Seventeen years ago during my first week as a student at UCLA, I was approached by an eager young woman with a clipboard registering people to vote. I took an application and filled it out… except for one field: party affiliation.
I remembered the time I was driving with my grandfather, talking about politics. “I think I’m a little more on the liberal side,” I told him. He nearly drove off the road.
My grandfather and I have talked about politics as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, he took me to something called the Bakersfield Business Conference. I remember it as being like a carnival for a certain kind of white people (older, conservative, moneyed). You didn’t have to pay for anything once inside the gates and I downed many fine Dole frozen fruit products.
The main event was a series of speakers. Margaret Thatcher apologized for the UK’s part in the American Revolution. “If only a woman had been Prime Minster…” she said. Helmut Kohl was on a panel with future Vice President Dick Cheney. It was all a paragon of late ’80s/early ’90s conservatism. Until, oddly, the Smothers Brothers took the stage.
Being a Republican meant something important to my Grandfather, and by extension, to my parents and to me. But we were an old timey kind of Republican–small government, big military, fiscally conservative.
But socially we were always more live and let live.
So just as I assumed during my childhood that I was and would always be a Republican, I assumed I was and would always be pro-choice. One of those would end up being true.
I didn’t feel like a Republican anymore when I was registering to vote, but I didn’t feel like a Democrat either. So I declined to state a party and registered as an independent.
My mother got into several fine California colleges, but my Grandfather put his foot down. California schools at the time were too liberal, he thought. So instead she went to the University of Oregon, which is basically the college equivalent of a stoned dreadlock, so odd choice there, Granddad. But she did still come out a Republican.
I, on the other hand, did attend a California college and I became more liberal by the quarter. I started attending Socialist Youth Action meetings, protested at a UC regents meetings to advocate divestment from Myanmar, and rode all night in a crowded bus to march in an anti-war protest in San Francisco. My politics were wildly liberal and not generally well thought-out, but I deeply felt that they were mine.
Even when my mother claimed I was just parroting the views of my socialist boyfriend. Even when my father said they would change as I matured. Even when my grandfather shook his head confused that someone raised under his influence could be so wrong.
Part of me did wonder if I would grow out of my liberalism, but even though I haven’t held a placard in a march since the Prop 8 protests, I’m still just as invested in progressive politics as I was in my 20s. Although I’d like to think I’m better informed now.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is my love of wonky political reportage. In my 8th grade history class, we had a crazy assignment that birthed this love. We had to scour newspapers (which really took some doing pre-internet) to find a current example of every article and amendment of the constitution at work. One night, a classmate found the lost city of Atlantis aka an article that actually referenced how public citizens can’t be forced to house militia, and a great call went out across the land, sending many of us scurrying to our piles of papers and flipping frantically through them with our newsprint-stained fingers looking for that article.
Ten years later, I passed on attending an underground dinner party full of very cool people, so I could stay home and watch election returns. For a primary.
Yesterday, I worked from home in part so I could keep an ear on the Republican National Convention. “Nuts” is the word that kept coming to mind. I was watching MSNBC when Iowa Rep. Steve King said something truly startling:
“This whole ‘white people’ business does get a little tired,” said King. “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where these contributions that have been made by these categories of people that you’re talking about—where did any other sub-group of people contribute more to civilization?”
I wasn’t startled because of what he said–I mean, where I grew up, you just know people believe that kind of thing–but because he said it outloud and on television.
This whole election cycle has startled me because of what people are saying outloud and on television. And by “people”, I mean Republicans. More specifically, I mean Trump supporters.
On NPR this morning, a woman attending the convention said she’s liked Trump from the moment he entered the race because he doesn’t worry about being politically correct. That is abundantly clear every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter account.
But what has really sunk in for me is not that this crazy man is saying these things, it’s that the crazy things he’s saying are resonating for so many. And how little that surprises me is a little surprising.
“Don’t underestimate how racist Americans are,” is a thing I’ve heard myself say for years. But now I feel almost as if I’ve been saying it to myself, to remind myself, to really make myself believe that America, for all the things it does right, is also pockmarked by deep veins of destructive “isms”. Donald Trump and his followers are exposing the truths we’ve gotten used to expressing only when out of earshot of people we think will be offended. Believing we have the right to be offensive is “not worrying about being politically correct.”
I don’t want people to be “politically correct.” I want people to be truly progressive. I don’t want someone to refrain from saying what they believe to be true that others would consider racist. I want that someone to move past their bias and come to a more humane understanding of society.
I am crossing my fingers that this blood letting is how we get American racism out on the table and are able to start moving through it, not just looking past it.
But all this ugliness is hard to watch and harder to process.
NPR interviewed an adviser to Trump who was describing his base and she said they’re primarily registered Independents.
So, like me. Except … not like me.
This morning, I changed my party affiliation and I’m now officially a Democrat.
Later this morning, my mother texted to say she’s voting for Hillary and my grandfather isn’t voting for president at all. “First time in his voting life.”