I remember, in 1964, when I was seven years old, bending over for a drink of water from the classroom fountain. Behind me, I heard a classmate’s sneering voice: “Eeew, that’s gold water you’re drinking!” As in Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican who was running against Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election. I turned around and glared at the boy. I wore a Goldwater button on my shirt; he wore a Johnson button.
I didn’t know Goldwater from fluoridated water, but because he wore the Republican label, because he was a conservative, he was the “good” guy, the enlightened elephant. Johnson, the rough-hewn Texan, was an ass-backward Democrat, a liberal, the “bad” guy.
The election was a landslide, of course, but I didn’t ascribe Goldwater’s crushing loss to any failing of his party. The Republicans were virtuous, the Democrats vacuous. We’d come back. We’d get our revenge. Or so my parents said. And so I believed.
I carried the Republican mantle well into adulthood, helped along not only by parental inculcation, but also by the mythology of Abraham the Emancipator, my favorite president. As I grew older, I learned that American political history is full of nuance, of strained loyalties, of opportunism and expediency, and that a particular party affiliation isn’t something you have to profess forever.
Perhaps the most prominent exemplar of this sort of ideological evolution is writer/commentator David Horowitz, whose long, eventful trip from ’60s leftist to right-wing gadfly has been amply chronicled. Horowitz has often been held up as proof that the old Churchill adage is a kind of iron law of human nature. But over the last decade, a fair number of prominent conservative writers and intellectuals have made the opposite journey—people such as Arianna Huffington, Michael Lind, David Brock, and Marshall Wittmann.
All these transformations have left me dissecting my own slide across the continuum. The older I’ve gotten, the more liberal I’ve become. I like to think that, unlike Horowitz, I’ve done so thoughtfully and gradually—with no bitterness, no descent into stridency, no contempt for the people or positions I once embraced. I suspect millions of other Americans have made this same right-to-left journey under the radar.
How many of my boomer cohorts—those born between 1946 and 1964—have joined me in this right-to-left transition? And to what extent? It’s hard to know for sure, but there’s evidence that our numbers are growing. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Governmental Studies, has been analyzing polling data for 30 years. One thing he’s seen is a clear change in ideology and candidate choice among voters with higher educational levels.
Gallup Poll data from the 1940s and ’50s, he notes, showed that the likelihood of voting Republican in presidential elections increased fairly steadily with education. In fact, the highest concentration of GOP voters was among people with graduate training.
Gradually, however, from the 1970s through the disputed 2000 presidential election, a distinct and fascinating shift took place: While those with the lowest educational attainment remained heavily Democratic, and those with a college degree remained substantially Republican, those with postgraduate education, which included millions of boomers, began voting Democratic.
In the 2000 race, according to Voter News Service, those with some college education selected George Bush over Al Gore by 51 percent to 45 percent. The breakdown was the same for those with a college degree. Those with high-school diplomas barely went for Bush, 49 percent to 48 percent. But those with some postgraduate education preferred Gore, 52 percent to 44 percent.
How to account for the increase of Democratic voters among those with postgraduate education? Sabato says the superficial explanation is that boomers may be just as conservative as previous college graduates on economic issues, but considerably more liberal on social matters (e.g., abortion, gay rights, drug use, sex, the environment)—a reflection of their coming of age in the watershed ’60s and ’70s, when society’s norms were being challenged as never before.
Indeed, survey data from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in Chicago show that many boomers may have become more conservative over the years, but only in a broad, general sense; on a range of individual issues, they’ve marched in the other direction. NORC tracked a group of respondents from 1970 to 1990. In 1970, according to NORC, those who considered themselves liberal or slightly liberal totaled 17.9 percent and 20.1 percent, respectively; in 1990 those figures had dropped to 11.2 percent and 14.3 percent. Conversely, those who viewed themselves as conservative or slightly conservative in 1970 registered at 7.5 percent and 12.4 percent; in 1990, those percentages had risen to 15.3 and 17.1. The percentage of those who regarded themselves as moderate stayed fairly constant.
Yet on specific questions, the respondents’ positions were certifiably more liberal. In 1970, 22.1 percent agreed that a woman’s role is to take care of the home; in 1990, only 11.2 percent held that view. The number who disagreed went from 80 percent to 89 percent. On whether a homosexual should be allowed to formally address a community gathering, 77 percent said “yes” and 23 percent said “no” in 1970; in 1990, those percentages had changed to 85 and 15, respectively. On whether Caucasians have the right to segregate their neighborhoods, 11.6 agreed strongly, and 47.3 disagreed strongly in 1970; in 1990, the numbers were 3.6 and 68.7.
“There are some bedrock values we [boomers] still maintain as we grow older,” says John Zogby, 53, president and chief executive officer of Zogby International, a polling and market research firm. “We believe in government regulation, for example. We believe in opposition to racism. We’re in favor of social justice, and we’re not so inclined to war. I think there will always be that tug on baby-boomers to become more conservative, but it will always be tempered by those values that are deep and sacrosanct.”
