A couple of years ago, David Brooks wrote one of my all-time favorite columns in the New York Times, where he riffed on some ideas from Tom Wolfe about how we choose our political leaders and allegiances.
…everything you need to know about America you can learn in high school. For example, if you want to understand American class structure you’d be misled if you read Marx, but you’d understand it perfectly if you look around a high school cafeteria.
The jocks sit here; the nerds sit there; the techies, drama types, skaters, kickers and gangstas sit there, there and there. What you see is not class in the 19th-century sense, but a wide array of lifestyle cliques, some richer, some poorer, but each regarding the others as vaguely pathetic and convinced of its moral superiority.
[Wolfe observed] that especially when we are young and forming our identities, we make sense of our lives by running little morality plays in our heads in which the main characters are Myself, the hero, and My Adolescent Opposite, the enemy.
“Forever after,” Wolfe writes, “the most momentous national and international events are stuffed into the same turf. The most colossal antagonists and movements become merely stand-ins for My Adolescent Self and My Adolescent Opposite.
“If My Opposite, my natural enemy in adolescence, was the sort of person who seemed overly aggressive, brutish and in love with power, I identify him with the ‘conservative’ position. If My Opposite, my natural enemy in adolescence, seemed overly sensitive, soft, cerebral and incapable of action, I identify him with the ‘liberal’ position.”
In every high school there are students who are culturally and intellectually superior but socially aggrieved. These high school culturati have wit and sophisticated musical tastes but find that all prestige goes to jocks, cheerleaders and preps who possess the emotional depth of a cocker spaniel. The nerds continue to believe that the self-reflective life is the only life worth living (despite all evidence to the contrary) while the cool, good-looking, vapid people look down upon them with easy disdain on those rare occasions they are compelled to acknowledge their existence.
These sarcastic cultural types may grow up to be rich movie producers, but they will remember their adolescent opposites and become liberals. They may grow up to be rich lawyers but will decorate their homes with interesting fabrics from the oppressed Peruvian peasantry to differentiate themselves from their jock opposites.
In adulthood, the former high school nerds will savor the sort of scandals that befall their formerly athletic and currently corporate adolescent enemies â€” the Duke lacrosse scandal, the Enron scandal, the various problems that have plagued the frat boy Bush. In the lifelong struggle for moral superiority, problems that bedevil your adolescent opposites send pleasure-inducing dopamine surging through your brain.
I love this commentary; I think it goes a long way in explaining so much of our contemporary partisan bickering, but it also explains the situation of moderates like me. In high school, I was friends with jocks, musicians, stoners, bimbos, himbos, gangstas, brooding literary types, hedonists, geeks, and devout people of many different faiths. Those experiences led me to believe that most people have a substantial amount of good in them, if you take the time to look for it.
My mission reinforced that thinking by forcing me to approach every person — even the wildly improbable — as if they are primed and ready to receive the Gospel.Â My post-mission experience with the Gospel has taught me that I cannot feel honest in a belief system — whether spiritual, political, or ideological –Â without allowing for 1) exceptions to rules I believe to be generally true, and 2) the reality that decent and worthy people are often severely mistaken about important things.
So basically, my high school and mission experiences leave me incapable of engaging in partisan politics.Â To borrow Brooks’ metaphor, I’m incapable of being happy in one exclusive section of the cafeteria.Â I don’t believe that moderate independents like me are better than anyone else, but I do believe that we are more honest and consistent than partisans.Â You won’t find many independents saying stupid things like the following:
- Sarah Palin was “brilliant” with Charlie Gibson; she showed how to take on the librul media (moderates generally don’t mistake vagueness and blustering overconfidence for brilliance, and speaking as one who likes her, I’m glad some conservatives are honest enough to agree)
- We need to drill our way to energy independence (speaking as one who has worked in the oil industry and supports offshore drilling, the drilldrilldrill strategy will do about as much for our energy security as will standing around and chanting “USA! USA!”)
- Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig at a rally a few days ago (Don’t you feel embarrassed asserting that, and acting out the accompanying phony outrage?)
- We can fund energy independence by taxing Big Oil (Seriously?Â What numbers are you using?Â You are really capable of predicting their revenues and expenditures for the next decade?)
- Building a border fence is not an urgent national security effort (speaking as one who has worked in the belly of the beast at the Department of Homeland Security, I can say that our border is objectively a gaping, critical national security vulnerability and should be a top-5 policy priority of any president)
- Gun control will reduce violence and killing in America because Europe has strict gun control and they don’t kill each other as much (Culture doesn’t matter?)
- We don’t need environmental regulation because our air and water are cleaner now than they were 50 years ago (and this progress has happened in the absence of, or in spite of regulation?Â Do you know what a catalytic converter does?)
- Barack Obama is a Muslim! (this does not need a response)
…and on and on. For those of you independents who miss the sense of belonging that comes from rooting for a political party or ideology every year, I recommend you ask yourself: isn’t it nicer to not have to whore your mind out to the reflexive reactions, stupid slogans and nasty bickering that characterize our politics year in and year out? Isn’t it better to be honest than predictable? Isn’t it nice to have the freedom to approach problems from points of view other than the ones promoted by the interest groups and corporations funding our thinktanks and congressional reelection campaigns?Â Independence is a wonderful place to be- look around the cafeteria and feel free to sit with whomever you like.