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Moving to the Right - What Causes It? - Mo's Journal
April 8th, 2008
09:35 am

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Moving to the Right - What Causes It?
My father always used to say that everyone gets more conservative with age, except for US Supreme Court Justices, who get more liberal. I don't think either part of that is universally true, but they are both common phenomena.

I don't think I'm getting conservative as I get older. My positions on most political issues are similar to what they were when I was younger and I generally come out as "very liberal" or "progressive" on quizzes and such. On the "hot button" issues of abortion rights, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, universal health insurance, equal opportunity, education funding, etc. my view is what's generally considered that of the left. I believe in strong regulation of corporations; I believe in high taxes and high services for them. I'm not a pacifist, but I believe in very careful use of the country's military might and very much oppose the current war. I do check myself from time to time to see if I'm getting conservative, but I don't think I need to worry. Yet, anyway.

Still, it's certainly something I see around me and not just in the elderly, but in middle-aged folks like me. And I was very struck in the articles after Charlton Heston's death with how his politics had changed in mid-life. I knew him as an actor, and as the president of the NRA, holding a rifle over his head and swearing it would have to be prised from his cold, dead hands. I knew him for his complete opposition to sensible restrictions on gun ownership, his total lack of compassion for families who had lost members to gun violence and for his shockingly racist and homophobic remarks. The whole conservative package.

So imagine my surprise to find in the obituaries that he had once marched with Dr. King, had been among the film people in strong support of the civil rights movement and had championed strong gun control legislation after RFK's murder. What happened to him? What happens to so many? And what does that mean in this election year and those to come, as the average age of Americans moves up?

Thoughts?

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From:artaxastra
Date:April 8th, 2008 02:12 pm (UTC)
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I don't think it's that people get more conservative with age -- I think it's that positions move. When you ask most people, they have about the same strong beliefs at 70 that they did at 25. But where those postions are on the political spectrum has changed.

My grandmother was a suffragette. She went away to college from the rural South before WWI, and then instead of moving home got a teaching job and lived on her own. She drove her own car, bought with her own money, and was the first woman to vote in her county as a 25 year old in 1920. She absolutely believed in the right of women to birth control, campaigned for Margaret Sanger and sex education, married and chose to limit her family to one child. In the 1920s, she was a flaming radical short skirted independant woman liberal.

I remember her fifty years later as the woman who wouldn't allow me to go to a segregated school or listen to rock and roll, who was terrified of "dope controlled hippies" who go around beating up old ladies. Who believed that non white people were simply a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder, and had to be taken care of with gentleness and maternal care, and occasionally firmness for their own good.

Her positions had not changed. But in 1977 no one was saying women shouldn't vote. I grew up with that as a given. No one was saying women shouldn't be allowed to drive. Of course I would learn how to drive when I got older. No one was saying that condoms should be illegal, or that little girls shouldn't even know what their period was when they got it. It was a given. We won.

When you and I are old and crusty, our grandchildren may think us hopeless dinosaurs for supporting same sex marriage! After all, no one should marry and everyone should live in polyamorous pods! And we don't support the complete banning of plastic packaging! We use microwaves! Whatever the battle of the future will be, we'll probably be dinosaurs, still taking positions that were liberal way back there at the turn of the century.
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
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I think what you are describing does happen, but I think there's a whole lot of true movement to the right, too, as exemplified by Charlton Heston. It may be that his homophobic views were always there and they were just what everybody he knew believed in 1965 or whatever, so they only sound conservative now. But clearly his views on race and on gun control completely changed, unlike your grandmother. Btw did you mean what you said ("wouldn't allow me to go to a segregated school") or did you mean integrated? Anyway, I think there are lots of people who stay the same while society changes, like your grandmother, but lots of others who are all for socialized medicine and equal rights for black folk and gun control in their youth and then change their minds when they're more established.
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From:artaxastra
Date:April 8th, 2008 02:33 pm (UTC)
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I think in terms of homophobia, that's one where everyone was in 1965. When I was researching for politics some years ago, in a 1960 survey 98% of Americans believed homosexuality was wrong, and more than 70% believed homosexuals should be jailed. So yeah, in 1965 it's not a liberal position. It's a position in outer space, supported by ten guys in the Mattachine Society. It's quite possible that his views were exactly the same in 1965 and 2005, but how society viewed it changed. In the 2004 election lead up polls, about 45% of Americans still viewed homosexuality as wrong. And not oddly at all, older people slanted strongly to the negative and younger people to the positive.

