I remember the first time I voted: Jeb was up for re-election as Florida’s gubernatorial candidate and I thought, why not? Actually, I thought nothing at all, I just went into the booth and pulled the lever, or pressed the button, or hung the chad, or did whatever the fuck I thought I was supposed to do to fulfill my civic duty. I was 19, a sophomore at Florida State in Tallahassee, and I didn’t really care about politics. I couldn’t even tell you who I was voting against in that election, though Wikipedia now tells me it was Democrat Bill McBride.
Sorry, Bill! My ignorance was your loss.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure my boyfriend at the time was conservative. I can’t remember a single political conversation we ever had, but he tucked T-shirts into jeans, listened to David Allan Coe, and spent a lot of time fondly recalling his fraternity days at Valdosta State (even though he once mildly suggested—was it a joke? I don’t know—that he’d been peed on in some kind of hazing ritual). His parents were these nice Presbyterians from Quincy, Florida, and I remember being impressed that they’d gotten their daughter a boob job—which had something to do with helping her cope with Crohn’s disease.
Quincy, by the way, is located in Gadsden County, the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and one of only four counties in northern Florida to swing left in the last four presidential elections. It has a history of white people getting rich off Coca-Cola stock and black people barely scraping by. It’s also home to a notorious mental hospital in Chattahoochee that served as the inspiration for the Gary Oldman film of the same name.
To this day, when home shopping in the north Florida-south Georgia area (especially after a 10-year jaunt in the Midwest that serves to partially sever your Southern roots), well-meaning white realtors will do their best—if you’re white—to gently steer you away from Gadsden County. You feel like a sack of shit for listening to them until you go online and read about the county’s abysmal public schools, at which point you feel like a huge sack of shit. Then you have to decide who you’re going to be: the outsider who rides in on her high horse to lobby for change, or the outsider who moves into a neighboring county in South Georgia. I chose the latter.
For the record, my probably-conservative boyfriend didn’t go to public school in Gadsden County. He was one of the countless middle-class white kids sent to Robert F. Munroe Day School, a nearby private academy founded in 1968 “when a group of dedicated citizens banded together to”...well, you know. The Brown vs. Board ruling may have been passed down over a decade earlier, but a strategy of gradualism ensured that Florida counties weren’t really forced to integrate until the late ‘60s and early ’70s, at which point the dedicated white people looked around and said, to paraphrase, “Oh shit, I guess we’d better band together.” The result was the exodus of white students from public schools, which effected the destruction of the Gadsden County School System; the district is currently ranked 68th out of 74 in the state.
Of course all of this was invisible to me in 2002, as I stood casting a ballot for a Republican candidate. I wasn’t thinking about how southern Dixiecrats had sold out their own communities to uphold segregation in the decades before I was born, and I certainly wasn’t considering how those same Dixiecrats had eventually been absorbed by the Republican Party. Instead, I had vague ideas about abortion being upsetting and too many people being on welfare. There were too many people on welfare, right? And too many abortions happening, too?
Without a sense of history, it’s hard to have any sense of cause-and-effect. And without a sense of cause-and-effect that relies on history, it’s hard to be too political about anything.
Here’s the thing about being 18 or 19 years old and voting in your first election: it’s difficult to play political catch-up, to know the stories and backstories and back-backstories of not only candidates and issues, but also shifts within parties. For this reason, many young people tend to vote like their parents in their first election, at least if they trust their parents to be generally decent people. Most of us—regardless of how much we bitch and moan—do.
A meme that’s recently appeared several times in my Facebook timeline leads with the line: “What did you do in the 1960s?” The meme features a picture of Bernie Sanders on the left and a picture of Hillary Clinton on the right. The text below Clinton’s picture reads: “As a Young Republican she worked for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act.” The meme is true insomuch that it claims Sanders “organized effective resistance to segregation and civil rights violations in Chicago” and that he “marched to Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ with thousands of other activists.” It leaves out that Clinton was just 17 during the 1964 election season, whereas Sanders was 21 at the time of the March on Washington and 23 by the time of the 1964 general election.
