My political journey has been rather counter intuitive.
I served as a Marine Corps combat engineer officer from 1997 to 2005. I served two tours of duty in Iraq. I participated in the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 and fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.
I sound like a typical Republican, right? Not so fast. Once, I was. Not anymore.
While it is quite common for many people to be politically liberal in their youth and become more conservative as they get older, I went the opposite direction. I attribute my gradual transformation from a conservative Republican into a progressive liberal to my Marine Corps experience and maintaining a healthy intellectual curiosity.
I grew up in a small working-class town about 40 miles north of Seattle, Washington. I began to identify as a conservative Republican during high school. I was attracted to conservative ideology because it concisely seemed to explain how the world should work. It also reflected my limited life experience at that point. I was a moderately religious white male from a small town. I had never been exposed to the world beyond the United States. I identified with patriotism, a strong military, pull yourself up by your bootstraps economics, and “traditional” values.
While still in high school, I campaigned for George H.W. Bush. In 1996, I went to a Bill Clinton rally in downtown Seattle with a Bob Dole sign. I was roundly booed by nearly 10,000 people. Bill Clinton even pointed me out and mocked me. The crowd had a hearty laugh at my expense. I didn’t care though, I thought my political beliefs were right.
My slide away from political conservatism was gradual, almost imperceptible, at first.
Joining the Marine Corps proved a real eye opener for me. It was the first time in my life that I was constantly exposed to many people who were different from me – black people, Hispanic people, inner city ex-gang bangers, cowboys, southerners, Midwest farm kids, immigrants. demographic cross-section of America.
One of the major “corporate culture” goals the Marine Corps has is to take a diverse group of individuals - each with different colors, backgrounds and values – and get them to each identify themselves as part of a loyal, tightly knit group. Marines didn’t refer to each other as black or white. They instead referred to each other as dark green or light green. The idea is that everyone in the Marine Corps is on the same side and they are your brother or sister. It is a very egalitarian, communal organization and it was the first time I had ever experienced this. This had a subtle but profound long-term effect on me, and my thinking.
A book called “Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich,” also had a strong impact. It’s a fantastic book that catalogues how wealth and political power have been entwined over hundreds of years. It also methodically pointed out – from colonial times to the present – that people often accumulated great fortunes in America not due to some heroic Horatio Alger myth, but instead due to crony capitalism, legitimate government policies, luck, inheritance or corruption.
Phillips, a former Nixon adviser, argued that the period of economic growth from WWII through about 1978 represented the golden age of the American economy, and that this period of prosperity was due to a bipartisan consensus and acceptance of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Honestly, at the time I found the book disconcerting and I didn’t like its conclusions. But its factual claims were meticulously researched. Ultimately, Wealth and Democracy exposed that many of the economic “theories” that I accepted as “fact” were, in fact, myths. They didn’t stand up to serious academic analysis. This was another critical seed of doubt eventually took root and grew into a sequoia.
Then, there was Iraq. Before and during the invasion, I believed the Bush administration rationale for the war in Iraq. I believed the Bush Administration when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I believed its assertion that Iraq was trying to buy yellow cake uranium from Africa and refine it into weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb. I believed its claim Iraq had vast quantities of biological and chemical agents.
From the summer of 2003 to the summer of 2004 – in-between my first and second deployment to Iraq – I quietly and incrementally became a progressive. The incompetence of the Republican administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, and what proved to be false claims that got us into it, was the final push that caused me to abandon the Republican party. Not only that, but I began to question all my previously held political assumptions. My experiences during my second deployment to Iraq, notably the Second Battle of Fallujah, simply reinforced that my political journey leftward was intellectually justifiable and morally correct.
Then, I lost my older sister Tracy to a pulmonary embolism, in 2006. She didn’t have health insurance because she was poor and had pre-existing conditions (thus effectively disqualifying her from purchasing health insurance on the open market). She died in a hospital emergency room. Her condition was 100 percent preventable with proper preventative medical care and medication. But she put off going to the doctor because she could not afford it. It was at this point I began to realize that if my sister had lived in almost any other first world country – where basic medical insurance is provided for their people as a right – my sister would still be alive today. It was a bitter pill for me to swallow.
Since becoming a political progressive, I have remained intellectually curious and have kept challenging my political and economic assumptions. I no longer pretend that I have all the answers. I understand that my economic and political positions are simply working theories, subject to change when confronted with provable facts. These days, however, I err on the side of freedom, compassion and empathy. Ultimately, I think that this approach has served me well and made me a better citizen.
Contributing Editor: Christopher H. Sheppard
Chris was a Marine Corps combat engineer officer from 1997 to 2005 who served two tours of duty in Iraq. He participated in the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 and fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.