This is a question I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. As I mentioned before, there are plenty of reasons I shouldn’t be. So what is it? Is it just a phase I’m going through? Is it a secret desire to sit around my house all day living off of government handouts? Was I brainwashed by my public school teachers? Is it rebellion against my relatively conservative, religious upbringing? No…none of those sound quite right.
Some people think it’s biological – that brain chemistry can help determine it. Studies have shown that there’s some truth to that related to a positive correlation in the size of the amygdala and how aggressively someone responds to a perceived threat biologically. There are pretty clear social signs of that being true in things like the arguments for and against the USA taking in refugees from Syria or other Middle Eastern countries, for example. That may be a part of it for me. I believe that the ability to easily empathize with others is an important part of someone becoming progressive, and I think brain chemistry likely plays a pretty big role in that. Even so, it’s definitely environmental for me, too. I’ll come back to empathy later.
I believe environmental factors have the most effect on how far your ideology skews in either direction. Compare the conservative movement in the United States to the conservative movements in almost any other first world country. Here’s a graphic I put together using data I could find on The Political Compass, along with research on a handful of other sites. People can obviously move around on here over time. Obama moved a fair amount toward the right between the ’08 and ’12 elections, for example, so this isn’t a perfect representation of the spectrum, but it’s relatively accurate. The blue dots are modern U.S. leaders, the green are modern European leaders, the red are historical figures, and the purple dot is where I fall.
A mainstream conservative from most of Europe would be pretty close to middle of the road if they came to the United States. On the other hand, Donald Trump and Mike Pence would pretty safely be considered far-right, authoritarian extremists and would never be a serious contender in a national election over there for not supporting things like universal healthcare or strong public education and believing that their religion should dictate how they govern. Mainstream progressives would see a similar pattern, with U.S. progressives being center or center right over there, especially economically, and those coming to the U.S. being labeled far left socialists. I’d wager that swapping your birthplace and the environment you’re raised in would have shifted your current views one direction or the other.
I think the biggest environmental contributor for me was watching my parents as I grew up. My parents married young. My mom hadn’t graduated high school yet and my father had only just. Neither of them earned college degrees. My siblings and I are the first generation in our family to go to college. My father was definitely a blue-collar man. He was a manual laborer that worked year round for an elderly farmer. He had a very strong work ethic, routinely worked 50+ hour weeks to provide for us. He was the kind of guy who would wake up with the flu, puke his guts out, then put his jeans and flannel on and head out to the barn. My mom worked for a nursing home nearby. She loved visiting with the elderly she cared for, learning about their lives. She’s always cared more for others than she has for herself. They were hardly perfect parents, but they always did the best they could, and they were far from lazy or entitled.
Despite all of that, we always struggled to get by. We didn’t own a home until my oldest brother had left for college, and even then all we could afford was one that we spent the next decade slowly remodeling room by room. My mother had a chronic illness and our health insurance sucked, but luckily we qualified for our state’s version of Medicaid. We were on food stamps for the majority of my childhood, too. Through it all, though, my father was a conservative, supporting a party that is now trying to dismantle that safety net again and again. I hope that he’d have different feelings today, with Trump and the McConnell brand of politics, but I can’t say I know for sure. For me, my childhood effectively busted the conservative myth that poverty is laziness and all it takes for you to lift yourself up is the willingness to work hard. A lot of it comes down to blind luck.
Heading back to the idea of empathy, there’s a quote that I like that sums up my progressive ideology fairly well.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
My parents were hardly the most vulnerable people. There are plenty of people and families that are way less fortunate than we were. Both of my parents were able-bodied people and worked more than they should have needed to, and we still weren’t surviving on our own. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; I am grateful. Our government treated us kindly and we were lucky to live in a state with a decent welfare system in place. We were able to go to the doctor and dentist semi-regularly, but medical expenses, particularly my mother’s, still drained my parents’ income. We were never really hungry, but we didn’t eat the healthiest because food stamps went farther if you bought macaroni and cheese instead of carrots and apples. Even so, I know my family wouldn’t be where we are today without the help my parents received when I was a child, but that’s a subject for another time. Thinking back on it now, and how it helped me get here, celebrating Thanksgiving with Sarah and our children, happy and healthy in a home in Madison that we could afford to own at 24…it just makes me that much more sure of my belief in a progressive society.
There’s a stereotype for conservatives that they’ll oppose a progressive idea until their own lives are affected by what that idea is aimed at making better, and there’s definitely some truth to that. Nancy Reagan supported using stem cells in medical research after Ronald had Alzheimer’s. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio changed his stance on marriage equality after his son came out, just like the dozens of people I know personally that did the same after their daughter, nephew, or grandchild came out. I’m sure we all also know a conservative or two that decided universal healthcare isn’t such a bad thing when their insurance bailed on them or didn’t pay out enough and they had to set up a GoFundMe to survive their medical bills. The thing that strikes me the most about Rob Portman’s change of heart is how he described his reasoning. He said that he wanted his son “…to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have, to have a relationship like [he and his wife] have…” That’s the exact same argument that countless same-sex couples and their supporters have been making for years, but it took his son being affected for him to understand it. When it’s personally connected to you, even marginally, it’s easier to empathize. Don’t get me wrong…I’m appreciative of the conservatives that go through that struggle and have to reconcile what are usually deeply held beliefs with the lives and happiness of their loved ones and come out on the right side. It isn’t an easy thing to do – I just wish it was easier for people to see their loved ones in a stranger.
Empathy. Progressive. Those two words are tied together in my mind. Whether it’s a shell-shocked 6-year-old refugee looking for a new home or a cancer patient that can’t afford newer treatment that would save their life or a same-sex couple that has the audacity to want to get married, I try to put myself in their place and imagine what I would fight for or want for myself or a family member in that situation. That’s what it all comes down to. Even with my parents, I recognize now that I empathize with their struggles as they raised us, and I want to make it easier for families in the same, or even much worse, situations to live well and empower them to better themselves instead of just allowing them to scrape by.
I hope I’ve given you a pretty clear picture of why I am a progressive. As this site goes forward, I plan to do a mix of short essays like this. I think this one will end up being on the longer side because I wanted to paint as clear of a picture of myself as I could. Some of the essays will be policy based and others will comment on current or semi-recent events. All will be tied into my personal experiences wherever possible. I’ll always do my best to support my beliefs and claims with reputable sources and scientific studies. If you like what you see or have a question, let me know in the comments. If you disagree with it, I’m happy to start a civil discussion in there, too. I don’t expect a ton of traffic, but I am hoping to build a small community and am definitely interested in hearing what others think and how their experiences led them to believe the things they do.
Happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for stopping by.