Nick and I walked the dogs the other day and talked about politics. The election season is so pervasive that it seeps into the life of a 14 year old. Who would I vote for? he asked. I turned to him. The dogs pulled at the leashes. There was a squirrel somewhere in the trees. What do you think? I said.
“If I were voting,” he said, “I wouldn’t go for that Trump guy. He says too much negative stuff about people I go to school with.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Perceptive kid. He looks most of the time like he’s not paying attention to anything in particular. He does, however, pick up just about everything. When his mom and I talk about the election, he obviously has an ear to the conversations. He hears things at school. The television is on. The internet telegraphs messages in light speed across platforms. He’s more in the know, I think, than most of my freshmen college students.
We breezed along, making our way around the parkland and the school down to 14th Street where it crosses the interstate. He chattered about politics and what he thought of the candidates. He didn’t know that much about Hillary Clinton, but he thought, if he had the chance, he’d vote for her.
“How do you make your decisions?” he asked.
Well, as far as my experience goes, I had never seen a Republican who did anything for working people. I have heard of Missouri Republicans who voted against right-to-work laws in the state. My union friends support Republicans who want to uphold the worker’s right to bargain collectively. But such people have never appeared on a ballot in my governmental districts.
There are a lot of other reasons, I told him. I ticked some of them off. Climate change. Women’s rights. Support for LGBTQIA. Infrastructure. He nodded and walked.
I told him that I voted for Democrats because there wasn’t a viable, left-wing party that could enact the New Deal in its entirety. I believe in free, universal public education to the Ph.D., comprehensive healthcare for all, and increased Social Security spending for seniors. We’d pay for it, I said, by taxing wealth and untangling big business from defense spending. There are reasonable Republicans, I said. But we differ on how we view the world and the future of the country.
I don’t know that such things register with a 14 year old. He said he wanted a world in which people wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.
“How did you become a Democrat?” he asked.
I explained. My grandfather was a Democrat through and through. A UAW member for his entire working life, he was a perennial union steward on the floor of the GM Leeds plant. Back when Missouri had straight-ticket voting, he picked the Jackass and let the vote counters figure it out. My grandmother, too, was a staunch Democrat. She also voted for every tax increase on the ballot. When it came to ballot issues, if it smelled like the New Deal, both of them would vote for it.
That made sense. My grandfather was a city kid who grew up in the alleys of midtown and downtown. My grandmother came from a small town in what used to be solid Democrat territory in southeast Kansas. They got married in 1933. The Depression weighed heavily on them. When they had their first child in 1936, they had a tough time making it.
To the day she had to move to assisted living, my grandmother clipped coupons and bought on sale. Sometimes, she would have two years of Ajax in the cupboard because the price was right. She saved paperclips and rubber bands. She stowed away the plastic bags the newsman delivered the paper in. She used and reused. What she threw away was truly trash. Whenever I throw a plastic container in the recycling today, I think of the many ways she might have used it until it wore all the way out.
Here’s what I didn’t tell him: My dad grew up rebelling against his parents. He was a reactionary who loved Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party, and the John Birch Society. He believed Lyndon Johnson was Satan incarnate and Martin Luther King Jr. was under the influence of communists. The Catholic Church and guns were his religion, and even then, the Church was too liberal for him. He bemoaned Vatican II and the disappearance of the Latin Mass and the Baltimore Catechism. He recoiled at the guitar played at mass. He railed against liberation theology as a communist plot.
I remember talking to my dad in the early 1980s. I had traveled to Reno, where they moved in 1983 and took up residence in a fifth-wheel trailer. I was sitting in the trailer, telling him that I thought college ought to be just another step in public education, not a tuition-based scheme that put students in debt and disadvantage.
Then I said that social programs weren’t comprehensive enough and I thought that Ronald Reagan’s effort to unleash big business was not well-thought through.
“Goddammit!” he screamed at me suddenly. “You’re talking like a damned communist. People get paid by Russia to hold those views.”
I was taken aback. I just didn’t believe that he was really so angry. I said jokingly, “Well, where can I get my paycheck?”
He leaped up out of his chair. I thought he was going to strike me. He erupted into a diatribe that went on for an hour. Liberals. Blacks. Civil Rights. Abortion. Nothing was beyond his reproach and it was all connected.
At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal or nerve to contest my father. He was a big man with a huge personality. I sat there and took it. He called me all kinds of names, some of which I didn’t mind—socialist and left-wing radical. But I was frightened and still unable to stand up to the guy.
Mostly, I was puzzled. I wanted to have a civil back-and-forth with my dad. I wanted to express my views and have him weigh in on them. His reaction was frightening. Finally, I said, “OK, OK, you win.” He stormed out of the trailer to get drunk down at the casino, in whose parking lot they lived. I don’t know that we talked much for the rest of my visit to Reno.
I was twenty and just formulating my views of the world. I didn’t have a coherent philosophy and wasn’t ordered in my own mind about these things. I just knew that I had gay, black, and Hispanic friends. I knew people who were poor. I was poor and never asked for a dime. But I knew that dimes should be there for people who had nowhere to go.
It took many years for me to develop an intelligible political philosophy, one that was morally consistent and shot for what was reasonably possible. My dad’s reaction, if anything, showed me I was on the right path.
“We should go for a drive next weekend,” I said when Nick quit asking questions. “The fall colors are going to be beautiful.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” he said. “Who do you think will be president?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That depends on how people vote.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I think voting’s important. I don’t understand people who say they won’t vote. I think I won’t let someone else make my decisions for me.”
“But you have to abide by what the majority of people decide. It’s one of the cornerstones of the republic. You don’t always get what you want.”
“That’s true,” he said. “But at least I’ll have my say.”
I don’t know whether my son will wind up Democrat, Republican, or a democratic socialist like me. But he understands what many people don’t: You make your own decisions and have your say, and stick by them regardless of how things turn out. You can’t be a sore loser or give up the fight.
I’ve got my fingers crossed.