Conservative epiphanies, part 2

At my request Melody Ng kindly forwarded to me “The stories behind our timeline of key conservative moments: Did your politics develop over the course of time?” This is a thematic account of the responses received to the question Public Insight Network posed to our readers about how they became conservative.

Melody writes:

Our conservative timeline launched yesterday. In it, conservatives in the Public Insight Network take you on a multimedia tour through moments in history that have influenced their worldviews.

Check it out.

This timeline is just the start of a conversation we hope to be having with conservatives, not the end product. We will add to the timeline as more good stories of specific moments come in, so please consider this an invitation to participate.

Add your own “conservative moment” here.

Late in 2011 – in the heart of the GOP presidential primary contest – about 450 conservatives responded to two questions we posed: “When did you know you were a conservative?” (which Scott Johnson generously posted on Power Line) and “When did you first get excited about politics?”

Many people we heard from said they were born conservatives – that conservatism, for them, is innate.

Take R. Steven Cox, an accountant in Austin, Texas, who, when we asked, said he couldn’t point to a specific moment when he became a conservative:

“Never was anything else. Many people can’t answer this any more than they could tell you when they first realized they leaned toward masculine or feminine.”

Luis Howard, of Sahuarita, Ariz., went even further to say that everyone starts out conservative:

“I first knew I was conservative on my father’s knee as he read ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’ about Jimmy Doolittle’s air raids, and a book by Ernie Pyle. This was in 1947 or 1948, so I was six or so. Since then, my witnessing of reality has confirmed that conservatism is innate and only perverted by egocentric and self serving, sometimes bleeding-heart but always starry-eyed lib/lefty politicians.”

But most people who answered our questions told us that their conservative political views have been shaped over time – by experiences, people and events they’ve encountered through the course of their lives.

And here at the Public Insight Network, we always want to hear about those events that shape peoples’ lives and perspectives.

Here are a few of the themes that appeared most often in the responses from conservative sources, that don’t necessarily fit neatly into a timeline:

If it ain’t broke…

Not surprisingly, many people said they soaked up conservatism from their parents. It was a part of their inheritance, it worked for them, and it became something to pass down to their own children.

“We were taught the world didn’t owe us a living,” explained James Schneider of Antigo, Wis. The career manager, who turned around failing stores for a living (and passed away this past January), began working at a local farm at age 10.

“Half of all pay was given to Pa. He told us [five siblings] the free ride was over and we were now expected to help pay for food, clothes and other expenses. When we reached age 18, he returned the money with interest.

“The lessons learned as youngsters stayed with us. None of us ever drew an unemployment check nor accepted welfare during some tough times. We helped each other as needed and learned to depend on family for assistance if needed. We deplore government handouts.”

The same is true for Frances Reynolds of Aikin, S.C.:

“I grew up in a Christian home that taught the 10 Commandments, that God loved us enough to send his son Jesus, and that our forefathers fought to give us a Constitution that laid the foundation for our country to be the greatest nation on the planet.

“My parents taught me that hard work and following rules produced a successful, happy person. Having a ‘purpose’ in life is important. They also taught me to love all people, help others, care for those that were not as blessed as I am, and to teach my children these values.”

The proof is in the pudding

For others, it was seeing conservative principles succeed. Steve Walser, owner and CEO of a large organic farm in Ford, Wash., said he was a “‘60s back-to-the-land, rather hippie-fied, long-haired guy” who “had the usual mushy kind of political philosophy of letting everyone ‘do their own thing’ while actually harboring a deep disapproval” of those who had sold out for money and power.

Then he found himself running a cooperatively owned, collectively managed natural foods wholesaler.

“The experience of working in a business that tried to put the liberal belief system into practice by giving everyone equal pay as well as an equal say in how the business should run and with no real owners to sort out strategy caused me to rethink what I believed. I came to see that equality of result was an impossible dream that led to confusion, anger, mismanagement and ultimately failure for all when we tried to put it into actual practice.”

He says he’s somewhat socially libertarian now, but very fiscally conservative.

