Wednesday, October 16, 2002
So I've been kind of thinking about this for a while, and I thought I'd take a stab at it today:
Why am I a Republican?
(For those of you who are shocked that I am a Republican: you have not been paying attention. For those of you who have no interest in me talking about myself, please skip this post entirely.)
I was one of those freakish kids who was way too interested in politics from a young age. As a kid, I read an awful lot of Robert Heinlein and basically picked up his outlook on life, which could be described as: technologically optimistic, fervently anti-Communist, generally libertarian and strongly in favor of large-breasted women. And I went to a Zionist day school, and picked up some more of my outlook from there. Since I understood nothing about economics (indeed, I had only the vaguest notions of what constituted "work" for adults), that meant I picked up two doses of patriotism - Jewish and American - which stuck, and a bunch of social and economic ideas that contradicted each other and cancelled out. I think by the time I was thirteen I was convinced that the state was evil and property was evil, fighting for one's country was good but having to go to work was selling out. I was a kind of patriotic anarchist. Which doesn't make much sense. In other words, I was a kid. I mention this pre-history of me only because I think the impressions one forms at what they call an impressionable age do linger. One is stirred emotionally by things that one no longer believes consciously, and this shapes what one does believe. As a trivial example, while the first President I recall consciously is Jimmy Carter, the man who is forever President in my mind is Ronald Reagan. I knew Reagan was controversial, and I wasn't politically mature enough to have a meaningful opinion on the sources of controversy. What I knew was that Reagan was President. And he always will be, on some level. And that, in itself, shapes what I expect of a President.
Anyhow, then I got to high school, and with it, high school debate. For those of you who didn't do competitive debate in high school, you don't know what you were missing. It was a serious intellectual and hormonal hothouse. At least in my day, high school debaters got props from their peers for taking on big, he-man arguments with lots to say on all sides, especially military or foreign-policy arguments. Intermediate-range nuclear missile deployment, the Strategic Defense Initiative, nuclear proliferation, Chinese encirclement: these were what were called "meatballs," and real men wanted to debate them all the time. (It goes without saying that whatever the topic actually was, you got props for artfully changing the subject to one of these meatball topics.) So I learned a lot of information that would be useful to me if I ever planned to launch a career as the next Tom Clancy. But my political convictions progressed from uninformed and radical to painfully boring. How boring? In my senior year, the first Presidential election in which I could vote, I supported Al Gore for President.
Nonetheless, in the midst of my boringdom, I recall that high school debate taught me my first lesson on the road to becoming a member of the GOP. I remember vividly the experience. High school debaters, as youngsters, tend to favor action, of whatever sort, and to be attracted to doomsday scenarios. When supporting a proposition, the emphasis was always on the horrible things that would happen if x or y was not done; when opposing, the emphasis was always on the horrible things that would happen if x or y was done. Very little emphasis was placed on how likely it was that x or y would actually be effective in preventing the horrible things. Somehow, all of a sudden, I realized that in fact there was often very little evidence for this important point, that most debaters were unprepared to argue that their proposed initiatives would actually work. It happened in a debate against a team from Gulfport Mississippi - wonderful boys, by the way, both spirited and polite - who had put together a new affirmative case: they argued in favor of signing a treaty to ban chemical and biological weapons. And I realized that we had done no research on this topic (no one was arguing it; the official topic was Latin America) and that we were therefore in a bit of a pickle. So we were thrown back on our wits, and had to figure out why this treaty was a bad idea without having any doomsday scenario evidence (such as that we would need chemical weapons to win a war against China, or some such). At which point it dawned on me that the treaty was utterly unenforceable and would never work. And it was largely on the strength of that reasoning, together with some research we had on nuclear nonproliferation treaties and their problems, that we were able to win that debate.
I know this sounds fairly trivial, but it didn't feel that way at the time. I'd been basically a full-time debater for four years (classes were a secondary, if not tertiary committment), but it felt like I'd only just figured out how to do it. It felt like a revelation, like a whole new perspective on reality had been revealed. We made it to the finals of that tournament, our best performance at the most competitive tournament we'd attended, and did so largely on the strength of repeated attacks on the likely effectiveness of opponents' plans at solving the problems they were attended to address.
