This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
I used to be a serious Republican, moderate and business-oriented, who planned for a public-service career in Republican politics. But I am a Republican no longer.
There's an old joke we Republicans used to tell that goes something like this: "If you're young and not a Democrat, you're heartless. If you grow up and you're not a Republican, you're stupid." These days, my old friends and associates no doubt consider me the butt of that joke. But I look on my "stupidity" somewhat differently. After all, my real education only began when I was 30 years old.
This is the story of how in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and later in Iraq, I discovered that what I believed to be the full spectrum of reality was just a small slice of it and how that discovery knocked down my Republican worldview.
I always imagined that I was full of heart, but it turned out that I was oblivious. Like so many Republicans, I had assumed that society's "losers" had somehow earned their desserts. As I came to recognize that poverty is not earned or chosen or deserved, and that our use of force is far less precise than I had believed, I realized with a shock that I had effectively viewed whole swaths of the country and the world as second-class people.
No longer oblivious, I couldn't remain in today's Republican Party, not unless I embraced an individualism that was even more heartless than the one I had previously accepted. The more I learned about reality, the more I started to care about people as people, and my values shifted. Had I always known what I know today, it would have been clear that there hasn't been a place for me in the Republican Party since the Free Soil days of Abe Lincoln.
Where I Came From
I grew up in a rich, white suburb north of Chicago populated by moderate, business-oriented Republicans. Once upon a time, we would have been called Rockefeller Republicans. Today we would be called liberal Republicans or slurred by the right as "Republicans in Name Only" (RINOs).
We believed in competition and the free market, in bootstraps and personal responsibility, in equality of opportunity, not outcomes. We were financial conservatives who wanted less government. We believed in noblesse oblige, for we saw ourselves as part of a natural aristocracy, even if we hadn't been born into it. We sided with management over labor and saw unions as a scourge. We hated racism and loved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., particularly his dream that his children would "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We worried about the rise of the Religious Right and its social-conservative litmus tests. We were tough on crime, tough on national enemies. We believed in business, full stop.
I intended to run for office on just such a platform someday. In the meantime, I founded the Republican club at my high school, knocked on doors and collected signatures with my father, volunteered on campaigns, socialized at fundraisers, and interned for Sen. John McCain and Rep. Denny Hastert when he was House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's chief deputy.
We went to mainstream colleges—the more elite the better—but lamented their domination by liberal professors, and I did my best to tune out their liberal views. I joined the Republican clubs and the Federalist Society, and I read the Wall Street Journal and The Economist rather the New York Times. George Will was a voice in the wilderness, Rush Limbaugh an occasional (sometimes guilty) pleasure.
Left Behind by the Party
In January 2001, I was one of thousands of Americans who braved the cold rain to attend and cheer George W. Bush's inauguration. After eight years hating "Slick Willie," it felt good to have a Republican back in the White House. But I knew that he wasn't one of our guys. We had been McCain fans, and even if we liked the compassionate bit of Bush's conservatism, we didn't care for his religiosity or his social politics.
Bush won a lot of us over with his hawkish response to 9/11, but he lost me with the Iraq War. Weren't we still busy in Afghanistan? I didn't see the urgency.
By then, I was at the Justice Department, working in an office that handled litigation related to what was officially called the Global War on Terror (or GWOT). My office was tasked with opposing petitions for habeas corpus brought by Guantanamo detainees who claimed that they were being held indefinitely without charge. The government's position struck me as an abdication of a core Republican value: protecting the "procedural" rights found in the Bill of Rights. Sure, habeas corpus had been waived in wartime before, but it seemed to me that waiving it here reduced us to the terrorists' level. Besides, since acts of terrorism were crimes, why not prosecute them? I refused to work on those cases.
With the Abu Ghraib pictures, my disappointment turned to rage. The America I believed in didn't torture people.
I couldn't avoid GWOT work. I was forced to read reams of allegations of torture, sexual abuse, and cover-ups in our war zones to give the White House a heads-up in case any of made it into the news cycle.
I was so mad that I voted for Kerry out of spite.
How I Learned to Start Worrying
I might still have stuck it out as a frustrated liberal Republican, knowing that the wealthy business core of the party still pulled a few strings and people like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe remained in the Senate—if only because the idea of voting for Democrats by choice made me feel uncomfortable. (It would have been so…gauche.) Then came Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, I learned that it wasn't just the Bush administration that was flawed but my worldview itself.
I had fallen in love with New Orleans during a post-law-school year spent in Louisiana clerking for a federal judge, and the Bush administration's callous (non-)response to the storm broke my heart. I wanted to help out, but I didn't fly helicopters or know how to do anything useful in a disaster, so just I sat glued to the coverage and fumed—until FEMA asked federal employees to volunteer to help. I jumped at the chance.
Soon, I was involved with a task force trying to rebuild (and reform) the city's criminal justice system. Growing up hating racism, I was appalled but not very surprised to find overt racism and the obvious use of racist code words by officials in the Deep South.
Then something tiny happened that pried open my eyes to the less obvious forms of racism and the hurdles the poor face when they try to climb the economic ladder. It happened on an official visit to a school in a suburb of New Orleans that served kids who had gotten kicked out of every other school around. I was investigating what types of services were available to the young people who were showing up in juvenile hall and seemed to be headed toward the proverbial life of crime.
My tour guide mentioned that parents were required to participate in some school programs. One of these was a field trip to a sit-down restaurant.
This stopped me in my tracks. I thought: What kind of a lame field trip is that?
It turned out that none of the families had ever been to a sit-down restaurant before. The teachers had to instruct parents and students alike how to order off a menu, how to calculate the tip.
I was stunned.
Starting to See
That night, I told my roommates about the crazy thing I had heard that day. Apparently there were people out there who had never been to something as basic as a real restaurant. Who knew?
One of my roommates wasn't surprised. He worked at a local bank branch that required two forms of ID to open an account. Lots of people came in who had only one or none at all.
I was flooded with questions: There are adults who have no ID? And no bank accounts? Who are these people? How do they vote? How do they live? Is there an entire off-the-grid alternate universe out there?
From then on, I started to notice a lot more reality. I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about. Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for "driving while black": these are things that never happen to people in my world. Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people. (Maybe that's why we middle-class white people collectively freak out at TSA airport pat-downs.)
I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on. It turned out that everything I was "discovering" had been hiding in plain sight and had been named: aversive racism, institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty, neighborhood redlining, the "trial tax," the "poverty tax," and on and on. Having grown up obsessed with race (welfare and affirmative action were our bêtes noirs), I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts.