. “It’s no big deal,” they said. But to me, it was a big deal. I don’t expect my President to be without sin. But I do expect that when he looks me in the eye and pounds his extended finger on that podium and says it like he means it, that he’s not lying to me.

I didn’t say anything about it to anybody. Not to my friends, not to my co-workers, not to anybody. But it was then, in the fall of 1998, that I began to feel, for the first time, like I didn’t fit in with the Democratic Party any more.

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During the late 1990s, little by little, my convictions began to evolve. Things that had seemed self-evident to me five years before were suddenly up for grabs, or worse, now seemed equally self-evident to me only in the opposite direction. But I was still a Democrat — I’ve never been one to jump ship over a few differences of opinion — and I dutifully voted for Al Gore in November 2000.

The aftermath of the 2000 election was an embarrassment to the nation. Gore’s retracted concession was an act of political classlessness unequalled in recent memory, and the turmoil that resulted damaged this country in ways from which we still haven’t recovered.

But what really shocked me was the vitriol that gripped my party during and after the election. People were throwing around the word “stolen,” and they meant it. They really believed that some dark cabal had conspired to overturn a fair election and award the Presidency to a candidate who hadn’t earned the office.

In the winter of 2000, it seemed like dissatisfaction with a failed campaign boiled over into outright hatred, not just among the fringe lunatics but in the minds of mainstream Democrats around the country. Once again, I was starting to wonder whether I really fit in.

Then came a Tuesday morning in September.

I was on a business trip, visiting a client in Los Angeles. My phone woke me up. “Turn on your television,” said the co-worker on the other end. I asked which channel. “All of them,” he said.

One of the towers had just fallen and the other one was burning; smoke was rising from the Pentagon. There were rumors of planes still unaccounted for. It wasn’t over. One of our co-workers had been on a flight from Dallas to Chicago that was in the air during the hijackings; was he okay? They were clearly trying to hit “soft” targets, and the woman I loved worked in one of the largest buildings in the Southwest. And the phones were jammed and I couldn’t get through to anyone. I looked out the window of my high-rise hotel over the L.A. basin and saw, on the horizon, the blue-grey smudges of a pair of F-15s. A flash of reflected California sunshine and they were gone.

For four days I sat in that hotel and watched the news unfold on CNN. By the time the airports reopened, I knew exactly what I wanted from the government and the President. I didn’t want mere retaliation or a military quid pro quo. I wanted absolute certainty that nothing like the events of that horrific Tuesday morning could ever happen again. I wanted the smoke from the burning towers to herald the flames of a reformation that would sweep across Central Asia, the Middle East and parts beyond. I wanted the President — who at some point during that unforgettable week had become my President — to change the world.

Not all Democrats saw it that way. While American troops were fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Howard Dean announced that Osama bin Laden should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Prominent Democratic donor George Soros declared that “crime requires police work, not military action.” John Kerry, who would eventually secure the Democratic nomination, said that the President “rushed into battle.”

What the hell had happened to the Democrats? Why was a party that had been so willing to use American military force during the 1990s when the commitments were small and the sacrifice slight suddenly so reluctant to do what was right?

I came into the 2004 President election season disenchanted with my own party but ready to be won back. All the Democrats had to do was show even a token willingness to win the war. They didn’t do that. Instead they nominated an undistinguished legislator who saluted with one hand and pandered to the squeamishness of the anti-war bloc with the other.

In November 2004, I walked into a booth and pulled a lever. And I was proud to be an American and, for the first time in my life, a Republican.

I have friends who’ve been Republicans all their lives. I think we all know people like that, people who inherited their political opinions from their parents and never wavered. I had to strike out on my own and experience a sort of philosophical Wanderjahr before I was ready to come back to the values I learned from my parents.

Does that make my political opinions any more valid than anyone else’s? Of course not. But it does make them complicated. I believe that personal responsibility is a cardinal virtue, but I believe that society must sometimes protect us from ourselves. I believe that free markets solve problems better than governments, but I believe that public education is too important to leave to the invisible hand. I believe that sometimes war is the inevitable extension of a strong foreign policy, but I believe that the state has no business executing prisoners. I’m a swarming, teeming mass of political contradictions, and as such I fit in perfectly with no political party.

But I think that’s how American politics is supposed to work. I think American political parties are supposed to be made up of smart, dedicated people who disagree about practically everything but who find enough common ground to work together. I think that American politics is the politics of persuasion, and that people with strong convictions have a responsibility to get out there and start persuading others to see things their way.

And I believe that strong-willed people who disagree with each other can change the world for the better. Because I think that those are the only people who ever have.

Jeff Harrell blogs at The Shape of Days.

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