I think gun control is the same way. In 1940, everyone owned a gun except for Quaker families and some urban families, usually recent immigrants or people living in ethnic neighborhoods. In the South, every household had at least one gun. Everyone hunted. Only people who lived in cities too large to have any access to open land didn't hunt. Everyone ate game. To say people shouldn't have guns to my grandparents would be like saying people shouldn't eat. It would make far more sense to them to ban cars than guns. It's only during my lifetime, since the 1960s, that a large part of the groceries aren't shot on the hoof, that hunting has become a recreation that half the people in the family choose to participate in, rather than a necessary way of getting food. I learned to shoot as a child. Because it's an important skill that people need, like driving a car or using scissors. And I think to a lot of older people, especially outside the Northeast, that's what it still is. They're not thinking about gun violence in urban areas, but about a way of life that is not so long ago.
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 02:43 pm (UTC)
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I think we're talking at cross purposes. I already acknowledged that homophobia was pretty much universal. But with gun control, here we're talking about someone who was calling for gun control in 1968 and changed 180 degrees on the issue. And I think he was not unusual - people who wanted socialized medicine and increased funding for public education and separation of church and state and equal rights, etc. and changed to the opposite positions later. It may be as simple as what executrix suggests - that once people have more they want to protect their possessions. But I don't know - I think there's more to it, but I don't know what.

Edited at 2009-08-04 06:42 pm (UTC)
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From:executrix
Date:April 8th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
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There's a Nicaraguan joke about a Sandinista orator whipping up the crowd: "The man who has two houses, we'll take away one house and give it to the man who has no house!" "Viva la Revolucion!" "The man who has two cars, we take one away and give it to the man who has no car!" "Viva la Revolucion!" "The man who has two chickens, we take one away and give it to the man who has no chicken!" Dead silence, until someone pipes up, "I HAVE two chickens!"
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From:cathexys
Date:April 8th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
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Yes, that's what I was going to say--there's a lot of selfishness in people, and as folks get older and have more property (and more dependents a lot of times whose future they may want to protect), many get more conservative.

I sometimes think of it as focus narrowing, i.e., whereas for young people change often needs to occur globally or at least nationally, the older people get, the more they seem to focus on their neighborhood/city/state... So they may fight for their schools getting better but don't care about those in the next state, because that's not where their kids are...

It's like this friend of mine who bought an SUV to protect *her* kids...forget about what it may do to the environment of other people's kids...

I actually think we may have to separate between economic and social liberal/conservativism. I think the latter may very well be affected strongly by what artaxastra talks about--you may be liberal for your coming of age decade but at some point your goals are achieved and the new ones may be just a tad too extreme...but economically, it's executrix's point and the selfishness...

If you're not a Communist at 20, you have no heart; if you're still one at 30, no brain, used to be my dad's favorite saying. And boy, dis he make that shift from marching in the sixties to golf playing physician in the eighties...
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From:talktooloose
Date:April 8th, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC)
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Two things might happen with age:

1. We have more possessions and therefore become paranoid about protecting them.

2. We have children and become protective.

Both of these things, in the absence of study and analysis, can be dangerous. Without the ability to decode and learn from history, we're more likely to as politicians and police to help make us feel safe.

Oh yeah, and the greed thing. When you make more money, you pay more taxes and use fewer of the social services.
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From:cathexys
Date:April 8th, 2008 03:45 pm (UTC)
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LOL. Yes...that's what I was trying to say in my rambling tl;dr :)

Thanks for bringing it to an easy point. (And again, I think that goes more for economic than social values--however, the kids bring in social issues as well...not even necessarily in terms of your own changing, but more in terms of being less independent, bc while you may easily withstand peer pressure, you might want to protect your kids from suffering from your beliefs)
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
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I have found that parenting has made me more socially conscious and socially responsible, and consequently more progressive. All because I want to be a good example for my children.
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From:talktooloose
Date:April 8th, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Hence my words about "ability to decode and learn from history". You also have a protective instinct for your children but you have a more complex idea of things that they need. You're not going to be the one that says, "I need a gun in my house to protect my children!!!!!"
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
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"You're not going to be the one that says, "I need a gun in my house to protect my children!!!!!"

