As a rule, I don’t post images of my family members on this blog, so I’ve blacked out my son Matthew’s face. Here he is coming out of the voting booth yesterday after voting in his first-ever election. He’s 19. I voted in my first national election in 1988. My choice for president that year? Michael Dukakis. Can I pick ’em, or what?
I recently re-read Cambridge social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s great 1989 book How Societies Remember. In it, Connerton talks about how the “mental map” laid down in childhood stays with us for the rest of our lives, and that this is determined by class. That’s true, but it’s also determined by other factors. I’d like to start a thread about how the mental map we — that is, you readers and me — had laid down for us in childhood (up to age 21, let’s say) affected the way we see the world.
I’m 51 years old, born in 1967. Generation X. The most formative political events of my youth were:
1. The Iranian hostage crisis
2. The Cold War
4. John Paul II
These three events are inseparable, in fact. I won’t bore you by going into too much detail here, but I’ll give you a sketch. The idea is not to argue that the conclusions that I drew from these things were correct, but only to indicate how formative they were to my worldview.
I was too young to have any visceral sense of Watergate or the Vietnam War, but I do recall the second half of the 1970s being a time of anxiety and malaise. The Iranian hostage crisis was such a humiliating thing for the country. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to express how agonizing it was. President Jimmy Carter was widely loathed for being weak and ineffectual in general, but most especially over the way he handled Iran. Looking back on it, he deserved more credit than he got at the time, but man, were we all ever ready for Ronald Reagan. I remember lying in bed on election night 1980, watching Reagan give his victory speech on the little black and white TV on the shelf, and falling asleep thinking, “The country is saved.”
Carter’s weakness was also manifest in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It felt to many of us that the Russians could do whatever they liked, and the US couldn’t do a thing about it. America was a weak and humiliated country. The Democrats were the party of weakness and appeasement. (Again, I’m not arguing facts here; I’m explaining the narrative that formed me politically.) “Morning in America” was a real thing!
The thing is, I was a liberal Democrat for most of the 1980s. Around 1982 or so, I decided Reagan was a bad man. I can look back on it now and understand that my political thinking (“thinking”) was mostly driven by teenage rebellion against my father and what he stood for. I began my rightward shift at some point in college, when I started following the liberal pieties I professed to their logical conclusions. I never did become a full-on Reaganaut, but at some point I began to identify as a conservative, because the conservative account of the world — economic, moral, foreign policy — started to make more sense to me. The thing I realize now is that Reagan so dominated American politics in the 1980s — this, even though Democrats were still the main Congressional party — that liberal politics then were entirely a reaction to him.
The Republican Party was the party that could be trusted on national security, and on the economy. The 1970s had been a terrible time for both the economy and national security — and Reagan really had turned it all around. My conversion to Catholicism in 1992-93 solidified the social-conservative views emerging out of my own experiences. By then, my political worldview was pretty much set, so it was easy to graft Pope John Paul II onto it. He, like Reagan, stood firm against communism, and he also, in my mind, stood for moral order, even more than Reagan did. I believed that the Catholic Church and the Republican Party were two institutions that could be trusted — and I voted that way.
Events from the years 2001-2008 completely shattered that worldview. The abuse scandal, the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s conduct in general, then the financial crash — all of that left me reeling. I still have a morally and socially conservative view of the world, but I find it very, very hard to have faith in institutions. The break was so deep within me that I honestly don’t know to what extent the events and conclusions that formed my political mental map as a youth still matter. There was a series of earthquakes, and the map is now out of date.
The model of the world that I absorbed as a young man in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s proved to be unreliable. I think I’m too old now ever to believe again that there is a politically reliable model. I do know that it is almost impossible for me to trust the US government on matters of war and peace again, not after Iraq. And knowing how hard I fell for the Iraq war argument, it is, to be honest, hard for me to trust my own ability to judge truth from lies.
I don’t really know what I believe in, politically; I only know what I don’t believe in. It feels sometimes like I’ve gone full circle, and I’m back to the late ’70s, only we’re all richer, and the air is not so smoky. But the sense of cynicism, malaise, and drift is very real.
I’m not sure what the major events are that formed the political mental map of my 19-year-old son. I plan to talk to him about it next time we get together.
What about you? Again, I’m not asking you to attack or defend my 1980s worldview, and to keep the thread from going off-kilter, I’m not going to publish comments that try to support or criticize it (or anybody’s worldview) in depth. What I’m interested in is your reflections on the events and personalities of your youth that gave you your own political orientation, whether it’s on the left, right, or center. This is not going to be an argumentative thread. Rather, I’m only interested in hearing people tell their stories.