Why I Turned Right vs. Why I'm a Democrat

A Tale of Two Cultures

Why I Turned Right
Edited by Mary Eberstadt

Why I'm a Democrat
Edited by Susan Mulcahy

Early last year, I wrote a review of Why I Turned Right, a collection of essays in which a handful of leading Conservatives explained why, in several cases against all odds, they became Conservative.

Last weekend, I finished reading the Left's equivalent, Why I Am a Democrat.

A comparison of the two books was an article begging to be written, so, ever the obliging reviewer - here it is!

Several things struck me immediately, and were so predictably perfect as to seem almost stereotypical:

First, while more than a few of the Democrats were "just ordinary folks," none of the Conservatives were.

Second, while many Democrats indicated that they had been born and raised Democrat, few of the Conservatives cited nurture as an influence on their later political choice.

And third, few Conservatives think of themselves as Republicans first and foremost, whereas the Democrats, while they may also feel they are "Left," "Liberal," or "Progressive," are happy to identify as Democrats.

And here is another significant, though less expected, distinction between the books: while both Conservatives and Democrats in their essays often express a level of discomfort with the "other side," the Conservatives are likely to express it in intellectual or moral terms, such as "I was disillusioned with deconstruction and the political climate on university campuses, " or "I discovered that I think babies are good, and anything that kills them must be wrong." For the Democrats, the reasons can be something patently absurd and evidently tongue-in-cheek, such as "Because I have a sense of humor," or "Because I'm not mean and selfish enough to be a Republican."

To a degree, I got the feeling that the Conservatives took the assignment seriously, while many of the Democrats (a good number of whom are artists or writers) were as interested in getting a laugh or saying something clever as they were in explaining themselves.

For the self-proclaimed party of nuance, the Democrats explanations of their choice of party are mostly done in simple declarative sentences. These explanations are characterized by three themes: my parents were Democrats, I am for fairness and help for the common man, and I hate Republicans.

Contrary to expectations, Conservatives are much more wordy, personal, and complex. Their explanations are characterized by almost a reluctance to identify with the Republican Party - "Because of (x), I have no choice but to be a Republican;" a sense that their political identification really isn't Republican at all, but Conservative, and that as Conservatives, they are neither welcome in, nor do they feel comfortable in, the Democratic party.

It will also surprise their opposite numbers that neither the Democrats, nor the Conservatives, speak with one voice. Each individual who contributes to either book is a unique, often surprising, and frequently fascinating voice. As I wrote in my earlier review of Why I Turned Right, and I now say about both books - these books should be required reading at some point during a young person's education. What we learn about the hopes, aspirations, attitudes, and prejudices of both sides is worth the time and energy invested.

Both books are, as mentioned, collections of essays written by, or interviews conducted with, people who self-identify as either "Conservative, " or "Democrat." Why I Turned Right includes 12 essays from such intellectual leaders as P. J. O'Rourke, Dinesh D'Souza, Sally Satel, and Rich Lowry. Why I Am a Democrat includes 50 contributors, and while it is a little heavily weighted toward the arts (Tony Bennett, Andrew Tobias, Frank McCourt, Nora Ephron, etc.), it includes almost as many unknowns as famous names (people like a small town waitress, an R.N., a firefighter, and a real estate broker). And while the conservative names are mostly Waspy-sounding, the Democrats include a generous salting of Min Jin Lees, Enid Mendozas and Camilo Jose Vergaras.

Why I Turned Right

The most frequent description of the decision to be Conservative is one of coming to terms, generally depicted as a sort of epiphany.

One of the most moving "conversion stories" is Joseph Bottum's, who says that one spring day in Washington, D.C., he, a college student in full fun mode, see a young mother with her happy toddler out for a walk, and reaches the "sudden, absolute conviction that babies are good."

Recognizing his own participation in "the great sexual revolution," he acknowledges that "fun as the pleasure dome had been, I must leave - for it was kept bright and warm with the bodies of aborted babies, burned in the basement furnace for fuel."

His brand of unwilling Conservatism (being a conservative is anything but "cool") is discovered, he says, "when you find in yourself a limit, a place beyond which you will not go, and always for me it comes back to this touchstone: Anything that participates in the murder of a child - anything that slices it into pieces or burns it to death with chemicals in the womb - is wrong. All the rest is just a working out of the details."

Other essayists would not agree with Bottum. Take Sally Satel, for example. She's not even sure she really wants people to call her a Conservative, but since she is often asked to represent what she might call a "non-PC" point of view of psychiatry, she is more than willing to oblige - simply, she says, to "expose muddled thinking."

Satel would not characterize herself as political at all, but rather as a doctor, and a scientist. If her opinions are politicized by others, so be it. She can't be still about such abuses of her profession as grouping psychiatric inpatients by sexual orientation and race, or insisting that a "team" of specialists assigned to treat black patients, for example, only be black themselves.

