I Voted. There, I Said It.



(Or, Don’t Hate Me Because I’m a Conservative)I voted in Palm Beach County today.For some of you, the needle may have already skidded across the metaphorical record. I’ve already seen the gears turning on the faces of my friends this week….. Voting… voting… there’s voting going on? OH! THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY!Then they stare at me in disdain and disbelief.It gets worse.I was having a little text exchange the other night with one of my most brilliant friends (who happens to be an ardent Obama supporter) about politics. It was late and I think I’d had a glass of wine or two—enough to be a little more loose-lipped about my political past than I’d normally be.

“Big secret,” I typed. “I was an absentee ballot voter in Palm Beach County, Florida in the 2000 elections. I voted for Bush. You heard me: I’m one of the 500 people in the world who got us into this whole mess.”

I’m not kidding when I tell you I didn’t hear from him again for a full 24 hours.“I’m still recovering from this information,” he responded.I’ve been carrying around the hanging chads of my past like emotional baggage. Admittedly, at the time, I was just a gung-ho, extremely conservative, incredibly religious voter. As the years roll by, though, the implication of that chad (or today’s I VOTED! sticker) and what people might perceive as my social and ethical philosophy has been a nightmare.Don’t get me wrong: the implications of my voting choices were intense early on. I was filling out that Florida voter punch card from my dorm room at a women’s liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. I knew what it was to have a political philosophy that wasn’t exactly the same as those of my peers.Not that I had much of a “philosophy” at the time.Nevertheless, the alienation these days is worse.

Before You Bail on Me

Let me get it out of the way and say that I don’t think Republicans (the big brand and its spray tanned leader, at least) are my peers anymore, either. In fact, I don’t know if modern Republicanism ever embodied what I think; I definitely see now that I’m a fiscal conservative and social liberal. As I’ve been watching this election unfold (and as I find myself coincidentally once again in Palm Beach County, registered as a Republican, feeling like a stranger in a strange land and having to choose between one of these blow-hards), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the general deterioration of political discourse and critical thinking that goes along with it. After all, this is my blog and I’m bracing for the potential backlash this is going to bring even as I write it.My objective here is actually to ratchet up the level of critical, concrete thinking both within and between parties—as in, I’m seriously hoping to affect the next conversation you have over coffee about your political values and direction—and I’m sticking my neck out to do so.I repeat: this is notgame of Political Red Rover. You don't have to come over. I just want to start some interesting conversation.That being said:

We Have No Joint Sense of Purpose As A Nation—and between Parties

In theory, people of all parties should be working towards more or less the same fundamental ideals (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, anyone?) and arguing over ways to get there. That means that my Obama-supporting friend and I should actually have basic ideals about public welfare and society that more or less line up. We probably do. That’s what makes us tolerable to each other, at least from a political standpoint.It’s easy to imagine that back when the colonies were recently independent, early Americans had a sense of joint purpose, like, “We’re here to build a country from scratch,” (not to oversimplify). While even at that time there was plenty of difference of political philosophy, building a strong United States was paramount to virtually everyone; after all, most people had risked their lives (or their family members had) to do so.Compare that to today. That sense of civic duty and engagement, the feeling we’re still creating and ironing out the longevity of a nation that protects its people and lives without a monarch, and the reality that we’re still participating in the greatest governmental experiment in history are all largely absent from the fiery fights we have with everyone from our worst enemies to our own grandmothers.Now, this all hinges on one main idea (conceivably an idea that many Republicans no longer hold dear (or, worse, that they’re being portrayed as having forgotten)): the success and continuity of the whole might require trumping the needs and desires of the individual.It’s not all about me. It’s not all about you, either.Republicanism can make sense in light of the fundamental ideas that we’re all in this together and that what happens to my neighbor actually affects my own wellbeing, so it behooves me to have his best interest in mind. When that’s abandoned, things go wrong.Next time you get into a political spat with someone, stop and establish what their objective is for the country (and I mean addressing education, poverty, wealth, quality of life, freedom)—and see if you can articulate your own. It may turn out that the guy you’re arguing with really is a total jerk who ought to be punched, but at least you’ll have defined your terms on your way to that assessment.In light of that, I want to make a few comments on my conservatism:

I Don’t Want Lower Taxes So I Can Horde Money…

…and go shopping at Givenchy for extra handbags while children are going to bed hungry and unable to read.Not that I don’t like bags.As far as I’m concerned, my main reason for desiring lower taxes is because I don’t want the government directing my charitable giving, and I’d like to be able to give more, more comfortably, even when the recipients of those gifts don’t count as a tax deduction.This may sound very pollyanna, but I don’t simply mean I want to give my wealth to my children without the state being involved (although that’s true, too). I mean that if my family members and friends—parents, siblings, whomever—need me, I would like to have more to give. If the local food bank is in need, I’d like to have more to give. Moreover, I believe distribution of funds can be more efficient (and therefore more effective) when the government is not involved.This, again, goes back to general purpose: what the heck are we doing here and what can we do to contribute? I legitimately want to be freed up to give freely, and if any of you know me personally, you know that I do, sometimes at great personal cost. Heck, I’ve even offered a kidney to a Twitter friend (a liberal, no less!). I put my money where my mouth is, and I think as a conservative that has to come with the territory.Generosity has to be a fundamental tenet of a functioning fiscally conservative government. That for many Republicans giving generously isn’t a key piece of the equation points to why things are so broken (and why I’m usually mortified to admit I have anything to do with them).

So If the Government Shouldn’t Be Handing Out Money, Who Should?

Social organizations should be distributing the cash. There's a problem in making that happen, though, I know. It has a lot to do with values and, again, a disintegrating sense of social responsibility, often assumed to be or portrayed as specific to those on the right. I also think it’s why we fight so quickly and so harshly; politics is quickly becoming the new religion. According to Gallup, the number of Americans who identify as having no religious affiliation has increased from “near zero in the 1950s to 16%*” in 2010. Now, this is obviously not a majority, but I think it does reflect a secular shift in our culture. Despite less affiliation with religion—the way man sorts through who he is in relation to the universe and other people—there are still ethical and social issues that need to be resolved, and politics has become the arena in which we hash them out.As a conservative, I don’t necessarily think that’s best. Philip K. Howard makes a fascinating observation in The Death Of Common Sense that speaks directly to this legislation of behavior and attitude:

Plato argued that good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will always find a way around law. By pretending that procedure will get rid of corruption, we have succeeded only in humiliating honest people and provided a cover of darkness and complexity for the bad people. There is a scandal here, but it’s not the result of venal bureaucrats. (p. 99)

We can’t legislate that citizens be better people. Moreover, we can’t force people to not exercise every right they have to the nth degree (fly everywhere in a private jet, consume unknown quantities of artery-clogging beef product at Taco Bell, etc).When we talk about why the government “should be doing something,” we should more carefully look at why we as individuals are not doing whatever that is.

Shut Up Already

OK, I will. But I want to leave you with this: at the end of the day, I believe our political discourse is a direct reflection of how much respect we have for one another. I’d say the vast majority of my friends are liberals, and I deeply respect them, largely because the kinds of people I’m friends with are people who hold dear personal responsibility, discipline, delayed gratification, and critical thinking.Those ideals are what allow us to talk calmly about ways to grow into a society and culture of which we can all be proud—and they’re the only sort of conversations that will ultimately get us somewhere as a Union.Try it sometime.

Elizabeth King