“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
— Ronald Reagan
Now I know how the Gipper felt.
Once upon a time, you see, I thought I was a little bit conservative. Mind you, I could never side with the right on social justice matters like the treatment of LGBTQ Americans, African Americans and women, where they have always been irredeemably wrong. But I did agree with them on the importance of fathers and on the need for self-reliance, a strong military and foreign-policy realism. While I support government regulation of business, consumer standards and the environment, I was even willing to listen to conservative complaints about excessive red tape.
Thing is, I still hold more or less the same views, but I’m nobody’s idea of a conservative. I didn’t change, but the definition of conservative did. And that forces a realization:
With apologies to John F. Kennedy, Ich bin ein liberal.
That will, I know, bring howls of derision from conservatives. They’ll see it as a portentous announcement of a self-evident truth — like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announcing that he is tall.
I get the joke, but the joke makes my point.
We live in a starkly bipolar political world. One is red or one is blue, one is right or one is left. But I’ve always resisted the idea that I had to choose a team and line up behind its talking points. I’ve always said no political philosophy has a monopoly on good ideas.
So I was never willing to call myself liberal. Or conservative. I liked the idea of weighing the facts and thinking a thing through for myself.
I was naive, though. While I was holding out on a lonely island of principle, the middle space between the extremes shrank to nothing. Political identity became actual identity, and one was required to choose sides, like a kid in the slums forced to choose between rival street gangs, with conscientious objection not an option.
And the choice isn’t really a choice at all, because what used to be conservatism no longer is. When’s the last time you heard the right talk about the kinds of things — fatherhood, clear-eyed foreign policy — that once helped define it?
No, these days, being “conservative” means being angry and fearful at the loss of white prerogative. It means to embrace — or at the very least, tolerate, which is functionally the same thing — a new and brazen strain of white supremacy. It means to be dismissive and destructive of the norms of democratic governance. It means to willingly accept nonstop lies, intellectual vacuity and naked incompetence and pretend they are signs of stable genius. It means to be wholly in thrall to the Cult of Trump.
Small wonder GOP heavyweights like columnists George F. Will and Max Boot and campaign strategist Steve Schmidt have disavowed their party out of devotion to what conservatism used to be. Their moral courage makes neon obvious most Republicans’ lack thereof.
That said, one wonders whether it will not turn out that these worthies are simply holding out on their own lonely island of principle, if conservatism’s headlong march toward fascism will not make them the ones who seem naive 20 years down the line. But that’s their problem.
This column is about my problem, which I guess I’ve solved, though not without some regret for the days when I felt free to walk between political extremes and not declare myself. But in 2018, that’s an unaffordable luxury. In 2018, one of those extremes represents a danger as clear and present as any foreign adversary.
So yes, I am a liberal. Because I have, literally, no alternative.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.