The ah-ha moment came in high school for Doug Morgan, of Ashburn, Wash. He was living in California during the debate and eventual passage of Proposition 13, which limits property tax.

“I … saw the fear-mongering by my public school teachers. ‘If prop 13 passes, we’ll have 60 kids per class due to budget reductions,’ was a common refrain. My parents were split – my mother, on the school board, and very much against; my father, in favor. I listened to many arguments, too young to vote myself.

“But after it passed, I noticed: Nothing changed!! All of the fear and panic promised by the ‘No’ side never happened. My mother finally admitted she had been wrong. Taxes were never the problem. Misplaced spending priorities were.”

Something’s not right with this picture

Or, it was seeing liberal principals and ideals perverted. “I was born and raised a proud Minnesota DFL-er, surrounded by family and friends who were adamant liberals,” recounted contractor Robert Taft from Ashfield, Mass. “As a kid, there was simply no other way to think, and no reason to question it.”

But a snarky comment when he questioned the fairness of a $300 license plate fee pushed him into soul searching that eventually led to his political conversion.

“The way I saw it, I had already paid a hefty state sales tax, given a dealership a nice commission, helped the economy, and put a safe, fuel-efficient car on the road. Meanwhile, some guy driving a polluting piece of junk with no brakes only had to pay $30. If anything, it should be the other way around.

“I was half-joking about it at the DMV while writing the check and the clerk sneered, ‘That’s because you can AFFORD a nice, new car!’”

Libertarian Andrew Jones of Allen, Texas, a computer programmer, recalled a moment at his mom’s inner city Houston school that led to what might have been his first conservative thought. He was in kindergarten or first grade, waiting to pay in the breakfast line, and wearing his usual Kmart clothes.

“So when I noticed a kid with some really cool shoes, I was a bit jealous. There wasn’t anything wrong with someone having cooler shoes that me, I just wished I had cool shoes. Then he paid for breakfast with a card, and something seemed wrong.

“Too young to understand why, and having never really been exposed to such reasoning, I just felt like it wasn’t right for someone to get free breakfast and cool shoes.”

Years ago, when working with at-risk teens, Bruce Schultz, now a Wayzata, Minn. businessman, got depressed seeing how social workers depended on the government to find solutions.

“They wanted to do right by people, but they simply put far too much trust in government to transform lives. I could see how it fostered a dependency among the clients. I saddened me to see the loss of human dignity.

“Even as a young man, I knew the government had to help provide the proverbial safety net, but that it for many healthy people it sapped initiative. I decided there and then that while I had a heart for people, my head couldn’t tolerate liberalism and the unintended consequences of its actions.”

Once he started working, Maple Valley, Wash., attorney Robert Bennett began to pay attention to and question the value of his tax dollars.

“I realized that I leaned conservative when I studied my first professional pay stub and discovered that the federal government had taken a third of my pay, allowing me to retain only two thirds. This left me with about $2,000 each month to pay student loans ($800), rent ($375), food ($150), clothes ($100), and bills ($150), with precious little left for saving or fun.

“Over time I realized that the world didn’t improve one whit after I started paying taxes despite the politicians’ promises that it would. Yet my professional services, provided for a fee, improved each one of my clients’ lives. Why was I able to do for my clients what the government could do for none of us, and do it far more efficiently?”

Liberals are too intolerant

“I have always been appalled at the hypocrisy of those liberals who consider themselves to be open-minded and we conservatives closed-minded bigots,” wrote optometrist Chris Burgess of Canton, Mich., who recently retired from the Army Reserves and whose son is deployed to Afghanistan.

Burgess recalled his time as a student at the United States Military Academy:

“Although the cadets and professors at West Point tended to be conservative, they always bent over backwards to respect all points of view. In fact (I’m ashamed to admit this) as a plebe, I used to pretend to be liberal in my views because I discovered that the upperclassmen tended to go easy on me in the traditional plebe hazing due to their respect for my ‘courage.’”

Burgess saw just the opposite at the three universities he attended after West Point.