It seems that instead of moving left as they’ve gotten older, many boomers may have simply stayed left—except in the parlous realm of mortgages, 401-Ks, and college funds. What moved to the right, of course, was the Republican Party.
If the Republicans had charted a different course historically, I might still be in the fold. The rock-ribbed Republican tradition of my family held a powerful sway. I recall my father saying that the only Democrat in his rural southwest Ohio family was sort of an outcast, the odd duck in a clan that was lucky enough to have escaped the ravages of the Depression.
To them, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not the avuncular savior of a beaten-down nation, wielding palliative power through the expanding medium of radio. He was the effete architect of an alphabet-soup bureaucracy that would keep on ballooning right through the Johnson years, putting all of our liberties at risk.
Having grown up in a staunchly Republican household—among the mementos in my late grandmother’s home was a silver dollar of Dwight D. Eisenhower, minted for the party faithful by the GOP National Committee—I automatically bought the line that the party that knew best. The identification with Thomas Nast’s pachyderm was visceral and largely unthinking.
I remember my father pounding his palm and inveighing against “those damn liberal Democrats,” his eyes bulging as he sputtered the words. I remember the elation our family felt after Richard Nixon had squeaked past Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential nail-biter (we went to bed not knowing who had actually prevailed). Even in 1972, when the crimes of Nixon and his henchmen were in full flower, we went for “Tricky Dick” over the decent but hopelessly overmatched George McGovern.
It wasn’t until after the elections of the amiable, soporific Ronald Reagan and the patrician-turned-cowboy wannabe George Bush Sr. that I began to detect an inner shift in my political fault lines. It’s a morphing that I’m sure many of my demographic brethren also experienced—born in the middle or late ’50s, too young for Vietnam but old enough for the Beatles, seduced in varying degrees by drugs, and disenchanted by Watergate and Iran-Contra. We became wary, and weary, of Democrats and Republicans alike (but especially the latter).
But old habits die hard. I know it was due more to family tradition than political awareness that I went for Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan in 1980 and ’84 and Bush the Elder in 1988. I had swallowed the perception that Carter was a bumbling neophyte, way out of his depth politically.
Of course, Reagan cast his own inimitable spell, the stock in trade of a seasoned actor. His “aw-shucks” self-deprecation was a clever cover, its soothing effectiveness on full display in the aftermath of the 1981 assassination attempt. The Great Communicator called ketchup a vegetable, downplayed intellectual inquiry, declared that trees cause pollution—and presided with somnolent detachment over a cabinet rife with corruption, secrecy, and illicit dealings. And yet, seduced by that geniality, galvanized by his anti-Soviet rhetoric, and perhaps remembering that my parents adored Ronnie when he was the two-term governor of California, I voted for him twice. I would not do the same today.
As I moved left across the political spectrum, I felt twinges of guilt. Even as I saw the Republican Party increasingly become the redoubt of fat-cat business moguls and right-wing militia types, of religious fanatics and environmental predators, I still retained a vestigial attachment, albeit tenuous, to the party of my youth. I suspect that’s why I opted for Bush Sr. over Michael Dukakis—like Carter, a decent, unglamorous man with workable ideas but victimized by bad press. I feared that a defection from the GOP would be seen by my folks as a betrayal of the comfy middle-class background I had the privilege of enjoying—the sort of background, they said, that Republicans were better at protecting.
Nonetheless, I voted for Bill Clinton, in both 1992 and ’96, partly because of his smarts, partly because of his platform, and partly because he represented the baby-boom generation. And in fact, my family was quite accepting of my conversion. When in ’92 I indicated my preference for Clinton over George Bush, Dad jokingly said, “Well, there goes your inheritance.”
Later, as the impeachment scandal unfolded, Dad got in his “I told you so.” But the tawdriness of the chief executive still did not send me scampering back to the party of Lincoln, which the GOP no longer resembles. After watching Republicans emerge as a group of snarling reactionaries, willing to speak at Bob Jones University, pander to gun nuts, scuttle a woman’s right to choose, and desecrate public lands in the name of “wise use” profiteering, I doubt that even Eisenhower—the last GOP presidential hopeful for whom African Americans voted in sizeable numbers—would recognize the party now. Jim Jeffords certainly doesn’t.
Last year, as I stayed up into the wee hours to watch the Gore-Bush contest on Election Day, I was reminded of our family’s Nixon-Humphrey vigil in 1968. Only this time, I was pulling for the other party. That its standard-bearer could win the popular vote but be denied the presidency because of one state’s questionable ballot irregularities and a politically-biased Supreme Court—well, that’s one civics lesson that nobody, not even a button-wearing seven-year-old, should have to endure.