"I am," she writes, in a distinctly non-typical-Conservative fashion, "pro-choice, pro-Darwin, and pro-stem cell."

Danielle Crittenden, on the other hand, comes to her Conservatism when the questions she asks - as an enfranchised young female reporter - fail to give her convincing answers.

She and her contemporaries came up at a time when many of the larger issues of women's rights are no longer in dispute. Their attitude is, "Just give us the opportunities - we will take them!" What she finds on the front, however, she characterizes as "angry" and "whiny."

While Crittenden readily admits that she benefited from the opportunities afforded young women like her by trail-blazing feminists, she is not so sure that the "there" they reached is an unqualified success. The problem, as Crittenden sees it, is that in a world in which young women are asked to do, have, and be it all, very few of them can actually perform, nor should they be expected to. And where once conventional wisdom assured young women that the most fulfilling role of their lives would be wife-and-mother, this counsel has been hushed up - to the pain and detriment of a growing body of over-forty and unhappily childless women.

P.J. O'Rourke is predictably a bit more smart-alecky. He says his political convictions are a result "of thinking, or, to be specific, lack thereof."

Again the exception, he goes on to say that he was "brought up in Republican circumstances, firmly grounded in convention. I was swept out to Marxist sea by a flood of sex. I was trying to impress cute beatnik girls. Then, one day, I found myself washed up on the shore of jobs and responsibilities, and I was a Republican again."

Journalist David Brooks, a child of the Left, discovers Edmund Burke in college, and in the midst of "vibrating with (loathing and) disbelief as Burke defended obedience, tradition, and prejudice," he finds that Burke is actually "oddly compelling."

Rich Lowry's essay wraps up the book, and more than any other convinces the reader that Conservatives are first and foremost individuals, as complex and unique as any others. Where Bottum does an excellent job of characterizing the Great American Experiment as a fine balance between classical liberalism and Christian faith ("The United States as it naturally wants to be - what we might call the platonic ideal of America - contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith... In other words, the Bible may help produce the ethics a modern state needs to assume in its citizens if it is to allow them freedom."), Lowry tells us about the interior tightrope walked by any modern, thinking individual who is both independent and filial, religious yet practical, self-actualized but the concerned brother of a handicapped sibling.

"I didn't like being told what to do," he writes of his divided nature, "and I still feel an anti-authority tug every time I have to fill out a form, or stand in a line, or obey any petty rule. Deep down, however, I was thoroughly enamored of the bourgeois family and way of life. It's hard to be a Conservative without filial piety."

The popular definition of "Conservative" is one who wishes to "conserve" the old approach. Lowry assures us that at least his Conservative mind prefers to conserve only those things about the past and tradition that make sense, and that benefit people here and now.

Why I Am a Democrat

For many of those featured in this short book, it is a repulsion from their perception of the Right that is the propulsion to their perception of the Left. They are Democrats because they just could never be Republican.

In his introduction to the book, David Brock explains to us that "Republicans can be relied on to look backward, to argue that the answer to any current ill can be found in a return to an imagined Edenic past in which strict hierarchies were enforced and people knew their place, where shame and fear kept everyone in check. But Democrats are different."

Democrats, he goes on to explain, believe that our best days lie in the future, and that we can solve the problems that vex our nation. That is to say, for Democrats, Eden lies in our future, not in our past.

For playwright Nora Ephron, her parents were Democrats, she has never voted for a Republican, she barely knows a Republican, and while she is not sure "exactly where the Democratic Party is," it "stands for everything she stands for."

Journalist James Brady, in a rather foul-mouthed and confusing essay, tells us that he is an Irish Catholic Democrat whose family was appalled that Catholic candidate Al Smith was defeated with "swift-boating rubbish" which suggested that Smith, if elected, would "take his orders from the pope." Just a few sentences later he says that he was tossed out of his Catholic college's speech class by a nun who, evidently under orders from the Pope, "privately urged me to pray to the Holy Spirit on grounds I was well on my way to joining the Commies and losing my soul, attacking a noble Catholic like Joe McCarthy. Still, Brady is a party man, and while he believed that Goldwater was a "more decent fellow" than Johnson, and if it comes to voting for the politics or the man, "politics won out."

Actor/director James Naughton assures us that "Democrats practice tolerance, and the Republicans do not. The Republicans want to restrict behavior, belief, and that kind of thing. Their attitude is it's my way or the highway." He is also convinced that the rich get richer, and that a Democrat would "enact legislation to try and rectify that."

Cartoonist Maira Kalman says she is a Democrat because "I have a sense of humor! And a love of people!"

While many Democrats will suggest that they are Democrats because Democrats "still believe that helping people in need is the right thing to do," how "need" is defined is never made clear, or even seems contradictory.

Take the case of Isaac Mizrahi, who does indeed design for Target, but whose designer clothing can go for $4000 a dress. Mizrahi says that a) he is not mean or selfish enough to be a Republican; b) his parents were Democrats and they were New Yorkers and smart; and c) "a certain kind of Republican says: to hell with the rest of the earth as long as I can have air conditioning. I say: if it would save the earth, why don't we live without air conditioning?" In contradistinction to the kind of concerned Democrat who will, we presume, purchase a $4000 dress rather than save the earth?

Musician Dave Dederer says that he is a Democrat because he's "already enough of an asshole," and "we do better with the ladies. President Clinton or President Kennedy versus any Republican president - ever - in a singles night grudge match. Who walks away with more phone numbers? You call that a contest?"

Talk radio host Jon Elliott says that he went on the air to "bring balance to the airwaves, " because he felt that the "Republicans (were) exhibiting dangerous behavior." He feels that being a Democrat is about "the unwavering determination to see fairness for all Americans." "It's a moral thing, an integrity thing," he says. Without explaining what "basics" means, he goes on: "It's caring about all people having access to the basics of a good life."

Perhaps it is the nature of the format - these essays or interviews are quick bites, rather than the more formal essays by their Conservative counterparts - but often words like "need" and "basics" and "fair" are used without describing exactly what that means to the writer.

With unintended irony, singer Tony Bennett says, "During times like the Roosevelt regime, or the Kennedy years, there was hope. Now we're being told that it's too expensive to have a middle class in this country. I'm an entertainer and I travel around the world. I've seen countries where the rich have all the assets, and the majority of the people are so poor they're just struggling to survive. We don't want to see that happen here."

Wine producer Amelia Ceja tells us that she is "bringing wine back to the people and that is a Democratic principle. Wine producers have made wine an elitist beverage, and often there are obstacles to the simple and pure enjoyment of it. I think if you like wine, enjoy it with whatever food you like, and don't allow anyone to dictate what you feel. Wine is the most Democratic of all beverages."

Author Andrew Tobias believes that the Democrat party has moved "to the center." Or perhaps, the country has moved to the left? But he rightly points out that "on the one bedrock Republican issue - fiscal prudence - the Republican leadership has totally lost its mind." The Democrat's mantra, says Tobias, is "if 'they' do better, we all do better."

Software marketer Linda Wong suggests with insight that "it takes a progressive spirit to embrace something without obvious precedent," and criticizes her party for "irrational exuberance with social programs."

And in stark contrast to Joseph Bottums, Georgetown University graduate Anna Banks tells us, "I'm a Democrat because I'm pro-choice. It's my body and my choice, and I want my government to recognize that."

There is nothing more enlightening that actually listening to how people describe themselves and their ideologies. Given the grandstanding, polemics, and outright untruths (not to say, "lies,") spouted by both political extremes, it is useful for all of us to spend some time getting to know our enemy. We may not end up friends, but there is still much to be learned.


Barry said…
I believe the tendency of Americans to identify themselves as either Democrat or Republican, as progressive or conservative, is the result of the two-party system where voters don't really have a viable alternative. You either vote for a Democrat, a Republican, or some independent candidate that has no hope in hell of winning (or if he does, any hope of making any difference whatsoever due to the entrenched Democratic or and Republican majorities).

I prefer the multi-party system you see in many European countries, where governments are formed by coalitions of parties (often with right- and left-wing parties compromising to form a government) ensuring that A) the people have a range of viable choices and B) the government will never swing too far left or right.

Regarding your criticism of the democrats throwing around unexplained concepts such as 'basic', 'need', 'fair', the same can be said for the Republicans. Not to mention the rather insidious and propaganda-like exclamation of "the bodies of aborted babies, burned in the basement furnace for fuel".

Such hyperbole is not conducive to a constructive debate.

As for myself, I've always identified myself as a socialist, though lately I've realized some of my convictions lean more towards traditional right-wing thinking. Nonetheless, involved as I am with the care for the truly needy (mentally handicapped in my case) I could never vote for a party that wants to cut funding to organizations that care for these people.
Nancy said…
I agree that the U.S. might finally benefit from a third (or fourth, even fifth) party. I think the polemics have gotten so absurd that many people feel they have no home in either party. Guys like Joe Lieberman are probably the early cases. The danger has always been that things would get so fractured that no agenda could move forward.

I didn't get the feeling that the "bodies of aborted babies" comment was propaganda... I got the impression that he, like many of the Conservatives, had this personal "aha" moment in which they said, hey, I have to be over here because of this. It was quite specific, whether it was free market, family responsibility, abortion, whatever. But I don't think he was trying to sneak one in, I think he just genuinely thinks abortion is bad and can't go along with it.

I think both parties definitely need to define their terms - I have always said that I want all programs to come with a price tag, and I want that translated into "how much is this going to cost me," and then a system of evaluation so that we can say "after 3 years (or whatever) if this program is not performing (x) well, we get rid of it and try something else." Dream on!

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