“There was never any tolerance whatsoever of any deviation from the radical or liberal point of view. Any student who expressed a conservative point of view was shouted down, ostracized, and often had their grades penalized by the professors.”

It’s Econ 101, stupid

In light of comments like Burgess’s, it was surprising to see a dozen conservatives credit college courses for cementing or changing their political views – specifically, courses in economics.

For Jose Roig of Bel Air, Md., the transformative moment came in a macroeconomics class. The lesson: that people make decisions to improve their lives.

“Conservatism puts those choices in the hands of the individuals to make for themselves. Progressivism puts those choices in the hands of ‘experts’ to make on behalf of individuals. What I realized was that there is no possible way that an ‘expert’ can know what is best for me, or for anyone else. And that’s when I understood that I am a conservative.”

Stories like this inspire us to want to reach out to conservative and liberal economics professors about what they teach, and if they see students picking up their political perspectives – or, perhaps the converse of their views.

That’s what happened to accountant Mary Cloutier of Dryden, Mich., who started thinking conservative at (“I know it’s hard to believe!!” she teased.) the University of Michigan.

“I was an econ major, and was taught the liberal line by a host of liberal professors. However, their words did not make sense whenever I saw the effect of government intervention on a supply and demand graph.”

Working for a small business sealed the deal:

“It never ceases to amaze me how stifling government interference is to business growth.”

Economics courses even work on committed Democrats, such as David Dillon of Excelsior, Minn. He grew up in a liberal, Minneapolis family that was active in DFL politics. (His father ran for mayor).

“My views began to shift when I started taking courses in economics at the University of Minnesota in 1976. The more I learned, the more I read, the more it became clear to me that most of the good policy solutions were coming out of conservatives.”

Dillon is now a “conservative, libertarian Republican with liberal social policy views.” But he’s retained his family’s activism; he ran for Congress in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District in 2008.

Robert Herman of Healdsburg, Calif., had a similar story:

“I was born into a hard-core Democratic household. Both my parents were extremely involved in Democratic politics at the county and state-wide level in Nebraska. I absorbed the politics and considered myself a staunch Democrat as a teenager and young adult.

“My first leanings to the right occurred in college. As an economics major, I became aware that socialist and Keynesian economic models were very seductive, but had no record of actually working in the real world. On the other hand, capitalism was a demonstrable success whenever implemented and given a chance.”

But he says he didn’t change – the Democratic Party did:

“Under President Kennedy, and a whole line of congressmen such as Scoop Jackson and other centrist Democrats, I could still feel at home. There no longer is any significant centrist component to the Democratic Party. … Like President Reagan, I did not leave the Democratic Party, they left me.”

Abortion did it…

Pro-life views are generally associated with conservatives. But personal stories are more nuanced than the rhetoric. For instance, John Koontz of Ridgewood, N.J., is still registered Democrat. But he votes mostly Republican.

He started rethinking his fiscal views when he went from government work to the private sector and observed over-regulation of small businesses. Still, he voted and worked for Clinton.

But he couldn’t stomach abortion policy.

“Sometime around 1994, I concluded that the Democratic Party was so committed to abortion – despite Clinton’s assurances that he would work to make it safe, legal, and rare – that I could never in good conscience support it at the polls again.”

Then there’s freelance reporter Rosalind Kohls of Glencoe, Minn., who wanted a prenatal exam before she moved in 1975.

“The nurse who answered the phone could tell I wanted the exam in a hurry, and asked me if I wanted an abortion. I was so shocked that she had said that openly, over the phone, it took my breath away. Up until that moment I had never considered what legal abortion on demand meant.”

Kohls couldn’t understand how her Democratic Party – proclaimed defender of the voiceless – could advocate for easy abortions. So she switched parties.

…As did research on gun control

Several former liberals told us they evolved into conservative thinking after looking into arguments for and against gun control.

Kenneth Kirkham of Tonasket, Wash., explained:

“About 1998, my wife received a couple of firearms from her father’s estate. As I was a liberal, this was a concern. I began reading about firearms at the Handgun Control Inc. website. The more I read, the more absurd the statements became.”