I’m not venerating Clinton as a dream candidate or downplaying Sanders as an early champion of civil rights. I’m saying Clinton shouldn’t be faulted for not having her political leanings figured out before she’d graduated high school, especially as she’d been raised in a conservative household. By the time of the next election, Clinton was supporting Democrat Eugene McCarthy for president, a candidate who ran on a liberal, anti-Vietnam war platform and whose popularity with young voters was, incidentally, strikingly similar to that of Sanders.
One more thing about Facebook, that crucible of reactionary politics: last week, a conservative friend of mine posted a comment about the new report out from the Pew Research Center showing that, more than ever before, highly-educated groups are growing increasingly more liberal, whereas groups with a high school education or less have more or less remained ideologically consistent. The article he linked to was NPR’s coverage of the study, a piece called “Why Are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?”
My friend speculated in his comments: “It could be because colleges and universities tend to be liberal and indoctrinate students. I know it’s cliché to say it, but I experienced it firsthand as an undergraduate. I recall two professors in particular who used class time to talk at length about their left leaning philosophies.… They didn’t change my way of thinking because by nature I’m skeptical, strong-willed, and happy to question authority. But many kids come to campus thinking professors are gods who know all, and they swallow whatever they’re told without question. Is it any wonder they come out leaning more to the left than when they started?”
We had a friendly discussion. It didn’t go to the bad place, which is more than I can say for other political conversations I’ve made the mistake of having online. (One debate I had with my aunt last year on Facebook over the Syrian refugee crisis involved Franklin Graham and Herman Cain links and just generally served as a portal to hell. I don’t think she’d disagree that it was awful.) But studies that examine the correlation between liberalism and higher education are not new, and neither are the hot takes that spring out in their wake. Conservatives tend to put forth the same tired conspiracy theories of youth indoctrination by liberal professors—“I got into it for the propaganda,” no teacher would ever say—whereas liberals are mostly interested in a round of self-satisfied clapping.
If the studies and think pieces are tired, though, why do so many people keep reading and sharing them? And why do we continue to argue about what’s really behind a young person’s “conversion” to liberalism during their college years?
Maybe something we ought to consider is that most young people of high school age or younger simply couldn’t give a shit about politics as a grand, historicized establishment. It’s boring, it’s over their heads, it’s an old person’s game—furthermore, they’re not even allowed to participate. The cast of characters are people in their parents’ age group, people who kick back after a long day on the House floor to watch Dateline with a bottle of Arbor Mist and a slathering of Icy Hot on their old-ass feet. And while there are kids out there who have proven themselves capable of exceptional passion for social justice and lawmaking, it’s not exactly the common experience. The common experience is for kids to be preoccupied with surviving the various—often difficult—social spheres of their young lives.
This isn’t the kind of thing they should be criticized for, and it doesn’t change the minute they step foot on a college campus. A political awakening is a gradual process; it involves moral trial and error. It involves figuring out what you find repulsive about the existing system, then figuring out which politicians are similarly repulsed. It also depends heavily on one’s relationships with friends, and less so, I’d argue, on teachers.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. At 19 I had no grasp of myself as apolitical. I voted in 2002, remember? I hung the shit out of that chad.
The tricky thing about being young and apolitical is that you often are political, you just don’t know it yet. It takes the right issue—the right moment of repulsion—to wake you up. In my experience, it hit during the 2004 election season, when Kerry was challenging Bush for a second term. There was a lot of rhetoric coming out of the right about not “changing horses midstream” during the War on Terror, and Kerry was getting beat up by conservative pundits about his decision to throw away combat medals he’d received for service in Vietnam.
I didn’t like how Kerry was vilified on the right. He’d taken enough shrapnel to his legs to do what he wanted with his medals, especially if he felt like shit about how he’d earned them in the first place. But the real nail in the coffin in terms of my own lingering conservatism came in September, just two months before the general election, when Bush let the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expire—a ban that even Reagan had supported. At a time when Washington was pouring trillions into the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a Republican president opened the floodgates at home for the sale and manufacture of guns with high-capacity magazines. The move was a testament to the raw power the NRA wielded within the party, and it disgusted me to the tipping point.
