There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle -- Alexis de Tocqueville
My son recently approached me as he worked his way through a government assignment at school.
"Dad, I need to write a paper that outlines my political ideology and shares what party best represents that point of view. I kinda know but there's so much stuff and I am not sure I agree with all of it."
"Welcome to the real world," I said with a mouthful of food.
I am now only asked to kill spiders, give out car keys or money. This was a rare bridge building moment for father and son. We all get nostalgic when we see our children clawing at the chrysalis of their hermetically sealed suburban life -- trying to understand the bigger world picture and define themselves. What should I say?
I hesitated, plunging back into the ancient waters of my own adolescence and a similar conversation.
"Dad, I have a project where I need to share what my political views are and why."
"Let me see that. Who gave you this assignment, anyway? Was it that new teacher, that Commie Berkeley grad with the long hair? Tell Professor Trotsky that as long as you breathe, eat my food and live in this house, you are a $#@! Republican. Is that clear? If you would like to join any other party, I suggest you sleep outside near the garbage cans so you can get used to the life that you will be living if you vote people into office who promise you something for nothing."
"OK. So we are all Republicans?"
"Yes. We are not simpleton, do-gooders who give away other people's money. We don't want to live on the public charity. We work for a living and believe that small government and low regulation creates a vibrant economy and jobs for everyone who is willing to work. If you won't work, get the hell out of here and go live in Europe where they give you free stuff in exchange for your votes. We believe in God, a strong defense, small government, no debt, low taxes and personal responsibility."
"What about poor people?"
"Well, if they can work, they need to work. If they can't, we help them. If they won't, we throw them out of the lifeboat. Can't feed everyone on the lifeboat, you know."
After submitting my paper, my social studies teacher gave me a passing grade. It was a safe and politically correct gesture for a liberal teacher in a homogenous, conservative suburban middle school. He clearly wanted to give my father the middle finger and my paper a D+. Instead, he offered me a B and a perfunctory smile. He had carefully written questions at the bottom of the paper. "Good paper. Think about the other side of every argument. Why is welfare a bad thing? Do you believe people born in poverty like being poor? Does a kid born in Downey have the same chance at success as a kid born in San Marino?"
I showed my father "our" paper and the B. "Jesus H. Christ, the Commie gave us a B!" He seethed as he read the commentary. "Jesus, Ruth -- (we all thought at one time or another that our mother's name was really Jesus Ruth) -- the district is dredging the bottom of the LA River with some of these pinko teachers." Once again, there was a Communist in the woodpile. I had heard enough at dinner to know that a pinko was a Stalin-loving, freedom snatcher and not someone afflicted with conjunctivitis.
Over the years, I would cling to my father's views and wear them like Kevlar -- protecting myself from all the unseen forces that conspired to strip me of my hard-fought gains in life. It was not until I moved abroad that I began to form an almost unwelcome and more complex ideology that did not fit neatly into an orthodox two-party bucket.
I would now sit down with my son and hear his views on a variety of social, fiscal and geopolitical issues.
He glanced at his cellphone for messages. "Well, for starters, I don't see what the big deal is about gay rights, abortion or immigration. We need to be more tolerant."
I interrupted. "OK, well it sounds like you are a Democrat."
"Yeah, but we have also been talking about the debt. I don't like the national debt. I mean I have to pay for it when I get older and I didn't even get to enjoy it. It's gonna be hard to find a job when I get out of college and the government is still spending more every year than it has."
"Hmm. You sound like a Republican."
"Yeah, but I don't think we should be involved in foreign wars and we should cut defense spending. We should become energy independent as long as we don't trash the environment trying to achieve it. I don't want to have to worry about the Middle East. It's just oil, oil, oil and terrorists. ..."
"Yes. Good points. So maybe you're a ..."
"And, when I make money I guess I'm willing to pay higher taxes to support disadvantaged people, but I want people to show some responsibility and work. I don't think we should make it easy to not work. I think we should spend more on roads and education and less on bailing out banks and Wall Street. Big companies seem like they are ripping us off and the government can't do much about it. Small government is good but only if you can trust Capitalism. I'm not sure we can. And I don't even understand the health care stuff."
Neither do I -- and I work in the industry.
"Well, son, you have just summed up the American conundrum. We are socially sympathetic but fiscally conservative. People want jobs and they don't want to pay for anybody else's problems unless they are in real need. If government is small, it falls to business and individuals to try to solve for the holes that inevitably occur in society. If you can't close those holes, they widen causing more people to fall through until one day, the minority is the majority and then, the tables get flipped."
He looked at me with a bored, vacuous expression.
"What? So, which party is closer to all that?"
"Buddy, I have no freaking idea. But, if you find their clubhouse, will you let me know?"