Dear Young Conservative
Dear young conservative,
My name is DC Pierson and I hope you are reading this. My ideal reader for this piece is an actual person under thirty years old who self-identifies as conservative. I would like it very much if this letter found readers beyond my typical (and beloved) echo chamber of liberal comedians and comedy fans. If you’re reading this and you’re not a young conservative, I’ll bet you’re friends with one on Facebook and I would love it if you could pass this along to them.
First off: I in no way mean for this to be patronizing. I’m not mocking you, young conservative. I know what it is to be a young conservative. I was one.
When I was in high school, in the early part of the first George W. Bush presidency, it seemed kind of cool and punk to me to identify as conservative. I didn’t agree with their social policies, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, what if all my liberal high-school-kid friends were wrong? It was a ton of fun to think of myself as the sole voice of reason among a bunch of wrong-headed young people who hadn’t read the same blogs I had, and hadn’t been introduced to Ayn Rand by their girlfriend last summer the way I had.
Looking back on all that, on the times I argued with my History teacher in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things, I am deeply ashamed. And this shame comes not from the fact that I now have different political beliefs, different political beliefs shared, in some form, by almost all of my colleagues and friends. I almost always relish having a minority opinion. It’s a stubborn, age-resistant part of my personality. I am still the guy who loves hating the thing everyone else likes, or liking the thing everyone else hates. I didn’t like the movie DRIVE very much. I know. Come at me. So I’d be the first person to want to have a political belief counter to the ones treasured by all my friends. I argue most frequently with people I’m actually in total agreement with. I’m just that asshole. So it’s not that I felt the need to join the herd and now that I have, I’m ashamed to have ever felt differently than I do now.
I am ashamed because I accepted into my heart and head a system of thought I now believe to be, to borrow a term from my old friend Ayn Rand, anti-life: that government should only exist to make it easy for businesses to do business, the idea that it is our civic duty to have no civic duty. I no longer believe that the way to make things better for everyone is to let people with money do whatever they want, whenever they want. I feel I’ve earned the crap out of this belief, given that I used to believe precisely the opposite, and I’ve taken a long journey to the side I stand on now.
And I urge you, before you dismiss me as a long-haired Hollywood goofball liberal, to read on, and to listen to me in every bit the earnest that I am writing to you. Please don’t pull the dismissive ripcord in your mind, the one labeled “You’re just saying that because you’re biased, etc…” that all of us use every day to reject the idea that someone who disagrees with us may have a point. This ripcord is cynicism, plain and simple, and it mars political discourse and if we continue to pull it every time someone starts to say something that doesn’t jibe with what we already think, life on this planet will soon be quite literally impossible.
I completely understand the appeal of being an intelligent young conservative. When you’ve spent your entire academic career in gifted-and-talented programs, constantly being made an exception of, there’s something really appealing in imagining the grown-up world as a perfect arena of achievement where the talented and strong triumph, because they’re better than everybody else and they work harder, and everybody else watches from the sidelines or works the concessions stand, or worse.
In Ayn Rand’s books, I found really romantic fables of people persecuted for being smart and capable and hard-working. All government should do, or should be able to do, I believed, is free the smart and capable and hard-working among us to do what we want and need to do, and everything will take care of itself.
And I still don’t believe the smart and capable and hard-working should have a whole lot of roadblocks to doing what they want and need to do, as long as they’re not infringing on the rights and the health of others.
What I’ve learned in my brief time in the real world is, there aren’t a whole lot of impediments to smart, capable, hard-working people doing what it is they want and need to do. Not governmental ones, anyway. But the threat of Big Government inhibiting these high achievers from raising all our boats with their tide of good ideas and prosperity is often used to make life very, very hard for lots of other people, including, yes, a lot of the smart, the capable, and the hard-working. Harder than it needs to be, given our relative affluence as a society.
Here’s the thing:
The world doesn’t need help being harder. It’s almost insult to the world and the baked-in difficulties it presents for us to structure our societies in an attempt to make it even harder just to be a living, breathing person in this world. Designing the systems that govern our lives to make everyone’s life more, rather than less, difficult is like standing next to a hurricane with a super-soaker just to make absolutely certain that everyone gets wet. We don’t need to elect leaders who promise to ensure that human life is a perpetual life-or-death competition for everyone, young, old, or incredibly old, a “war of all against all.” The world already IS that way, without any help from us.
There’s a reason the “law of the jungle” is called that: it’s for the jungle. I’m of the opinion that we should protect and value our natural wildlife habitats, but that to design our social structures in pale imitation of their cruel beauty is an affront to nature, and makes life sadder and shorter for tons of our fellow human beings.
Plus, it’s disrespectful to our caveman ancestors, who were so stoked just to see another day after realizing a mountain lion hadn’t eaten them overnight, so incredibly grateful to have a cave out of the rain. They learned how to make tools, they smashed their enemies’ heads in with rocks, just to survive and pass on their miraculously advanced genetic code. The story of the human race is one of eliminating as many life-or-death problems as we can, that we might have more time to contemplate silly things like beauty and ultimate truth, or to simply enjoy ourselves, an entirely undervalued yet essential aspect of what it is to be human.
We ought to leave the jungle stuff in the jungle. Our ancestors eluded actual flesh-and-blood predators, why would we spend our votes and voices trying to create systemic ones? Why not pledge them instead to making civilization more civilized than it was when we entered it? Any calls to “return to the way things were when…” fundamentally miss the point: the course of human history moves inexorably toward liberty and dignity for all, hard-won victory after hard-won victory over closed-mindedness and disenfranchisement, all of the victories that matter coming at anything less than total sacrifice on the part of the forward-thinking and the courageous. Our democracy was meant to be a great experiment, not a great exercise in collective false nostalgia about the way things once were.
I think I’m a very hard-working, smart person. And as a hard-working, smart person, I can selfishly imagine no better situation for me than a world where the most people possible are alive, healthy, safe, and have well-paying, satisfying careers that allow them to spend a little of their extra dough and a little of their leisure time to enjoy the things made by me and by my friends.
If this kind of talk makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up because when people start throwing around words like “fairness” and “equality,” you’ve been taught to hear “socialism,” I urge you to think about who might benefit from you, an average citizen, associating such basic concepts as fairness and equality with what has become a poisonous word in mainstream American political rhetoric.
What does it say that we can’t even use the word “fairness” without alarm bells ringing in our heads?
When talking frankly about creating a world where the most good is done for the most people can get anyone branded a socialist, something’s up, and I beg you to think long and hard about what that something might be.
Consider for a moment that leaders who promise to strip away our society’s “entitlement” programs might not actually be doing so to create a world where it’s easier for you, a smart, hard-working person, to achieve. What if they’re not trying to build that perfect arena? I suggest to you, young conservative, that what they seek to create is not, in fact, a meritocracy, and is, in fact, an oligarchy.
Conservative leaders would like you to believe that they’re fighting for your right to prosperity, and you are too, by continuing to support their leadership with your voice and your vote. That simply isn’t the case. The war in which they’ve enlisted you is one in which, if your side triumphs, you will need to hold two low-paying full-time jobs just to make ends meet, and neither job gives you health benefits because it’s hard for either company’s CEO to give you those benefits and also be as ultra-rich as they’d like to be, and if you get hurt or sick, nothing and no one will be there to help you, your only solution will be to work harder and harder for less and less until you die.
That’s your end of the bargain. The acceptance of that lifestyle on a grand scale will allow them to amass wealth beyond all human imagining. It really will not matter how hard you work, or how hard you’ve fought for the rich’s rights to become ultra-rich: you will never be one of them. Complain about the inequity of all this, and be tarred and feathered as a socialist. You will find that the world is just as unkind to the weak as you’d always hoped it would be, but now, all the hard work and guts in the world won’t make you one of the powerful, because you weren’t BORN one of the powerful.
If you doubt that anyone could be that cruel or greedy on a huge scale, take note of how cruel and greedy people in power can be on a small scale. Take your manager at work: does he or she feel an innate responsibility to create a fair environment where it’s easy for you to do your best and help your fellow employees to do their best, or does he or she instead foster an ecosystem that pits you and your fellow employees against one another so none of you are ever in danger of taking your boss’ place because you’re actually smarter or more talented or harder working than them?
As for the social-issue stuff: I think if someone’s pitch as to how their tax plan will allow you to keep more of your money (which is, of course, not the same as an actual tax plan that will actually allow you to keep more of your money) is more important to you than the reproductive rights of your girlfriend, your daughter, your mom (I know, gross, but: still), the right of your gay friend to marry the person he or she loves (and if you think you don’t have a gay friend: you do), I think you need to consider the true gravity, the true human cost of having your priorities in that order.
And here’s the thing: all evidence (and again, if that’s a word that sets off alarm bells for you, please think about who might benefit from you having a kneejerk reaction to the very concept of “evidence”) points to the truth that letting the super-rich get super-richer does not, in fact, create more jobs for you, a middle-class person. Even if it did, I still think you’d be foolish and cold-hearted to value your own economic well-being over the basic rights of your neighbors. But you don’t actually have to accept a rollback of social policy that will make the world look a whole lot more like 1952 just so you can keep more of your paycheck. They want you to think you have to. You don’t. You really don’t.
And if you agree that women should have control over their own bodies and gay people should be able to marry, yet you begrudgingly accept that your party must appeal to people who virulently despise the notion of reproductive freedom and gay marriage in order to get them to vote for their economic policies, that is condescending nihilism, pure and simple, and I don’t understand how you walk around with that leaden hypocrisy in your chest all day. I wonder how history will view people who readily accepted that devil’s bargain, using closed-mindedness as a wedge to force people to accept their own poverty in the name of someone else’s profit.
I am not writing this to receive a pat on the back from my fellow liberals. We are well-practiced in patting ourselves on the back for our correctness. I am writing this in hopes that you, an actual living person reading this right now, will think about where you stand, what side of history you will be able to say you were on.
We have some goofy people on the left, we have some sell-outs who’d go switch sides in a heartbeat (if, as my friend Tom Scharpling puts it, the check cleared), we have some crooks, and no piece of policy, however well-intentioned, is ever perfect. Yet the idea that both sides are equally valid just because there are two sides is just not true anymore.
The side you’re on right now is being held hostage by witch doctors and fear-mongers. This is only “name-calling” in the sense that it’s important to call things by the right names, and didn’t Ayn Rand say (in so many words) that if we lose our ability to call things what they are, we’re screwed? If you feel my fellow liberals and I are inconsequential, immoral, air-headed, or living in a bubble, I beg you to come on over to this side and use your intelligence and your work ethic to make us less so. If you stay on that side, with its witch doctors, fear-mongers, and would-be oligarchs, all you are is complicit in the alchemical transformation of mass ignorance into mass cruelty in the name of massive profit, not a cent of which you or anyone like you will ever see.
I know you think. I know you work. Most importantly, I know you care.
Now I’m asking you to vote like it.
a former young conservative
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