Your politics—where do they come from? Well, at least initially, they come, like your mother tongue, from your parents. When you’re a kid, your politics are basically your parents’ politics. And some people stick with their parents’ politics. Indeed, the political family resemblance in some families is astounding. I’ve met people who seem to have inherited their parents’ politics the way I inherited my parents’ green eyes. Even if you rebel against your parents’ politics, you’re still, in a way, defined by them.
Where you grow up shapes your politics at least as much as your parents. Extremely liberal parents who move to places like Texas for work are often horrified to discover, a decade or two down the road, that their grown children do not share their values. They’re into guns. They’re pretty darn conservative. And they ain’t voting for Democrats. A similar fate has befallen many conservatives who’ve raised their kids in extremely liberal places like San Francisco.
In The Righteous Mind (2012), Jonathan Haidt maintains that your politics are also to some extent innate. Some people are, by nature, more likely to be conservative, whilst others are more likely to be liberal. The same is probably true of libertarianism. Indeed, perhaps more so. Because libertarianism seems to resonate primarily with people of a similar stamp—people whose brains are wired in a particular way—people who are exceptionally rational, and exceptionally good at systematization. Regardless, biology isn’t necessarily destiny.
People can change. It’s not as common as we’d like to believe it is, but it happens. Many of capitalism’s champions fell away from the faith during The Great Depression. The manifest failures of the Soviet Union had a similar effect on the left. Experience, especially hard experience, can change your politics, sometimes dramatically, overriding the influence of your parents and your environment, as well as whatever innate tendencies you were born with. This is what Irving Kristol had in mind when he defined a conservative as “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” It’s what Tom Wolfe had in mind when he defined a liberal as “a conservative who’s been arrested.” And it’s what Aaron Haspel had in mind when he defined a libertarian as “anyone who’s tried to start a business.”
Much as I love to hear about thoughtful conversions such as these—based on reason, rationality, and reflection—I doubt they’re the human norm. Most of us change our minds without even realizing that we’ve changed our minds. We can do so, with relative ease, because most of us aren’t really committed to our political ideas. We’ve never even bothered to think them through. What we’re really committed to is the particular role we happen to play in the political drama of everyday life.
If you like being the most liberal person in your circle of friends—or the most radical person, or the most conservative person—you’re probably far more committed to that role than you are to your politics. Likewise, if you habitually play the part of the political peacemaker in the story of your life—the moderate who brings people together, helps them find common ground—you’re probably far more committed to that role than you are to your politics.
When the herd moves in one direction, most of us fall into line without even realizing that we’re falling into line. As Aaron Haspel puts it in Everything (2015): “Every contemporary freethinker would believe in Christianity if born in medieval England, and slavery if born in ancient Rome.” Alas, we’ve never been especially good at being free or thinking well.
—John Faithful Hamer