I don’t remember how I told my family I was voting for Kerry, but I remember my aunt giving me the Winston Churchill spiel: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re 40, you have no head.” For years, I’ve half wondered if she’s right—if the day will come when the switch will flip—but I just can’t wrap my mind around what sort of change would have to take place for that to happen. Most of my family’s deeply-held conservative beliefs are tied up tightly with a brand of Christian fundamentalism I don’t accept anymore. I do my best to believe in God, and I do most days—I pray in the yard while I’m weeding, or sometimes when I’m cooking, or especially when I’m scared shitless on a turbulent airplane and “HELP ME, JESUS” is running on a loop in my head. But on other days it feels like a total racket. On other days it feels like the people going to church are the same ones who hate other people the most, and I’d no more step foot in one of those buildings than I would a porta-potty at a Lust Control concert.
After college, I took a 10-year break from the South: first to Chicago, for work, then to Ann Arbor for graduate school—places known for being liberal bastions, and places I’m proud to say never (thanks to protestors, in the first case) hosted a Trump rally. It’s now been a year since I moved back below Mason-Dixon, not to my old hometown in the Panhandle but to an even smaller town an hour north on the Florida-Georgia line. I’m doing my best to fit in. I’ll go ahead and tell you I spent the better part of a Saturday in late January enjoying the local Rattlesnake Roundup, an event I expected to wag a judgy finger at but which I actually found fascinating in terms of Southern culture. For example: Such diversity at the RR! White rednecks, black bikers, disaffected teens in Nirvana shirts—a surprising mix of people keen to look at deadly snakes. And did I shoot a Confederate cannon? Yes, I shot a Confederate cannon. I paid $10 to shoot the shit out of that cannon, then I walked away with a complimentary booklet titled Prison-Pens of the North, which, in case you were wondering, I can assure you were “no whit better than the worst in the South.” Okay!
I don’t make a secret of my liberal politics to my neighbors, but I don’t broadcast them unsolicited, either. I’d rather wait until I have a solid reason to bring them up, or until, as has occurred in several private and utterly ridiculous fantasies, my silent aura of progressive goodness converts people on the spot.
Repulsion as our guiding political light: it’s real. The last time I dated a guy with a different political affiliation than me was during senior year of college. This boyfriend had a flyer on his fridge that had something to do with Objectivism and Ayn Rand, the exact details of which are now lost to me, mostly because I had no idea what they meant at the time. At any rate, while driving down the road one day we passed a homeless man shuffling down the sidewalk, and this boyfriend of mine said something gross enough that I’m bothered to repeat it all these year later.
“Need to get a job, man,” he said. (Or at least it was something to the effect of the man being busted because of circumstances totally within his control.)
Let me emphasize that this homeless dude was in a truly wretched state, the kind of dirty, downtrodden son of a bitch that makes you hate yourself for having it so good, what with your clean Serta mattress and your own personal toilet.
My hilarious boyfriend didn’t say his inspiring comment to the man on the sidewalk, exactly, he said it to me, as if I were supposed to agree. It was a test, really: Did I or didn’t I believe this jobless motherfucker needed to pull himself up by the bootstraps?
“That man’s clearly not able to work,” I said.
It started a fight. My boyfriend backtracked and said he was kidding: I assure you he was only halfway kidding. I should add, here, that at the time of this incident, this 21-year-old man was driving an SUV given to him by his father. He also had a monthly cash allowance and wasn’t paying for his own tuition.
What’s the point of this story? It’s only anecdotal. I can’t make political generalizations based on a single guy from college who lacked compassion for a single homeless guy on a single day. I’ll say this, though: my experiences dealing with conservatives have generally been the catalyst pushing me further left. It couldn’t be more true now, surrounded by all the Trump rhetoric thrusting forward this ridiculous dick of an election cycle.
I think about all the baby conservatives out there, the ones fresh out of the nest who have never really questioned the political leanings of their parents. The ones who think they know the difference between right and wrong because very select passages of the Bible have been used their whole lives as a primary text for debate. I want to grab those beautiful babies by the shoulders and say, “There are things in the world that will repulse you, little baby! Things you can scarely wrap your tender mind around! Hurry up and find out what they are, quick, and don’t look back—don’t ever look back.”
Rachel Farrell’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Ninth Letter, The Offing, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She’s the Blog & Social Media Editor for Michigan Quarterly Review. She’s working on a novel.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona