Recently, a friend messaged me. “You used to be a moderate free thinker,” he wrote, “but somehow the left got you. Retrace your steps and let me know what it was.” I’ve heard similar things from other people, including a loved one who wrote to me saying, “I see the media is convincing you.”
These sentiments weren’t completely unexpected given the things I’ve written lately, so I thought I would take my friend’s invitation and retrace my steps.
Has the left “got me”?
Here’s my story.
Until my mid to late 20s, I was a constant and ardent conservative. I read writers like Dinesh D’Souza and Robert George, and I argued throughout my undergraduate degree and into my graduate degree for conservative causes. I always voted Republican.
Then I read, of all things, Ron Paul’s book The Revolution. The first chapter, which is about American foreign policy, shifted something in me. For the first time in my life, I considered the possibility that people in the Middle East might not “hate us for our freedoms,” as Republicans at the time loved to say. Instead, after reading the stats and stories in The Revolution, I realized that they might very well hate us because we invade their countries and kill their family members.
This realization was monumental for me. It represented the first moment in my life when I deviated deeply from the party line.
As a result, I campaigned for Ron Paul in 2011. However, several things about his fanbase didn’t sit well with me. Too many of them harbored fundamentalist religious views, were intensely pro-gun, loved Ayn Rand, rabidly opposed the Fed, and so on. Put simply, I didn’t feel like I fit in.
That was also when Occupy Wall Street hit the headlines. Since I was curious and angry about the 2008 financial crisis, I did a deep dive into Wall Street’s inner workings. Over a year and a half, I read more than 30 books on the topic and wrote a 100-page manifesto about Wall Street. By the end of the experience I was convinced that the wealthy had far too much power in the United States. They committed rampant and obvious fraud before, during, and after the 2008 crash and because they were insanely rich they got away with it. They also own the major news networks (which are, unsurprisingly, all pro-billionaire) and politicians in both parties (who are also, with very rare exception, all pro-billionaire).
This research shifted me toward a deeper sympathy for the powerless and an anger at the constant abuse by the powerful. It completely broke me from identifying as a Republican.
But I still didn’t know where to land in terms of a political identity. After all, it was the Clinton administration that repealed regulation on Wall Street that aggravated the crisis, and it was the Obama administration, with the help of Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson, that ensured that saving Wall Street remained the top priority throughout the recovery. To embrace the Democrats, then, seemed like hypocrisy to me.
That’s when I read The Three Languages of Politics by Arnold Kling, which says that the major political ideologies in America each have a different primary concern:
1. Conservatives primarily care about order over chaos.
2. Progressives primarily care about equality over oppression.
3. Libertarians primarily care about freedom over coercion.
It’s a useful framework, in my opinion, because it frees us from believing that any single ideology or political party is right in every instance.
Of the three ideals listed in Kling’s book (order, equality, and freedom), I felt, in light of what I’d read about Wall Street, that the one Americans lack most severely *right now* is equality. The share of total income going to the top 1% exploded under Reagan, and that trend continues today, returning to levels unseen since the 1920s. (A recent example: The wealth of American billionaires has grown by more than $400 billion during the pandemic, while more than 30 million people have found themselves unemployed. Meanwhile, real wages have stagnated.)
It’s true that order and freedom matter (and the encroaching surveillance state worries me tremendously), but I felt—and continue to feel—that equality matters more in the US right now and is more urgent. I feel this in part because in analysis after analysis that I have seen, countries that have less inequality have higher levels of general wellbeing and have some form of a universal higher education system, a universal healthcare system, and policies that contribute to the country’s social fabric instead of funneling billions of dollars to a handful of people (at least compared to the United States).
So that’s how I ended up where I am today. I still oppose the mainstream Democratic party, which caters to wealthy funders and cares more about posturing (see: Pelosi and Schumer in kente cloth) than radical reform. But I oppose Trump even more—a serial cheater and billionaire(?) who makes phony attempts to appeal to populists and evangelicals while grabbing more cash for himself from those very people (see: Trump University and… the presidency).
So have I been duped? It’s quite possible! I’m just one person with one perspective, after all.
The only thing I’m certain of is that as I encounter new evidence, my mind will change again. I hope it does.