LOL! Yeah, not bloody likely. But I don't know that that comes from a more complex idea of things so much as an ability to look at simple math and simple statistics. Children in houses with guns are much more likely to be shot than children in houses without guns.
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From:talktooloose
Date:April 8th, 2008 07:43 pm (UTC)
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Complexity and simplicity are two sides of the same coin. Real education teaches us to break things down into simple component pieces and to understand those pieces so we can reconstruct a meaningful, complex whole.

Following a subway shooting in Toronto last week, some are calling for transit security to be armed. Yeah, that will prevent shooting injuries!

One woman left a message on a CBC show saying that arming them was good because "there are more panhandlers on the subway cars now". I don't think she was doing the math...
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
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LOL! And to tie this in with my comment elsewhere, if one's social circle narrows to the point where the only people one associates with also think more guns on public transit leads to fewer injuries from guns on public transit, it may be harder to notice the flaw in one's thinking.

I wonder to what extent a lot of this is sparked by Helen's number 8 below.
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From:notmonica
Date:April 12th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)
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IAWTC. I've actually become more active about liberal stances (which haven't changed) in order to set a good example for them.

Edited at 2008-04-12 04:38 pm (UTC)
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From:mofic
Date:April 12th, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
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Glad I'm not the only one. What does IAWTC mean? I get stuck after "I am"
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From:notmonica
Date:April 12th, 2008 10:29 pm (UTC)
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I Agree With That(this) Comment. IAWTC. I'm not much for 'netspeak' but that is one of a few that I use. ;D
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From:mofic
Date:April 13th, 2008 02:32 am (UTC)
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Aha! And I - who use a lot of 'net abbreviations - didn't get it.

I recently heard about a guy who was kind of a newbie but he had - he thought - picked up some of the netspeak from his kids texting him. Only he thought that LOL meant "lots of love" and he started using it in totally inappropriate ways, like "Sorry to hear your father died LOL."
From:thelastgoodname
Date:April 8th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
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I think there's a lot of things going on, and possibly the most important one is that this isn't actually a proven trend, and even if it were a proven trend, there would be more than one reason for it.

That said, I think a lot of it, for a lot of people, is the weight of sheer experience -- from a young person's optimism about saving the world to an older person's realization that you can't actually save the world, but you might, if you work really hard, be able to save your neighborhood. Or maybe your own yard.

Because I think a lot more people become more liberal for the reasons you point out -- wanting to make the world at large a better place for their kids, as well as the neighborhood and the yard. And I don't think we pay enough attention to those people, because the explanation for that shift is too simple. Why, oh why does Mr. 80-year-old former conservative now think that blacks and women are people too? Well, because it's the only decent thing to think: he got wise. Why does it go the other way? Well, nobody knows, because it doesn't make sense.
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
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Why does it go the other way? Well, nobody knows, because it doesn't make sense.

Well, one thing that I do see happen - and I am not saying it's a proven trend, just that it happens in some people - is the result of how certain beliefs and attitudes cluster together. So if you embrace part of the conservative agenda you tend to be surrounded by people who embrace the rest of it. And if the part you embrace is embraced with such extreme fervor that it's hard for you to even associate with people who believe differently it may be hard to even see the other viewpoint, because you're not hearing it except reflected through the voices of those who disparage.

But it's not a full answer. And you're right - it's not a proven trend, no matter what my father said :-).
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From:wneleh
Date:April 8th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
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Lots of thoughts; and I think it's hard to have this sort of conversation without a lot of time spent on definition of terms, and even trying to define those terms is pretty problematic.

