A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2016
The Millennial Republican by S. Nagle
A Millennial Republican Looks Back
Republicans? The Grand Old Party? Campaign swag and elephant logos. As a millennial the one thing I thought I knew about Republicanism growing up is that the Republican Party was dull but decent. Bob Dole, Bush. Dull, decent, but not particularly relevant to me. But then a funny thing happened on the way to 2016, the Republican Party got interesting.
Suddenly the Republican Party had ideas… some of the ideas were crazy, some didn’t seem relevant, some were like a lightbulb turning on in my head.
If I had been an anime character my head would have been surrounded by question marks and exclamation points. The thing is… I’d never really thought about the Republican Party. I didn’t grow up in a Republican culture. I didn’t even grow up in a culture where Republicanism was viewed as “acceptable.”
I’m a millennial. I grew up in the second bluest county in the blue lake of modern California. Republicans were the butt of jokes when I was growing up. Something you saw on television, about as real as Bigfoot. Reagan was a figure from a fading past, like Checkpoint Charlie a historical icon of the Cold War.
Growing up I probably met more adults who’d spent time in Ashrams than had voted Republican. Republicans were people I didn’t know, people who lived some place else. Republican principles? Forget about it. The only knee-jerk bigotry that was acceptable was a wholesale knee-jerk bigotry against Republicans.
My parents always voted. Always. Not just presidential election cycles, but midterms and primaries and odd local elections for ballot initiatives. When I was growing up my parents were the sort of semi-partisan legacy Democrat voters who seem —barely a decade later— like an extinct species from a kinder, gentler era. Small business owners who hated crony capitalism and corruption almost as much as they feared bad government and the crushing institutions of a power mad bureaucracy. My parents, like a lot of Americans of their generation, valued hard work and fairness. Self made and college educated my parents hammered the importance of working hard into me. It didn’t matter if I was a girl —or even a girl growing up in a privileged suburb— I was supposed to work hard and look after myself. It wasn’t anyone else’s responsibility to look after me. And it was my responsibility —to the best of my ability— to look after those who couldn’t look after themselves.
To my parents those weren’t partisan values. They were the values that they assumed that, at their best, most Americans shared. They also, rather cynically (and perhaps accurately) assumed that most politicians kept their eyes on the short term electoral prizes of political pork and the next election cycle.
My dad was the kind of Reagan Democrat who crossed the line for Reagan but always felt a little ambivalent about the more right wing culture-war rhetoric and country club Republicanism of the late 20th century. My mom, more cynical and perhaps sadder about the fact that her child was growing up in a country that was bogged down in a never ending war in the Middle East told me it was my responsibility to vote and, as a woman, a responsibility to all the women who had gone before me —my mother’s grandmothers were adults when women got the right to vote. But… she also told me that voting for a candidate was basically a matter of trying to choose the lesser of two evils.
Basically voting was like comparison shopping laundry detergent. You had to do it, but there was no reason to get excited about it and the choice was usually between scented and unscented. Soap is soap. Politicians are politicians. And it is the voter’s job to do her, or his, best picking the least evil from a narrow field and hoping for the best.
As an education in being a good citizen it wasn’t bad. Probably better than most. A little cynical, but dedicated and pragmatic.
My teachers had other ideas though. They mouthed platitudes about “thinking for yourself ” and being “independent” but the only acceptable political choice in the classroom was the choice between Democrat (duh!, every modern educated person is a Democrat!), Progressive (cooler and more Californian than a mere Democrat) or Liberal. Any student who dared to say something pro- Republican —or even question the group-think— would probably have been sent for mental health counseling.
Teachers rolled into classrooms wearing Kerry campaign swag. Wept with joy when Obama was elected, sniggered over John McCain and Sarah Palin and made jokes about Mitt Romney’s religion, dog and wife.
Republicans were fair game. Unseemly, crude, uncaring… characters from a different less educated generation. Republicans were the kind of people “educated” people looked down on. If you wanted to appear smart you could not espouse conservative views. The message was clear to good little Millennial students; if we wanted to be smart, caring, good people we had to be Democrats.
And I was a knee-jerk trained Democrat. For awhile. It never really felt like a good fit though. Plus… I kind of knew I had been trained. And I didn’t much like being told how to vote by the same people who told me it was a smart move to “just take out extra student loan debt” to do a “year abroad.” And I really hated being told to “wake up”and vote for “revolution”by tenured baby boomer academics who rambled on about ‘Nam and the Tet Offensive and Nixon and Tonkin when people my age were in uniform in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So… a funny thing happened on the way to 2016. I started to ask questions… and the Republicans didn’t necessarily have answers, but they didn’t curse me out or denounce me for daring to ask the questions, for daring to question the status quo of the ideological orthodoxy I had been trained to believe in all through school. The Republicans gave me space to ask questions. Even better, they had ideas that inspired more questions.
I wasn’t “converted” to Republicanism by a charismatic candidate or a pile of junk mail. I was a disaffected Democrat who wanted to make my own choices, ask my own questions, and refrain from toeing the party line if it felt wrong to me.
Maybe I got tired of the sheer smug hypocrisy of the modern Left.(Trust me, there is something really really hypocritical about a tenured academic in faded tie dye chiding a roomful of millennial college students —students who are working 28 hours a week and taking 18 units a semester and still not sure how ends are going to meet— about the importance of “groovin on down and letting it all hangout." What does that even mean? Along with pretending to be sufficiently Liberal to get an A in some mandatory class we are also supposed to pretend that the music of fifty years ago is still relevant?)
I hated the idea that the people who told me they were all about “change” had all been in politics for longer than I had been alive.
I hated the moving target of Progressive values.
I hated being told to “check my privilege” when I felt like the opportunities that defined American life for most of the 20th century were being leached away.
Mainly I was tired of being dictated to. I wasn’t looking for easy answers, but I at least wanted to be able to ask some questions.
And so… a funny thing happened on the way to 2016. This Millennial became a Republican.