On the Right Path

I’m a middle-aged man, and so while I’ve not yet seen all the world has to offer, I’ve learned a little.  Back when I was a very young man, raised in a liberal Democrat household(at least by the balloting,) I entered adulthood with some pretty liberal ideas. Service in the Army started me out on my path to philosophical reconstruction, and subsequent marriage and fatherhood helped speed along the process, along with a healthy dose of life’s realities to teach me the hard way.  When I joined the service, I went in thinking that Ronald Reagan was the devil, but by the time I had seen the real world on the border between East and West, and witnessed his speech at Brandenburg Gate, I had changed.  We’ve all heard the saying that “a young conservative has no heart, and an old liberal has no brain,” meant to describe the transition many make as they age from the liberal leanings of youth(if for no other reason than rebellion,) to the wiser thinking of somebody who has learned a few lessons.  In considering this mid-life transformation that so many people go through, one of the things you note is that there are those who never make the transition.  More, there are those who change parties, because life’s realities show the way, but they never fully reconcile the two contradictory positions in their thinking.

As an example, I have one friend who is by all estimates conservative now, but when we talk about the political history of the last two decades, a strange thing happens: The further back along the time-line we go, the more liberal my friend sounds, because she begins to almost slide back into her earlier thinking when she was a rabid liberal.  In her youth, given her politics of the day, Newt Gingrich was the devil. For this reason, she has great difficulty looking at him now, some fifteen years later, and seeing him as anything but the devil her college professors, friends and family had described him as being.  It’s not even that she can say why he was the devil, so much as it is a sense about him, or an image, rather than any concretes.  At one point some months ago, she had made a remark about never being able to support him, and I asked why that was.  She hesitated, and started to make an argument from her politics of old against him, but tapered off as she realized it was no longer what she had once believed.

This presented her with a problem, and she finally said to me: “I may need to re-think Newt, not that I’d necessarily support him, but because my view of him was built…a long time ago.”  To a thirty-five year old, fifteen or twenty years is a long time in their past, indeed.  The important thing to notice, and the thing I tried to point out to her is that when people go through political and philosophical transformations in their twenties and thirties, or any time, really, what they frequently fail to do is to go back and re-evaluate the past in light of their current views.  This makes for a significant break, a sort of philosophical and historical discontinuity that leads to difficulties in one’s judgments.  I find this to be most common among people in their thirties, and I also think this is what begets many of our “independents” and “moderates,” because they never reconciled fully between their younger, liberal views, and their elder conservative realizations.

The fact may be that you probably know some number of people who fit this description, or may in fact be one yourself, although based on comments and emails I receive from readers here, I think most are somewhat more settled into a consistent view of the world.   You may want to keep this in mind when you’re listening to such people, and the way to “help” them through it is to reach back to historical touchstones and ask them what they think about some issue or person or event from the political past. If I’m talking to a thirty-five year old, I know the reference points will be in 1990s, because that would have been when they first started formulating views and making judgments.  Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and Newt Gingrich and the Republican takeover of the Congress are two of the touchstone events, together with personalities that shape the thinking of many such people still.  Gently pointing them to reconsider those people and events in light of what they now know often helps make the difference between somebody of the squishy middle and a true conservative.

After all, when we evaluate these persons and political or social events, we do so with the lenses with which we were equipped at the time.  Often, we change lenses along the way, but we seldom go back to re-examine them with our better, well-focused glasses.  This explains in part why a character like Newt Gingrich still has such high negatives in the twenty-five to thirty-five year old group, because their views of Gingrich were formed when they held different views altogether.  If in 1995, you viewed Gingrich as a political demon, you would likely have problems some seventeen years later viewing him as anything else.  The mainstream media knows this too well, which is why they work so hard to demonize conservatives, and champion liberals. It’s not simply a matter of your political choices of today they wish to influence, but those of your distant future as well.

As people who have seen it all and firmed up our thinking, upon reaching middle age, we ought to cast a long glance back at the history we have known, and how it’s viewed by others, if only because sometimes, we need to go back and correct the record.  Nothing is harder for people to do than to point back to a time when they now believe they had been wrong, and this natural resistance to such an admission plays a role in shaping one’s views, but also one’s political choices.  I think it’s important for those of us who have obtained a little more wisdom by virtue of our own lengthy struggles to reach out to our younger brethren and help them realize where they may be stuck.  Of course, that’s always a touchy situation, but there’s nothing wrong with asking questions, and letting people draw their own conclusions.  In fact, that’s a larger part of what this site is all about.