Most of us have heard the saying, “if you’re not a liberal by twenty, you have no heart; but if you’re not a conservative by thirty you have no brain.” The context that I’ve most often heard is one person condescending to a younger person, with the presumption that his or her opinion is superior because of age.
I have disagreed with the saying my whole life, because I—and I would imagine, most people—know people who are compassionate, regardless of age or political leanings, as well as intelligent regardless of those same criteria. I thought that I understood the idea the statement tries to convey about idealism in opposition to pragmatism, but I’ve never been able to see it applied before.
Recently, I have been thinking about the statement a lot. We’re in a very strange time politically, and the political dividing lines don’t seem to fit anyone’s ideas of where they should be drawn. I think a lot of the toxic conservatism (and I do not consider all conservatism toxic, and I recognize there is toxic liberalism) is in reaction to what was a huge step toward the left.
I rethought this idea of compassion vs. intelligence, and how things shift, and I thought perhaps about a deeper meaning to that statement. Someone who leaned liberal 100 years ago, would likely be considered conservative when you put their ideas next to those of today’s political scale. That’s the way things have been going for hundreds of years, slowly toward progress, slowly toward a more liberal society, with small regressions. Two steps forward, and one step back.
What if this idea of you moving from liberal to conservative, isn’t based on the fact that your thoughts and feelings have shifted, but those of society have. When I was 20, in 2004, we were at the beginning of the gay marriage debate, the beginning of two wars, and the Patriot Act was threatening civil liberties. It seems natural to me in retrospect to side on the left of those particular issues. When I was 30, in 2014, we had the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) and the Supreme Court was about to rule on marriage equality, and DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell had been repealed.
Ultimately, between my 20th and 30th birthdays, the scale had shifted, and so someone with ‘semi’ liberal leanings in 2004, could have been considered ‘semi’ conservative in 2014, despite having changed none of their views. They would have seemed compassionate in 2004, and not too reckless or unintelligent in 2014.
Many conservatives or perhaps more specifically, Republicans, like to remind me that theirs is the party of Abraham Lincoln. The man who was liberal and forward thinking enough to free the slaves was part of their party. What is omitted from that statement, is that he was liberal by the standards of the 1860s, and that does not make him a liberal by 2017’s standards. Believing that slavery is inherently evil and must be abolished, may seem as concrete a statement as can be made in today’s political climate, but it is not enough. Many people of the 1860s were likely to have favored abolition, but not for example giving black people the right to vote, or women that same right. That doesn’t make them bad people for their time in history, on the contrary they were often very good people, but we cannot grade on the same curve in 2017 that we would have in 1864.
On a more personal, and more recent note, all of my self identifying conservative friends, whom are roughly the same age as me, tend to be in favor of marriage equality, and to some extent are pro-choice, their stances align much closer now to what would have been liberal 13 years ago.
The last point, that I would like to make, is that within this ever fluid scale of political leanings, ultimately we need to recognize that it exists. This dynamic can seem very frustrating, and I like to think about Bill Burr, who talked about Donald Sterling, and how he wasn’t surprised at Sterling’s racist comments a few years ago. “This guy was born in 1934, that’s 13 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier…” Does it make it right? No, but we’re not all starting in the same situation, and sometimes we do need to recognize that in each other if we want any kind of meaningful progress from where we are at this current moment.
Contributing Editor: Anonymous
Michael Christopher Cole is a writer and assistant editor. As an assistant editor he has been given the opportunity to help other writers craft their novels. He is also currently working on his first novel, and blogs regularly at michaelchristophercole.com. You can find Michael on Twitter @mikediamond1984