As a college sophomore, I was leafleting for Bill Clinton. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, game day for the University of Virginia football team, and I had the local police tell me that I needed to stop, or else I’d be arrested. My group had to point out that handing out information on a public street corner was an exercise of one’s First Amendment rights, even if the conservative-leaning crowd objected to the content.
Five years later, I found myself on Capitol Hill, working for one of the most progressive members of the House of Representatives shortly after the GOP takeover of Congress. It was January and my colleagues insisted that I had to be the one to speak to the pro-life activists streaming into my office. After all, I was a practicing Catholic who “spoke” Republican.
As an education advocate fighting for equity and school improvement, those on the left attacked me for being a “neo-liberal” who was seeking to privatize and profit from the public schools. When I insisted that school improvement was about far more than just charter schools and school choice, those on the right and those in the reform movement accused me of not being a true believer, of being too sympathetic to both the teachers unions and the neighborhood public schools that educated me and my children.
Politically and professionally, I’ve always realized I was a tough person to slap a simple label on. My beliefs are complex. Depending on the issue, I’m passionate about things that today brand me as conservative, progressive, moderate, and libertarian. I used to believe this complexity was a good thing, requiring me to examine issues and come to informed conclusions based on a range of reasons. Today, it has me feeling like a man without a political or social island to call home.
Complicated, nuanced beliefs are just the wrong way to go during the height of identity politics.
As a white, upper middle class, cis-man, I am supposedly what is most wrong in our patriarchal society, even though I consider myself a strong feminist, both as I was raised by my mother and as I fight for a better society for my tween daughter.
I am a (semi) practicing Catholic, and one who prays every day, yet I am a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights. So much so that every year I make charitable donations to both the Church and the Human Rights Campaign.
Similarly, I consider myself against abortion, hoping that no woman in my life will ever make such a choice, but I still believe that women should have the right to choose what they do with their bodies.
I believe that public education is the great equalizer, and have spent my adult life fighting to improve learning opportunities for all, particularly those in high-need communities. I also reject the idea of “free college,” as I think postsecondary education is so important that all students must have some skin in the game.
I’ve never held a firearm, but I see the purpose of the Second Amendment. I lost a local election last year, in part, because I strongly believe we should not have armed officers in our local public schools, and was branded as anti-police. In that same election, I was the victim of a smear campaign because I was pro-cop, pro-authoritarianism because I supported my (previous) local school district’s right to bring drug dogs through a local high school.
I’m a strong advocate for immigration reform, believing no person is illegal and few of us realize what motivates those coming from Mexico and Central America to do the jobs many Americans won’t do. I’m pro-military and pro-Israel. And I’m for a stronger safety net, for better access to health care, and for greater investments in the arts.
I’ve worked for some of the most progressive voices of their age in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. I’ve also worked for an advisor to the George W. Bush Administration. In both, I advocated for issues I believed in. Because of both, neither side truly trusts me.
I do not wish to see the Trump Administration continue past January of 2021, but I believe our collective energies should be focused on soundly defeating the President and his policies at the ballot box, not by engaging in the theater of the absurd that an impeachment trial would entail.
All of the above is true. I often joke that I am a complicated man when it comes to my positions, but I don’t believe myself to be a unicorn. I want to believe that there are millions of men and women of a range of races and religions who simply believe what they believe. Who know what they stand for. Who decide who to vote for, where to live, what jobs to hold, and how to spend their free time by determining what issues and what positions are most important to them and their families today.
With identity politics where they are today, though, I don’t feel like I belong. Yes, I realize the irony of one who many see as the definition of privilege in American society feeling without a political or sociological home. I get that one side of the coin would say it is about time for me to feel uncomfortable, while the other saying I need to embrace a shift back to the good, old days when I was perfectly comfortable.
Uncompromising political litmus tests have never been good for our nation. They simply result in us-versus-them, coast-versus-flyover policies and politics that further divide us. It has us not only attacking those in positions of leadership, but it has us denigrating, ridiculing, and insulting those in our community who believe in different things or prioritize different ideas. In a nation built on differences and diversity, no good shall come of that.
I hold no misguided belief that any one of the 25-plus presidential candidates will offer a platform that aligns with my thinking. As with most voters, I’ll enter the voting booth in 18 months selecting a candidate whose views on the issues I think will be most important next year are similar to mine. Voting for one who sees the complexity of governance, who knows the value of both research and compromise, and who accepts that leadership is often about doing what is right, not necessarily what is popular.
More simply, I’m looking for a leader who wakes up each morning thinking of my both my Democratic socialist mother and my Tea Party cousin. One who thinks of what’s best for my relatively well off children and the thousands of Guatemalan immigrants who were born in the same country as my kids. One who is concerned about how to take care of my Ph.D. father in his senior years, just as my high school dropout, Teamster grandfather was taken care of.
Even more simply, at a time of politics increasingly looking like the dance of the lemmings, I’m looking for the political unicorn. I’m seeking the sort of statesman, or stateswoman, that I was proud to work for on Capitol Hill, and the type whose short supply these days has kept me from returning to our nation’s capital.
It’s unlikely I’ll find that unicorn on the 2020 ballot. I may be complicated, but I’m also a realist. But for my kids and the children like them, I have to believe. If not 2020, then 2024. If not 2024, then 2028. If not today, then sometime soon. It’s silly, but I believe.