I grew up in a Republican family, but I didn’t really know it at the time. Politics weren’t discussed at the dinner table. Still, Catholic school and my middle class upbringing were supposed to be enough to encourage me to follow in my father’s conservative footsteps.
And for a while, it worked. I remember finding Anti-abortion pamphlets sitting among many other brochures in the vestibule of my church. I was horrified by the pictures of aborted fetuses and for a brief period of my youth, vocalized these opinions to any who would listen.
And then, slowly, over the course of my twenties, I grew up. I finally experienced the “real world,” an event my dad prophesied would lead to the end of any liberal leanings. According to him, once it was my money being thrown away on undeserving government programs, I would finally understand why Republicans had the right idea.
However, when I left my suburban bubble to learn about the “real world”, instead of my experience confirming the biases about the poor or illegal immigrants or certain ethnicities that had been part of my upbringing, I had an entirely different reaction. In stepping outside of my own little world, I realized how fortunate I was to have been born within it.
And that confirmed my liberal leanings. I recognized that my upbringing, despite being far from idyllic in its own ways, was much better off than 98% of other people’s childhoods. And this did not make me superior. It just made me very, very lucky. In my opinion, this perspective is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals. Whereas I am extremely grateful to circumstance for the person I have become, most Republicans ascribe their good fortune to their own devices. They are successful not because they always had food and shelter or because education was valued in their community or because they had a mother and father who loved and supported them, both emotionally and financially. No, they are successful because they are hard-working individuals with strong morals and a determined spirit. Sure, they might thank their parents and teachers, but in their hearts, they attribute their success mostly to themselves. (Hence, the “I Build That” mantra that was spouted by Romney supporters during the 2012 election in response to Obama giving government infrastructure and policies the credit for many a business owner’s success.)
Conservatives also believe in the rags-to-riches stories. That success is achievable by all, if they really want to work for it. And to some small extent, they are right. There are individuals who have come from nothing and been successful. However, these stories are always the exception and not the rule. For every Ted Cruz, there are millions who were not able to overcome the unfortunate circumstances of their birth, who could not find a way to reshuffle the deck clearly stacked against them. Are there also people who abuse the system? Who make no attempt to overcome their unfortunate circumstances? Sure there are. But just like with the rags-to-riches stories, these are the exception rather than the rule. And yet Republicans still try to justify policy based on these exceptions rather than acknowledging they are anomalies.
On the other hand, because I am a liberal, I thank fortune, just as much as my parents and the community I was raised in, for providing me with such a strong foundation. I may not have what I currently have or be the person I am today without many of the fortunate circumstances of my birth, a factor which I had no hand in. Would I have gone to college if it hadn’t been a foregone conclusion that I was going to attend? Would I have cared so much about my grades if I hadn’t been surrounded by peers who had similar attitudes and upbringings? Would I be healthy and fit if regular activity wasn’t a ‘normal’ part of life in my household?
Because I can never definitely answer these questions, I can’t say I entirely deserve what I have. At least not when others have so little. Sure, I worked for my accomplishments and am proud of them. However, I also realize that someone currently living in poverty might have achieved similar feats if they’d been given the advantages that I was given. Or that I might be like some of the impoverished, living paycheck to paycheck, a medical event away from disaster if I hadn’t been born where I was or hadn’t had the opportunities I’ve had.
This all comes back to the “nature vs. nurture” dilemma, which is at the heart of why I am liberal. Even if “nurture” is only responsible for 50% of who we are, that’s still a significant factor in determining our fates. And it’s usually a factor over which we have no control. For example, my name is Kelly, a very common, acceptable name. I didn’t choose it and I’m sure it hasn’t played a huge role in my success. But in white middle class culture, it is considered “normal.” In other cultures in my country, however, it’s common to give children unique names. Unfortunately, this seemingly innocuous choice made by parents can have a huge impact on that child’s future according to numerous studies showing the link between one’s name and success. And yet, children have no control over what they are named. Unlike a young boy named Godzilla Gorilla Pimp Hunter (not made up), a “Kelly” is already at a great advantage from birth. And again, this is not because I am superior but because I was lucky enough to be given a name society deems acceptable. (see the Key and Peele skit below for a humorous take on this idea.)
Some might argue that learning to overcome adversity and failure are just as important to success as one’s name, that we all face challenges in life and that rising above them is what makes us who we are. And again, to some extent, this is also true. However, in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell argues that there is such a thing as too much adversity, a point at which hardship is detrimental rather than redemptive. For example, maybe if one’s mother is an alcoholic, it makes that child stronger and more mature. But, if a child’s mother is an alcoholic and the father is in prison and that child attends crappy schools with bad teachers and is surrounded by gang violence, then perhaps he/she is facing too much adversity to benefit from these challenges. And consequently, it should be no surprise when that child repeats the mistakes of his parents and continues the cycle of poverty.
Regardless of your politics, you must admit that a child doesn’t choose the family or circumstances into which he/she is born, for better or for worse. In fact, both parties would agree that a child is blameless and should not suffer or be disadvantaged because of who its parents are or where it was raised. The strict anti-abortion stance most Republicans hold would support this viewpoint. Yet, as soon as a child is born, these same people don’t want to enact policies that would allow these babies to have the same opportunities as their own children. They begrudge funding for early education in poor, urban areas as they read to their own children before bedtime. They blame hard-working single parents for not being in their children’s lives while denying attempts to raise the minimum wage. They bemoan government support for easy access to cheap birth control while chastising women for having more kids than they can afford. They blame schools and unions for failing our children while arguing against free-school lunches and competitive teacher salaries.
Liberals, on the other hand, support programs that try to eradicate the disparities created by the circumstances of birth and upbringing. Rather than insisting we are all born equal, we acknowledge that some people are disadvantaged from the start. Looking at the world as a whole, this is obvious. And even in the land of opportunity, this is clearly true. Sure, we are still responsible for our actions, regardless of our upbringing. After all, life is about choices, and we must live with the ones we make. However, no one can deny that where we are born makes certain decisions much more likely than others. And liberals believe this fact should dictate our country’s policies, so that, at the very least, we all start out on an even playing field. So that the race is not rigged at birth. So that one’s future is not determined by mere luck.
This does not make me a communist or a socialist. Just a realist and a liberal.
**DISCLAIMER: I am sure some people will object to my broad use of these terms, so please understand that I am using them in the sense that they were used in my formative years. For example, ‘liberal’ always had a slightly negative connotation growing up. This is why I hate to even use political labels like Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Inevitably, when we label or generalize, our statements become false to some degree. So, although I do use these terms in my post, I don’t assume that one word encapsulates all the views and values an individual holds. In fact, I wish we could eliminate the two party system as it encourages animosity and antagonism rather than cooperation. What both sides need to focus on is helping the American people. Not special interests, not corporations, and not small, radicalized pockets of the population.