The next comparable revelation happened in the fall term of 1989, my sophomore year in college. I was taking a political science seminar called Comparative Socialist Politics, by which was meant comparative politics of the Communist bloc, with a special emphasis on the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. This was my first exposure to the history and politics of these countries, and we came at them from a peculiar angle, neither clearly anti-Communist nor clearly pro-Communist. (As you might guess, the professor was an expert on Yugoslavia, the heretic of the Communist world.) Some books we read were particularly ridiculous; Theda Skocpol's book, States and Social Revolutions was a classic example, a mendacious hymn to Maoism and permanent revolution disguised as a sober, scholarly analysis of revolutionary movements and states. Other books we read were real eye-openers, such as Miklos Haraszti's book, A Worker in a Worker's State (in Hungarian: piece rates), which described what life in a Communist factory was really like, and how the workers coped with living under management that was not so much brutal as absurd. Both the similarities and the differences from Western factory life were telling. And this was not a book I would otherwise have encountered. In any event, we're poking along in our way, learning about Hungary's experiments with a more market-based agricultural policy and other obscurities (I wrote my essay on Yugoslavian and East German environmentalist movements), and then we get to the end of the term and the Berlin Wall comes down.
Back when I was a high school debater, one of the more loony debate arguments was something called Russian Revolutions. The premise, derived largely from the writings of Richard Pipes, was that Russia was on the verge of collapse from internal rot and that anything we do to let up on the pressure on them will delay or prevent that collapse, so we should keep the pressure on and thereby win the Cold War. This struck virtually everyone on the debate circuit as utter folly. Surely the heirs of Stalin would never let their empire simply crumble under them; surely they would maintain their power by force if necessary. Besides, it was crazy to think that just because Communism produced lousy consumer goods that it was going to collapse; after all, they seemed to have no trouble producing armaments. Even the kids who made the argument didn't believe in it. And now, only a couple of years later, the Soviet Empire was crumbling before our eyes. Pipes, whom we had ridiculed, had been right.
(That summer I travelled to Eastern Europe, and I did so again two summers later. I was hardly the only American college student to make the trip, and I admit my interest in the region's political development took a backseat to strenuous efforts to meet and get physical with the local girls. So while the visits did produce additional revelations, they are not particularly germane to the topic at hand.)
A second revelation that happened during my college years involved the Gulf War. Again, I agreed necessarily with all my peers and my professors that the war was going to be a disaster; that it was deeply ironic and arguably unjust since we had been arming Saddam only years before; and that Kuwait, a corrupt monarchy, was hardly worth defending with American blood. I took all this very seriously, and began to make plans, at least in my head, for what I would do if there were a draft. I decided, in conversation with a couple of friends, that if the war looked like it would drag on a while, we would join the navy. We reasoned that Iraq did not have a navy, so we'd be safe, and that as long as we actually joined the armed forces we'd be doing nothing dishonorable.
In any event, because I, like everyone I knew, thought that the war was folly, I went to an anti-war rally. And I was genuinely shocked to hear the speakers gleefully predicting civil unrest in America, and whooping the students into repetitive chants about refusing to serve if called. I don't know why I was shocked; now it seems obvious that that is how anti-war protesters would talk, that the focus would be on making noise and trouble while keeping oneself safe from harm, rather than on articulating arguments against the war. But I guess I was idealistic enough at the time to think these were the thinking people, the ones who weren't just following orders but were considering the consequences of our national actions, and responding as they saw was appropriate. So it was a jolt to discover that it wasn't the case.
Another debate revelation: I spent a couple of years going occasionally to meetings of the Political Union, which fancied itself as something like its counterpart at Oxford but whose members demonstrated considerably less eloquence. I once embarrassed myself there by being spectacularly wrong on a matter of fact in front of Elliot Richardson, who interrupted my speech to correct me, at which point I sat down and conceded. In any event, one evening they were having a debate about Roe v. Wade. The proposition was that it should be overturned. I was, of course, on the anti side. I was taking a Constitutional Law class at the time, and so I thought I knew a thing or two. But I decided to give a more personal speech. I had a friend at the time who had just discovered she was pregnant, and she was planning to have an abortion. It did not occur to me that she had any choice in the matter; she was in no position financially to support a child, nor was her mother an appropriate parent for a variety of reasons. Having a baby would have, as they say, ruined her life. And I didn't want her life ruined any more than she did. So I stood up at the P.U. podium and began my speech: "I have a friend who is planning to have an abortion. Which one of you will take the child?"
I thought it was a pretty good rhetorical point. If someone wants to oppose abortion, they should admit that they are saying that women should have to bear the children they conceive even if they can't afford, financially or emotionally, to raise them, and so they should, if they have the courage of their convictions, be ready to relieve them of that burden by other means if they will not let them do so by abortion. What I was unprepared for was the response of one student, a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, who responded, "I will." It turned out his aunt was trying to adopt, and would have eagerly taken a call from my friend, supported her during her pregnancy, and taken the child when it was born.