So, the glib version (probably internally contradictory):

(1) I've heard that women get more liberal and men get more conservative as they age.
(2) I don't think there's a lot of truth to "A liberal is a conservative who's been mugged," but there's a little. And I think this works all ways - a pro-choice person is a person whose 14-year-old is pregnant. And I've gotten a tremendous amount of support over the years from men who have daughters my age.
(3) There are people who, as they get older, IME, voice that they wish some authority figure or the other in their lives had *made* them do X or Y. I think these people tend to be those who get more conservative.
(4) Some people, as they get older, see more and more injustice and become driven to do something about it. Others are more driven not to experience injustice themselves.
(5) Others see more of the variations between people as equally valid expressions of how one can live a life. These people are fun to talk to, but aren't necessarily so much into working for peace&justice, because of the inherent imperialism (or because it's too much work.)
(6) I think it takes a certain amount of doggedness to be a radical. This same doggedness makes it hard to update ones beliefs.
(7) Religious conversion plays a part, leftward or rightward. Of course conversion doesn't exist in a vacuum.
(8) I think a certain type of very smart person is so used to being very smart and trusting their own judgment that when that judgment is faulty, or is influenced by, say, a shift in hormones or a decrease in mental faculty, they don't know to check their assumptions (and based on no real data whatsoever I think this explains Charlton Heston.)
(9) I've known people to wake up one day and decide that, though up until now they've believed X, they're going to go with !X. This can go left or right.

Heh, I could do this all day!

- Helen
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 07:56 pm (UTC)
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Lots of good thoughts, Helen. Your 4 makes me think of wealthy white male gay men I've known through their coming out processes. For some it really becomes a total awakening and impetus to politicization. They realize that for the first time they are in an oppressed class and they see the oppression all around them in a new light and want to do something about it. For others, the real injustice they see is that they're supposed to be the oppressors, not the oppressed (although obviously that's not how they'd express it). They think everything is right with the system *except* to the extent that it now disadvantages them. These are the people who become gay neocons. But even some of them broaden their focus after a while...
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From:tobias_cur
Date:April 8th, 2008 09:44 pm (UTC)
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NOTE: Sorry about the deleting and posting. There was a critical error in the text which made one of my points completely incomprehensible. I think the paradigm shift occurs – when it occurs - for various reasons. Psychologically, what we know about the world as we mature becomes less certain while we simultaneously become more aware that our time on Earth is finite. For many people, optimism wanes as we age, and stark realism fills its place. The opinions we held as absolute (in our youth) don’t always prove themselves in the real world. And, we become increasingly aware with each passing year of our lives that all we can affect with any certainty is our own lives and the lives of our progeny. As we become ‘wise’ we are intellectually more able to recognize that the complexity of social issues and we become emotionally mature enough to set our feelings aside and see the opposition’s point of view regardless if we agree with it in it’s entirety, or not.

Money, like the song says, changes everything. It is infinitely harder to fight the establishment, when one realized that they have become ‘the establishment.’ We learn, as we mature, to protect that small portion of the world we have carved out for ourselves, because no one else is going to do it, and we expect others to do the same for themselves. We shift from having little to loose, to having much to loose, while simultaneously being more aware of how much of our personal effort and sacrifice went into what little we have. I think even in cases where our ‘social politics’ become more liberal; there is still a shift toward physical conservatism that comes with maturity.

All of these ideas might explain subtle shifts in personal politics. The extreme shifts made by people like Charlton Heston on the other hand is confounding. Insanity may be a suitable explanation. That there was some blip of liberal thought in his youth has been made moot by the blatant conservatism, homophobia, and racism of his maturity. Surely, the ideals that Martin Luther King fought against are so self evidently wrong that they transcended political affiliations, yet, that the actor marched at his side is most used to draw attention to Heston’s more moderate youth. Possibly he was never as liberal as his legacy would have us believe. The only thing unfortunate about his death is that he died of Alzheimer’s, which regardless, I would never wish on my most hated enemy.
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From:mofic
Date:April 8th, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC)
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These are interesting thoughts. I think you've outlined some important factors.

With Heston, I do feel he must have truly changed. It wasn't just one march or one thing - he apparently was right there among the Hollywood liberals that the Republicans decry. And then he wasn't. And the change was too soon to be caused by the Alzheimer's, I think, because that didn't come until much later.

As I said to talktooloose upstream I think the need to protect our children is often cited as a reason for people getting more conservative, but it has definitely pushed me - politically - in the opposite direction. I think in other areas (like finance and career choices) I've become more personally conservative with kids. Pre-kids, I could see just quitting a job I didn't like. With a whole family dependent on me, I couldn't do that. Things like that...
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