Political Universe

Ever since the 2004 elections I’ve been trying to become, slowly, more politically aware of my surroundings. Unfortunately for me this is not saying much, as I’ve spent much of my life being cheerily ignorant of the actions and redactions of my policy makers…and let’s not even touch on my historic ignorance of matters outside this country. I can name about three or four foreign heads of state, if that, and those are from Canada, Mexico, and a couple of bits of Europe. Forget anything happening in South America or Africa or Asia, I am next door to clueless. Recently I’ve taken to reading New Zealand news every day and it’s so embarrassing that I don’t quite understand what a Prime Minister is and that whatever brief conception I have of Treaty of Waitangi actually comes from my Lonely Planet guidebook. Our news, American news, is on their front pages every day but I still struggle to understand what being in the Commonwealth really entails, because I don’t get why a monarch in England should be involved in what happens in Canada. When I say slowly I mean slowly.

In my own pathetic defense, it’s true that just keeping up with everything going on here is kind of a full-time job, as any political blogger could tell you. I’ve been thinking about DeLay’s resignation all day today, and opinion around my office’s watercooler is pretty evenly divided between those who think that Christmas has come early this year and those who think that, much as was the case with Obi-Wan, destroying DeLay only makes him stronger. I can barely keep on top of all the scandals and indictments….and dude, that’s just the one guy. What about the war? What about terrorism? What about the Katrina survivors, what’s going on with them? What about South Dakota’s abortion ban, what the hell are we going to do about that? What about intelligent design being taught in school, how about that? Bird flu? Social Security? Civil rights? Stem cell research? Drilling in the ANWR? I could go on. It feels impossible to really understand everything and so I can see why you (and by “you” I mean “I”) might find it more profitable to just give up and forget about it.

One of the things that’s really come home to me since November 2004 is that the way government does (or doesn’t) work affects all of us in ways we might not even imagine, that the political really is the personal. That’s made me think a lot about my own values…I was about to write “my political values,” but that’s what I mean, I think all values are political, even if they feel private or individual. Anyway, mine are pretty well in line with mainstream liberal progressive values: I think the government ought to be transparent in all its dealings, help folks that need help, protect its citizens’ civil liberties, support all types of families, and enshrine evidence-based policy as the gold standard by which it operates. I think people do best when we live in an ecologically sustainable manner and participate actively in our various communities, and I also think we benefit greatly from being well educated and meaningfully employed. Other myriad opinions of mine include whole slew of other stuff that includes, for example, the phrases “right to choose” and “anti-corporate welfare” and “sound energy policy,” and “separation of church and state.”. I still have this terrible problem where I’m very good at preaching to the choir but am awful at explaining my views effectively to people who think differently than I do. I suppose I’ve made some inroads in refining my own views but hell if I can back them up in a debate with anything other than “It just makes sense to me, okay?

As I’ve thought about my own pre-global-warming-glacially-slow political evolution, I’ve realized that I’ve pretty much always defined myself as liberal, even when I haven’t much understood what that meant. When I emailed Mandy the other about what’s happening in her corner of Peru right now and asked how she acquired her own bleeding heart, I realized that I don’t know much about how that happens, how our political identification (and hence our political..and possibly personal…values) change over time. My mom has always been pretty alternative, although I don’t remember her talking to me about politics at all as a kid. Of course, when in 1984 my fourth grade class held a mock election, I was one of two kids in the entire class to vote the Mondale/Ferraro ticket so there’s that, but there’s also the fact that I was a Teen Evangelist for a while and we aren’t generally known for having our fingers on the progressive pulse. Although of course now that I think about it, I did start to get interested in social justice issues during several of the mission trips I went on in the early nineties to places like Mexico and the Dominican Republic…I even went to Grenada once, that tiny little nutmeg-producing island that this country invaded in 1983. I knew on some level, when I was growing up in Miami, that a lot of my mom’s students were Central American refugees and of course there were a lot of Cuban exiles, pre- and post-Mariel, in all my schools but I just didn’t understand that any of that was political, that my own country’s policies were (oftentimes heavily) involved in the fates of people I ran into on the streets. It’s a testament to my self-obsession that I didn’t understand that more or sooner than I did.

I left Miami eventually and went, sort of by accident, to hippie college in California and I guess I absorbed some more liberal tendencies during that time, and of course there was social work school, which had, to say the least, the sort of radicalizing effect on me that anyone forced to work in healthcare or with the social service system can attest to. Now I work with people with disabilities and I could go on about advocacy and policy and the ADA and accessibility and quality of life and medical research and PTSD for the soldiers coming back from Iraq and all the rest of it, which is certainly not edging me any closer to the right. But somehow it’s…I don’t know, it’s like I’ve only recently begun to understand that my politics, such as they are, are really a part of who I am. Doesn’t that sound sort of silly? I guess after the 2004 elections when everyone was screaming about red states and blue states and I was feeling so upset that I began to internalize it more. Part of it is living in Seattle, too, the city where it’s illegal not to recycle, and where it’s easy to feel that liberalism is just what you do, how you act, who you are. I have been wondering lately what it will be like to be in a completely different context, where American liberalism and conservatism might mean completely different things. I also wonder how I might change in general, politically, as I get older. If I make friends with a bunch of Republicans will I start to agree with them on social policy? What if someday I actually make a lot of money, will I all of a sudden want a bunch of tax cuts for myself?

I can’t be the only one who wonders about this stuff. So tell me: how have you come to your place in the political universe? Where do you think you’ll end up?


  1. I think you forget to close your link. (Feel free to delete this when you fix it or if it was on purpose.)

  2. Regarding the abortion ban in South Dakota: http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/03/28/1432205
    Thankfully, some women there will still have some options.

  3. I think my wife and I are your token right-wing friends. (Woo hoo! Here’s to tokenism!) And of course Erica is far less political than I am.

    I’m noticing a distinct lack of policy ideas in this post. It’s all about how you feel like a liberal. That’s nifty and all, but you’re not going to convince folks like me to vote your way based on your feelings.

    If you’re going to be more politically aware you’re going to have to come up with specific policy options. “We should give fluffy pink bunny slippers to every man, woman and child in America. This will cause happiness because that’s what fuzzy pink bunny slippers do. Here’s a study that says so.”

    And don’t define yourself by what you’re against. Down that path lies madness.

  4. Well, since you asked…
    I started out a bleeding-heart liberal and some people would still peg me as that, but my views have changed and (I hope) matured since the first time I voted. I used to be of the mind, “Let’s help all the people who can’t help themselves. High taxes so we can have free healthcare, free education, a level playing field, etc.”
    I don’t know if it was working in a public school system or being on the other end of governmental programs. (You mean I have to fill out all this paperwork? And I won’t get any benefit for at least two months? And because I moved I have to make a dozen more phone calls and talk to 3 more people and spend another week getting/sending mail?) And I’m a relatively intelligent, capable person. I can’t imagine what a second-language learner or depressed person might go through. Well I can imagine and it saddens me.
    I’ve also seen the good things that some private corporations have done. For instance, the Red Cross (which is not even the best because it is too big) who show up after your house has burned down and say, “Do you have a place to stay? Food? Clothes? No? Well here is a charge card to help you get back on your feet until the insurance money comes through. Oh and here is a Teddy Bear for the kids.” That is response- help when you need it.
    So, I guess I’m still pro-helping people, but I’m less pro-government than I used to be. I think it is good for the government to regulate companies. I think it is good for them to impose rules on citizens. I think it is good for them to maintain roads and water supply and fire stations. I’m not sure I think they should be in charge of education- they seem to be mucking it up something good. And, more and more, I think the government is not a good place for helping people. So, where does that put me? I don’t know. Socially liberal and fiscally conservative? Part liberal and part libertarian? Pro-local government and anti-big government? I just don’t know.

  5. I’m very sceptical about all things government, I used to work for them on this side of the pond and can say from experience that it is (or at least was) full of the most inept people and mountains of red tape. It’s a small miracle that anything gets done at all.

    Couple this view with my general observation that *most* politicians are lying, cheating and (in certain cases) completely corrupt I see very little point in aligning myself with any party line.

    For what it’s worth, most people in my experience get more Right Wing as they grow older, get richer and have more things to “lose”…

  6. About the Commonwealth: it’s pretty much a grouping of countries that were formerly British colonies that still have political affiliations with Britain and the Queen, thus you have countries like Canada, New Zealand, Ghana, etc. These are the countries which were decolonized in situations where Britain was *okay* with letting them go (eg: The British North America Act, aka The Constitution Act in 1867). The US WAS a British colony, but it’s not part of the Commonwealth because it broke off from British control and created its own state (the American Revolution).

    Considering both Canada and New Zealand are part of the Commonwealth, I’m thinking that their political systems are similar, so here are some Canadian political terms that might be good places to start your search: House of Commons, the Cabinet, Member of Parliament, Federal Ridings, etc.

    All people in the House of Commons are Members of Parliament elected by people in geopolitical regions called ridings (there are about 300 total ridings in Canada). Different candidates from different political parties vie for a seat in the House of Commons in federal elections. The political party who has the most ridings elect its candidates into the House of Commons becomes the ruling party, and the leader of the party (currently Stephen Harper of the Progressive Conservatives) becomes the Prime Minister.

    Other Ministers are selected by the Prime Minister to oversee certain portfolios (eg: Minister of Health, Minister of Defence, Minister of Finance) so they’re pretty much synonymous with American Secretaries of X department.

    Hope it didn’t sound like I was talking down to you too much. I’m hoping the system in Nz is the same as up here in Canadia, because that might help you get your bearings.