Needless to say, this put something of a kebosh on my speech. I was unfortunately unable to do anything for the fellow's aunt. I had fudged the facts slightly in my speech, as my friend had already had her abortion; I thought it worked better rhetorically to place the event in the immediate future. But the exchange opened my eyes to another aspect of the world that I had not considered. I had never been comfortable with the idea that abortion was morally neutral; I had thought of it as sometimes the lesser of two evils, and saw it as such in my friend's case. Now I saw that it was not always necessary to choose between evils; sometimes one can choose good. And why wouldn't one, if one could? Why wouldn't everyone? Why wouldn't we want to spend at least as much energy trying to make those choices possible as trying to protect the right to choose between evils? And why had I thought of the Campus Crusade types as, basically, the enemy, when they were the very ones trying to do this?
(A minor revelation from the same debate: none of the pro-Roe side of the debate could muster a single constitutional argument in defense of their position. I thought this was appalling - so appalling that I rose to make a second speech, in violation of P.U. convention, laying out the basic constitutional defense. It was only as I did so that I realized how weak it was as a court decision.)
One final revelation, also personal. My sophomore year in college, I got involved in a rape crisis counselling group. Now, this sort of thing was all the rage in the early 1990s, the heyday of the date-rape hysteria. This was the period, as well, when Ms. Magazine chose to run a story - they gave it the cover - calling on all good feminists to believe those who claimed to have been victimized by Satanic ritual abuse. If culture-studies types weren't afraid to lay into feminists, that whole episode of American cultural history would be a gold mine: a perfect updating of the Salem witch trials. In any event, what was I doing in such a group?
Well, the simple answer is that I was trying to do good, and trying to do penance. Without going into any real personal detail, I didn't feel like I'd treated the young women and girls who were my peers in high school especially well, and I felt very guilty about it. And this seemed like a good way to do penance and assuage that guilt.
It was, that. I have to say, the whole process of being indoctrinated in rape-crisis stuff was devastating to my personality for a while. But I do believe it did me good. It taught me, for one thing, how to listen to people who are in distress, for whatever reason, which is an invaluable skill and not one I possessed beforehand. I met some very impressive women in the group who, political disagreements aside, I still admire enormously. I can't say I helped any women in crisis. Let's face it: a rape crisis center without male volunteers is like a fish without a ballistic missile defense. I was pretty superfluous, and had little to do. But I kept some of the other volunteers company on long lonely nights when no one called the hot line. And no one ever called the hot line. Which was how I figured out that the whole date-rape epidemic thing was pretty much a hoax.
Pretty much, but not entirely. By the end of my time at college, I did become convinced that something was deeply wrong in relations between the sexes. I didn't think that men were animals and women were helpless victims. I didn't think that all sex was rape. And I didn't think that Antioch rules were much use in dealing with the intricacies of the human heart, or even the pressures of human hormones. But I did think something was broken, and badly. And I came to this conclusion one night when I, along with several other folks from the rape-crisis group, went to talk to male students at a nearby prep school about date rape.
Now here was a venue where I could actually do something. These were teenage guys, smart, hormone-filled, cocky and arrogant, and they were not inclined to listen to what the rape-crisis women had to say. All the boys wanted to focus on was how unfair the new date-rape rules seemed to be, how a guy shouldn't be faulted because a girl changed her mind the next day, etc., etc. I didn't want to lay the party line on them, which was that all that complaining proved that they hadn't had their consciousness raised sufficiently. And I didn't want to be a lawyer, and say: I don't make the rules, I'm just telling you what they are and how to live by them and stay out of trouble, So I tried to change the topic on them. I said to them: what kind of man do you want to be? Do you want to be the kind of man who maybe took advantage of a girl? Do you want to be known as the kind of guy that girls should avoid? Do you want to have on your conscience that you pressured a girl into doing something she didn't want to do? Does the conquest mean so much to you that you'd risk hurting someone to win it? Or are you so weak that you can't control your impulses - once you get excited, if a girl doesn't satisfy you, you're not responsible for your actions. Are you proud of yourself for having no self-control? What kind of a man do you want to be?
The whole talk kind of threw everyone off-balance. To be honest, I think I confused the other rape-crisis counsellors a bit, and the conversation turned back to more conventional paths. But I remained convinced that this was the kind of talk that was missing from these boys' lives. No one was telling them how to be a man, or that being a man meant something other than winning, that it had something to do with chivalry and self-control and honor. These were not kids from a slum; these weren't gang-bangers. They were the wealthiest, most priviledged boys in the country. And they were not sexually inexperienced, I suspect. And they had only the vaguest idea of what mature sexual relations were like.