So Kirkham checked out the NRA’s website (which he had considered “enemy territory”), and it made sense to him:

“I was shocked to find that they reported precisely the truth – no spin, no lies and no BS.”

He then decided to research his other core beliefs. His conclusion? The Democrats, his parents and the media had lied to him for the past 40 years.

Kirkham’s now a Tea Party supporter.

I love the USA!

Conservatives also wrote about how they abhor hearing their liberal counterparts criticize the United States.

That’s what finally shifted Brant Hadaway into becoming a constitutional conservative.

“In the aftermath of 9/11, I found myself appalled by the tendency of liberals, shared by many libertarians, to blame the United States for what happened….We were being asked to disregard the notion of moral agency, to assume that Muslims had no ability to govern their reactions to world events.”

Hadaway, who is from Miami, Fla., and worked in the early 1990s to build up the private sector in post-Communist Czechoslovakia, continued:

“I believe that the United States is a force for good in the world. I believe that she is worth defending.”

One person really can make a difference – especially if that person is Ronald Reagan

Dozens of conservatives who shared their experiences with us said Reagan drew them in to the GOP. Greg Chase of San Francisco was one of them. He was in the Navy in 1980:

“I saw the weakness of President Carter, his inability to do anything about the Iranian hostages, a very weak economy, malaise. Poor Mr. Carter does not have much of a legacy. Then along comes Ronald Reagan. Wow, what a difference.

“All of a sudden, America is back as a world leader. The hostages are freed. The economy began what was known as the roaring ‘80s. Truthfully, a lot of Mr. Reagan’s allure was show business, but to an impressionable 18 year old: I became a believer.”

James Lewis of Wichita, Kan., was at a very different place in his life when he encountered Reagan. A lifelong Democrat, he had been a senior executive to a very liberal governor of Puerto Rico, and one of Mario Cuomo’s speechwriters.

“Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat candidate for president I voted for. The recognition that the policies of the Democratic Party were no longer acceptable came in the presidential campaign of 1980.

“Although my political goals had not (and have not) changed – freedom for all citizens, concern for the welfare of illegal Hispanic immigrants, equitable tax policy, strong defense, the Democratic proposals for dealing with these issues seemed no longer satisfactory, while those of candidate Reagan did. That was it.”

Ditto the liberal roots pulled up for Burnsville, Minn., paramedic Duke Powell:

“I grew up in a Democratic household. Jimmy Carter cured me of that. When I cast my 1980 vote for Reagan, the only thing that mattered was that he wasn’t Carter. As time went on, it was abundantly clear that Reagan’s classic liberal economic beliefs and aggressive foreign policy stance was exactly the right course. More than anyone else, Ronald Reagan made me a conservative.”

Start local

And finally, people told us they found their conservative calling through interest in a local issue or local politics. John Pickering of Rego Park, N.Y., entered college at age 25, having spent six years in Navy submarine service. He had no idea what to do with his interest in government.

But his first professor, a former mayor of Salt Lake City – and a Democrat – mentored him. At Wilson’s urging, Pickering attended a Republican neighborhood caucus.

“I was the only one who showed up to the meeting. I was the one who became the delegate to the county and state nominating conventions. That taught me one of the greatest lessons of life: the first step to making a change and accomplishing great things is to simply show up.”

The stories that we heard, from people whose beliefs fall across a broad spectrum of political thought, didn’t all point to a single person or moment that lit the fire of conservatism in their minds. Some said it was inherent, deeply rooted in who they are from their earliest introspective memories.

But most invited us in on their evolving political journeys, which turned out to be a series of moments – built through relationships, readings, events, experiences and instruction. You can see those moments laid bare in our interactive timeline.

We’re starting with a handful of interesting moments that we heard. We’re still listening. So wherever you see a gap or an important conservative moment in history missed, please fill it in by sharing your own story.

Thanks to Melody for sharing this previously unpublished account with us. I think it reflects her good faith effort to do justice to the responses received. She has been a pleasure to deal with.

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