There's a lot of talk this election season about the underlying philosophies of liberals and conservatives. Maybe that's true of all election seasons, but this one seems especially pronounced. I imagine it's because of how polarized our nation has become. Tuning into the news for half an hour will prompt any thinking person to wonder, how exactly did we get to this point?
For me, it brings to mind the famous saying (often attributed to Winston Churchill): "If you're not liberal at 20 you have no heart; if you're not conservative at 40 you have no brain."
This quote has always fascinated me, and lately I’ve been thinking about it more. My fascination stems from the fact that, frankly, it’s hard to fathom ever identifying with the conservative people I’m exposed to these days, let alone becoming one of them in 20 years. But according to Churchill, I am par for the course.
If there’s truth to the quote (and there must be some, or else people wouldn’t quote it), does that mean some middle-aged conservatives I meet were more liberal in their youth? And if so, what changed them?
I decided to suspend disbelief for a moment and look ahead into my hypothetical future. Putting myself into Churchillian shoes, I dreamed up what events might take place in my life to slowly chip away at my liberal heart, and mold it into a conservative brain.
I started by thinking about where I’m at now: five years out of college and a working professional ever since. That’s enough time to know what the “real world” is like (paying rent, starting a 401k, paying taxes) but not long enough to forget all the opportunities I was given to succeed along the way (a safe neighborhood to grow up in, plenty of food, a quality education, parents who supported my hobbies and helped me through college). It’s also easy to remember that not all my peers were lucky enough to have those same opportunities.
On top of that, there’s my friend circle. I have friends who work at corporations, at schools, at banks, at publications and non-profits, and a sibling who works 90-hour weeks in a hospital. I’m constantly reminded that important work is not always lucrative—and vice versa. So all in all, my 20-something life seems perfectly conducive to having a liberal heart.
Now let’s look into the future.
Sometime over the next five years, perhaps I’ll get a fancy promotion. And that promotion will be the result of all my hard work. Now a decade out of college, all those opportunities I was given to get to where I am are a more distant memory. I’m busy— and all I remember is that I busted my hump, did a great job, and finally gained some hard-earned recognition. Go me!
Now fast forward five more years. Maybe I’m married and have a bun in the oven. So my husband and I take the nice lump sum from my promotion and raise (and perhaps his, too), and start looking for a place to buy a home. That place will have to have good schools, so my kids can enjoy opportunities like I had. If I can’t find good enough schools (which is possible, since state budgets have been chipped away for many years), then I might have to spend that money on a private school. Whether public or private, this high-achieving school will surely be filled with high-achieving people. As my kid spends more time there, and starts to achieve, I may start thinking: “Hmm, why can’t all those other kids in other schools just work harder like my kid, and achieve all these great things?”
Around this time, perhaps I’ll get another promotion at work. By now, I’ve worked so long and hard, I’ll start thinking similar thoughts about the people I interview for jobs. I’ll want impressive candidates with impressive backgrounds. And if they’re not so impressive, I may start to think, “Well, they must not have worked hard enough. I did it. Why can’t they?”
And so my hypothetical transition from liberal heart to conservative brain begins. I’m sure there are a million more ways it could happen. But the good news is, from where I sit now, it seems like there’s an obvious way to prevent this rightward shift: constant reminders of all the outside factors that had a hand in my success.
I look at my parents, who are well over 40, and see two bleeding heart liberals. And I think about the most important values they’ve instilled in me, and the one that readily comes to mind is the importance of always saying “thank you.”
Michelle Obama said it best in her dazzling DNC speech: “When you’ve worked hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”