I've been thinking about politics and polarization a lot lately. I used to be a conservative. I mean, seriously! I was 14, living in the suburbs with my parents, listening to Rush Limbaugh. Bill Clinton was "feeling your pain", but the other side was talking about logic. Get rid of the tax-and-spend democrats, restore personal freedom, trust people to do what's right, reduce government. They wanted to increase the minimum wage... just one more thing the government had to force people to do, right? I lived in southern Johnson County Kansas, no one made minimum wage, the kids at my high school working at McDonald's made $7/hr starting.
Then things changed. First, the republicans worked harder and harder to court the religious right, who did not agree with my "small government" mentality. That made me think I should be more libertarian, for social reasons. I couldn't believe that the very people who wanted government to do less with their money wanted government to do more with their behavior. Second, I moved out of the suburbs and learned that people do in fact make minimum wage. In the town I went to college in, everybody did. It was flooded with a student work force, meaning that even non-students who were just stuck there would struggle to raise their families, dirt poor. Families would pull up in pickup trucks to sift through the dumpsters behind our dorms, little kids holding up shirts we'd thrown out because they were last season. Trapped families, stuck in a small town without money to move. Free but not free.
I moved out of college to an apartment. I lived next to a crazy woman. A filthy crazy woman who'd catch me coming home from the store and would talk until I ran away about her dog and former husband and diseases and whatever else, every sentence a different subject. She absolutely had to be on some form of public assistance, I reasoned. She could not just go get a job. She was incapable of functioning in society. If my tax money wasn't going to help her, I'd have to watch her starve in the rain outside my apartment. I decided the public assistance was okay.
My friends and I got jobs. Not all the jobs offered health care. We were kids... 22 and 23, our whole lives ahead of us, our whole lives at risk because if something major happened, there would be no system to catch us. What was the point of saving money? One car accident could mean bankrupcy. I listened to my coworkers complain about the company's health care system, and I was furious that they'd dare complain. They were mad about deductibles increasing. I mean, seriously? Someone who easily makes 60K a year is mad because it'll cost him $1200 when his wife has a baby? Feeling like he should be exempt from feeling the pain of the national crisis that is our health care system... why? Talking bad about the job I felt so lucky to have, because he didn't see my friends and the fear they experienced every day, gambling?
Suddenly, being progressive wasn't about calling people insensitive, or acting like I was more generous than they were. It was about seeing what I hadn't seen. It was about seeing the division in society... the haves and have-nots. It was about realizing that the social programs I complained about as a conservative were precisely what kept crazy homeless people out of my subdivision so I could be conservative, pointing a finger at a distant lazy enemy who's draining society while I work hard. It was about realizing that privilege gave me the means to work hard in the first place, and where'd I get that? A society, that I didn't see a reason to give back to until then.
So where does that leave me?
I now believe the left when they explain that they're not just looking for handouts from the poor, redistributing wealth is for the public good. It's in my best personal interest right now for some of my paycheck to be taken to educate some kid I've never met, if it increases my chances of having a good doctor to take care of me someday when I'm old and sick. If some kids need meals for the education to sink in, then that's part of the equation.
I also still believe the right when they say that there isn't enough wealth in the world that could be redistributed to fix society's problems. Health care doesn't follow normal rules of supply and demand, because there's infinite demand... we'll all bankrupt eachother. And once we've decided to give some quality of life to a mentally ill person rescued from homelessness, who decides what that quality should be? Does he deserve a room? A house? Who decides where to draw the handout line, anyway? Can a middle class even thrive if they're working 3, 5, 7 hours a day for the government? They say the left will never stop asking for more. I believe them.
Somewhere in the middle someone is correct, but neither one listens to the other, so we only get more polarized, we find books and radio personalities we believe in to further affirm our beliefs and trench in. I guess I'm on the side that wishes for some compromise.