My Journey From 70s Student Radical to Modern “Tea Party” Conservative: It’s Really Not That Complicated!

Despite being marketed as a “social media” site, where friends and family can keep up with one another, share photos, etc., an increasingly large segment of Facebook posts and comments today are being used to pass along opinions, photos, and links that clearly fall into the “ideological” arena. And yes, I am one of them… and I make no apologies for it. As a “baby boomer” soon to enter his 60’s, having spent two-thirds of my life in political activism of the left and right, and now having to sit by and watch the life being sucked out of this country, the future of this nation has become my third biggest personal concern and interest, behind only my God and my family. And now that I have grandchildren, the future of this nation and the concern for the futures of my kids and their kids have become irreversibly intermingled.

Recently one of my Facebook “friends” (a proud liberal atheist) asked me this: “… you often talk about how you used to be a Big Liberal, but your experiences in life moved you away from that. Could you go back to that, if you wanted to? Do you think that you could re-open yourself to that mindset and re-acquire it if you wanted to?” His obvious premise was that I had allowed my life experiences to move me away from the CORRECT way of thinking to a more conservative INCORRECT ideology, and I was not allowing myself to “re-open” my mind so I could “re-acquire” the “liberal” (aka: CORRECT) mind-set.

After that I continued to think about that question a little more introspectively (as we boomers tend to do each time an event reminds us that old age is fast approaching whether we choose to welcome it or not), which led me to dig a little deeper so I could figure out the best way to describe the gradual ideological metamorphosis that changed me from a 70’s liberal to the “tea party” conservative that I am today. What I want to try to accomplish is to help ALL of us of ALL political persuasions become better able to explain to each other (and to ourselves) how we got from where we used to be to where we are now, because if we understand the essence of that change, we might find that many liberals and conservatives may not be that far apart.

To do this, we all need to begin with the period in which we became politically aware. For me, it was around the spring of 1968 during my junior year of high school as I began to fear the arrival of my 18th birthday, which also required me to register with the Selective Service (aka: “the draft”). With a long, drawn-out, apparently-stalemated war going on in Vietnam, this was no minor matter. Since the best legal way to avoid the draft was a college deferment, I went pedal-to-the-medal on my studies and made it into college in the fall of 1969. In early 1970, two of my friends were killed in Vietnam, followed by the shootings at Kent State on May 4, which immediately angered me. I became friends with some veterans on campus who had returned from Vietnam and got involved with their “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” branch, as well as other non-violent groups. At the same time, there was another dramatic social upheaval called the “Jesus Movement”, and it pulled on me as powerfully as the anti-war movement as I finally saw the life-changing power of Christ outside of a churchy-religious setting.

The anti-war and Jesus movements were the two main influences during my university and grad school days that forced me to constantly re-evaluate every one of my beliefs as my knowledge and experience grew. By the time I finished this season of academics and re-entered the real world I had conditionally given myself the ideological label of “Christian liberal” and any political causes I gave my time to tended to be liberal causes. Looking back on that period now with the benefit of hindsight that comes with age, with the experience of having raised four children, and of working with literally thousands of people over my life in counseling, ministry, and political activism, I can now get a better look at my lifelong and never-ending ideological metamorphosis, I believe I am qualified to offer some observations.

What I have seen is that most young people are idealistic… they want to make a difference in the world and they want to help people. And I love that… I actually encourage honest liberalism… in fact (my conservative friends may want to disown me after I confess this) there are a lot of issues where I am still as liberal as I was when I was a long-haired hippie-guy. But here is where the idealistic honest liberalism of my 20’s began to separate from the ideological liberalism of today…. liberalism starts to go wrong when liberal people put their faith in the wrong systems to implement their ideals.

I know… this sounds over-simplified, so let me explain. When I was in college and grad school I worked in campaigns for candidates that I believed shared my idealism; I supported those politicians whose speeches and stated positions were full of the dreams to feed and clothe the poor, to lift people out of poverty, to provide a good education for every child, to help provide for those who were unable to take care of themselves. Believe it or not, I still believe those ideals… but how is it possible to reconcile those ideals with being a “tea party conservative”?

What happened is that during my early years of political activism (circa 1971-1980) I was able to get a good inside look at the political systems I was helping to elect. I campaigned for Jimmy Carter in 1976 (and worked on campaigns for liberal candidates in state-wide elections, which is a tough task in Texas), and worked with hundreds of people who shared my liberal ideals. But once Carter was elected I watched almost all of my fellow campaigners, the people I had worked with so closely and who I thought were sincerely motivated to improve the lives of the neediest people of our society, soon prove that they were primarily motivated to become “insiders” in the political machine. With few exceptions, the liberal ideals that we had preached and campaigned on were no longer a high priority. Instead, their primary desire was to get their inside position and their piece of the action by getting a job in government, and once they got it, their attitude was “I got mine, and now my only job is to keep it!” I cannot begin to tell you how many times I heard those words.

For the first time, political reality gave me a painful slap that I never forgot, and I began to see politics and politicians from a whole different perspective. I watched politicians create laws and agencies and regulations with fancy kumbaya names that were made to sound like helpful programs, but instead were deliberately designed to create co-dependency… they had no intention of eliminating poverty, but only keep people on the EDGE of poverty so they would be dependent on their government programs, thus creating a permanent block of voters (what some have called a “permanent underclass”) who would always vote to keep those programs in place. Then, in order to perpetuate the “underclass”, personal responsibility had to be discouraged. So, during the Carter years, after all my idealism and work, I began to suspect that the government would do nothing except create more dependence.

Even though my eyes were gradually opening to the political realities, I reluctantly campaigned and voted for Carter again in 1980 only because I had bought the hype and fear that Reagan would destroy the world. But the turning point for me happened in 1982, a bill called the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA), passed by the Democratic House and the weak Republicans in the Senate. It was the largest tax increase in American history at the time, and Regan signed it because the Democrats made an agreement with Reagan to cut $2 in spending for every $1 in tax increases, but it soon became obvious that they never had any intention of keeping that pledge as both spending and taxes continued to increase. Within a year, I had given up on any hope that my government could be trusted with much of anything.

You see, I never EVER gave up on my liberal ideals, but I DID give up on my government being able to implement those ideals. I have never left my idealism of what we should be doing to change the world. But I cannot ever go back to entrusting those ideals to our government. Over the years I have continued to be involved in government, but that has only continued to prove that government is only good for one thing: perpetuating itself and redistributing money from the private sector to politically connected groups, all the while proclaiming itself to be doing good.

That’s why over the years my whole political belief system has morphed into an ideology that believes we can do more for the world if government sticks to a limited set of responsibilities that they can focus on (military defense, natural and environmental emergencies, protecting the liberties of the people, etc…. you know, like what is spelled out in the Constitution), and then get them out of the way of everything else so the rest of us will have more resources to do some good in the world. A free society can accomplish a lot more than any government program any day.

My point is that honest liberalism and honest conservatism are not that far apart. We all want the same things, but at its deepest core it boils down to the question of who do we trust to implement the kind of society we want for our kids and grandkids. Do you trust a government full of agencies and bureaucrats who are only looking out for themselves, or do you trust yourself and others who have a stake in the success of our country? I think if we “tea party” types and the honest liberal idealists sat down together and discussed ways we could accomplish those dreams I and millions of others fought for over the past 40 years, we might actually be able to work together and get something productive done.