It's hard for me to articulate how this particular, personal revelation fed into political matters. I don't think it did for years, probably not until the impeachment crisis, when I came face to face with a President who was, really, not very different from the boys at that prep school.
Anyhow, by the time of my senior year my outlook had changed a great deal but my politics hadn't changed at all. I was still terminally boring. How boring? I supported Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primaries. Why Tsongas? Because he was a tightwad, and I was the kind of guy who worried about the deficit. And because I didn't trust Clinton. I didn't care about Whitewater, and I didn't care about Gennifer Flowers. What I cared about was that letter explaining how he wasn't going to serve his country like he promised. The one that talked about preserving his "viability" within the system. That letter disgusted me. I could deal with Clinton even if he avoided the draft legally; I understood the desire not to put one's life in danger, and not to have to kill people one had no desire to kill, all for a cause that seemed pointless or even wrong. And I could deal with him even if he openly refused to serve; I don't know if I could have voted for him for President, but I could have respected him as a person. But I could not deal with a personality who thought his political career was more important than his integrity, someone who thought the system should exempt him because he was too valuable to lose. People with such high opinions of themselves are profoundly dangerous.
But I voted for him anyhow. I thought George H.W. Bush was a putz, and his Veep was an idiot. I thought the recession was deep and serious, the S&L scandal proof of Republican corruption and the inevitable failure of deregulation. I thought we needed a vigorous industrial policy like Germany had. And Clinton said all kinds of nice things to a moderate like me: he was for more police, a tougher policy on China and Yugoslavia, better teachers, welfare reform, making abortion rare, a New Covenant and all that. I bought it all.
And then: the hangover. The obvious incompetance of his first year in office, particularly in the arena of foreign affairs. I never made sense of Hillary's health plan, and I consider myself a smart person. The only things that were clear about it were: it was complicated; it was massive; and it was assembled in secrecy. The scandals of the first year didn't affect me much. What affected me was the sense that these guys were, pardon the expression, bush-league. I'd always thought "our" guys were so much smarter than "their" guys. Turned out, brains weren't everything.
And then: the New York City mayoral election. In spite of all his massive flaws, which I was well aware of, I was reluctant to vote against Dinkins. I really thought he was a decent fellow, and I really thought Giuliani was a grandstander and a thug. I was ambivalent right into the voting booth, and I couldn't make myself pull the level for a Republican. I voted for the devil I knew. And when Giuliani won, I was quietly pleased.
It was only later that I became actively ashamed of my vote. The city, my city, the city I loved, began to improve almost overnight. I worked at a hedge fund in Times Square, and the transformation of the immediate vicinity, both the Times Square and Grand Central area, from a slum to prime real estate, was astonishing. The city really was turning around. And it was turning around in large part because we'd elected a mayor determined to get tough on the forces of chaos that had laid the city low. Giuliani had an enormous impact on my outlook, and more than anyone made me a Republican. Indeed, if I had to say what kind of Republican I am, I'd say: a Giuliani Republican. Your typical conservative is a liberal mugged by reality. Well, I'd grown up in a reality of mugging, and assumed that was normal, and so I was still a liberal. I'm a liberal who was floored by the success of conservative ideas in changing reality - particularly, the reality of mugging.
Working at a hedge fund, I was learning a little something about the markets and the economy, and this also influenced my political outlook. Seeing the power of the bond market in 1993 and 1994 to lay low the best-laid plans of Democratic Presidents mainly reinforced my own deficit-hawk convictions. But it also made me realize that the entire old-style Democratic discussion about the economy was completely divorced from reality. I gave Clinton credit from the first for jettisonning his entire economic program in the face of market opposition. But it didn't escape me that it was the core Democratic economic program that he was throwing overboard, and Eisenhower Republicanism that he was embracing. The remaining economic debate, it seemed to me, was between supply-side Republicans focused on taxes and green-eyeshade Republicans focused on deficits. Democrats, it seemed, had little to say.
And then: Oslo. I had long believed that Israel needed to get rid of the majority of the territories captured in 1967 to achieve peace. I thought Israeli rule over the Palestinians was unjust and damaging to Israel, and that a Palestinian state shouldn't be ruled out so long as it was demilitarized. But I was always skeptical of Arafat's intensions. I never forgot who he was. And I watched how, as early as 1993 when the accords were signed, Arafat began to violate them systematically. And I saw how the most extreme groups could use the accords to build their own power base, attacking Israel in an effort to torpedo peace, leaving Israel stuck with the choice of striking back and undermining their "peace partner" Arafat or sitting and being hit, and watching their deterrence wither. By 1994, I was convinced that Oslo was a failure. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin almost turned me back into a dove, but not really. What it did was awaken me to the danger of Jewish extremism. But the awareness of that danger did nothing to reduce me concern about the danger of Palestinian extremism. I visited Israel in 1996, and it struck me that the Moslem Quarter of Jerusalem, which I had visited without fear even during the intifadeh of the 1980s, was now, in a time of a supposed peace process, too dangerous to visit. Some peace. But while the experience of Oslo was hardening my views on Israeli matters, this had no impact on my domestic political views for some time.
The GOP sweep of 1994 had a long-term psychological effect on my politics, in that it scrambled the categories I was used to. The Gingrich Republicans were brash, opinionated, and eager for change. They wanted a balanced budget, a missile defense, welfare reform and a more efficient, reduced government. These were all things I favored - indeed, apart from missile defense they were all things I thought Clinton favored, but that he'd shown little interest in once elected. I didn't agree with everything on the agenda, but at least these guys looked like they were committed to moving the ball downfield.
And even some of the old guard showed some real courage on issues that matter. I remember that Bob Dole was one of the few American leaders who called for arming the Bosnian Muslims. I was aware of the complexity of the situation in Yugoslavia (that Comparative Socialist Politics course had actually come in handy!) but it was obvious that the Bosnian Muslims were the least wrong and the most wronged of the various warring parties, and that the U.N. regime was consigning them to being slowly murdered by the Serbian army. If the West was unwilling to impose a solution, the least it could do was allow the Bosnians to defend themselves. And it did not escape me that in the absence of Western arms, Iran and Saudi Arabia were becoming the Bosnians' staunchest allies.
By the 1996 elections, it was clear that I could not vote for another Clinton term. Everything he had done that I had supported he was pressured into by the GOP, the welfare reform bill above all. He was utterly incompetant in foreign affairs and his domestic agenda, when I didn't disagree with it wholeheartedly, was in tatters. And the sleaze factor was piling up. I was no longer afraid of apostasy. I was still a registered Democrat, but I voted for Dole.
And then: the Chinese revelations. It is difficult for me to overstate the degree to which I was radicalized by the news that the Clinton White House had taken money from the People's Liberation Army. There is no question in my mind that Clinton knew where the money was coming from; he was interested in plausible deniability, not in staying clean. The subsequent impeachment debate about perjury and sexual harrassment struck me as to some extent a poetically just reward for a man who had supported the independent counsel law and the erosion of privacy in sexual harrassment cases, but let's get real: this was petty stuff; taking money from Red China was treason. I didn't like Clinton before. Now I was a card-carrying Clinton hater.
And, for the first time, a Gore hater. Remember, I'd supported him way back in 1988, as a teenager. But he was right in the thick of the Chinese fundraising, and there was no way he didn't know what was going on, and no way he wasn't corrupted. He had bought into the Clinton-Arkansas crony capitalist system of government. I would never forgive him. I don't really understand why Marty Peretz did.
The rest of the story is less interesting. I switched parties formally in 1998. As you might imagine, given the foregoing, I was an enthusiastic McCainiac in 2000. He was the first candidate I raised money for. He was, to say the least, a disappointment, vain and self-destructive as a campaigner and, I believe, ultimately a guy who wanted to lose. In retrospect this was all predictable. But I still have enormous affection for him, and I still listen to what he has to say. In the meantime, I got to know George W. Bush. I admit, I had a lot of contempt for him at the start of the campaign. I'm still angry about how he campaigned in South Carolina. But I got to know his virtues. It was hard for me to vote for him - I wrote myself (and my family) a 20-page essay explaining why I was going to, which I won't post here - but I ultimately knew I had no choice.
And after September 11th, I heaved a huge sigh of relief that Gore was not in office. I have my quibbles with the way the Bush Administration has handled one thing or another, but if anything my criticisms have tended to come from the right, not the left. And that's on domestic matters as well as the conduct of the war. I'd have to describe myself now as fairly conservative, and the GOP is my natural home. And if it weren't, if I grew disgusted with the Republican Party - as I have been, at times - I could not go back to the Democrats. I look at the farce of the Democratic mayoral primary in 2001. I look at the absurd and really evil way that Tom Daschle plays politics with our nation's security - that's the only way to describe the majority leader's stance on Iraq. I look at how beholden the Democrats are to posing idiots like Barbara Streisand, people who have never had to grapple with the simple realities of life, much less thought about what it means to govern a country. I look at the utter hollowness of the party I was raised in, and I realize: there's nothing there to go back to.