In repsonse to my post yesterday on how difficult it is to change one's mind, a number of commenters made some very valuable points reinforcing both how, for some people, death can be preferable to challenging their world view, as well as the sense that changes are never restricted to one area but tend to set off a cascade of change.
For most of my life I was a fairly typical, left-leaning, liberal Democrat. I started every day with the New York Times and never questioned that what they were reporting was the important news of the day. If it appeared in the Times, it was important and true; if it didn't appear in the Times, it didn't matter or hadn't happened. Prior to the Blogosphere there was almost no way to test any of my assumptions. While Talk Radio had begun to redress the leftward tilt of the MSM in the 1990s, the proper repsonse from a Liberal Democrat was to dismiss Rush Limbaugh as a right-wing ideologue, not worthy of consideration (and never listened to, in fact, since exposure to such unacceptable ideas could potentially cause damage of some unspecified sort.) In any event, over the years a number of my baseline assumptions began to come into question.
Off the top of my head I would consider the following noninclusive list to be the basic assumptions of New York Times liberalism from the time of the Vietnam War. Many of these assumptions have slowly migrated to the left over time; the interesting thing is that many current Democrats would disagree with many of the assumptions, yet fail to see that their support of the Democratic party in effect supports policies based on these assumptions.
• America is a racist country
• America is sexist
• American corporations practice predatory capitalism and exploit the labor of workers and third world countries
• Republicans are not as smart or caring as Democrats and do not care about the poor; many, perhaps most, are evil
• The poor are poor because the system is stacked against them
• The rich do not, and never have, paid their fair share of taxes; tax raises in order to help the poor are always good and opposition to taxes is a sign of selfishness
• Abortion is a fundamental right and pro-life proponents are radical fundamentalists
• Republicans tend to be anti-Semitic
• In International Affairs, America was a source of instability and war, primarily executed at the instigation of the American War Machine (the Military-Industrial Complex)
• Palestinians were victims of matters beyond their control. Peace then depended on the willingness of Israel to take risks (ie, make concessions) to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians.
Importantly, most of these ideas rested on a deeper assumption and misunderstanding that was almost never recognized in any overt way. That assumption was that Communism and its derivatives, Socialism and Welfare State Liberalism, were workable systems based on what is best in Human Nature. (Capitalism, on the other hand, pandered to what was worst in Human Nature.) This led to a model of the world based on Oppressors versus Victims, the now familiar template through which all problems are filtered by those in its thrall. The insidious nature of the thought disorder of post-modernism prevented most people from recognizing that their best impulses, for fairness and to help the downtrodden, were being slowly twisted into a parody of charity. In the name of fairness, peace, and love, tyrants and thugs around the world, disguised as victims, were being supported in their thievery, thuggery and tyranny. Unfortunately, those who still rely on the MSM for their news continue to have difficulty seeing this.
As time went on, many of these underlying assumptions began to seem more and more questionable. While one could be concerned about the poor, it became clearer and clearer that much poverty could be tied quite directly to the behavior and culture of the poor. Living in New York, the question of homelessness was acute. It was traditionally depicted as a result of good people falling on hard times in an uncaring society, but it was becoming increasingly obvious through the 80s and 90s that most of the homeless were homeless because of their own behavior. The vast majority had drug and alcohol addictions, and/or severe mental illness (and were on the streets because the Liberals convinced us that they should be held in the least restrictive environment, ie emptying the State Hospitals was not only a way to save money but was actually better for the mentally ill.) Only a very tiny minority of the homeless were working people who were burned out of their homes or lost their jobs and were unable to find employment. Thus, one assumption fell.
Affirmative action was assumed to be a worthwhile attempt to redress past, and ongoing, American racism. Yet, in practice, affirmative action was profoundly unfair and unAmerican; any American with children tended to see this close up (having my children grow up in an integrated school system, we saw it first hand). Black children whose parents were from the Caribbean or Africa were beneficiaries of Affirmative Action; white children who had the good fortune to have a grandparent who was black or had lived in Latin America, were beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. Their victimization by American racism was tenuous, to say the least, and thus another assumption fell.
A woman's right to choose is a wonderful concept in theory, isolated from the actual pregnancy. In practice, when facing the prospect of a real pregnancy of a deeply wanted child, it was obvious that the "fetus" was a real child at least from the moment of quickening (to use the very rich, though archaic, term.) How to reconcile pro-choice absolutism with a real pregnancy remains difficult (I have rationalized that choice should exist until the point of viability; my position is hardly ideal, but seems the best approach as far as I am concerned, for a host of reasons beyond the scope of this post). In the event, radical pro-choice became yet another increasingly shaky assumption.
Although I was always strongly pro-Israel, when the threat to Israel from Egypt and Jordan dissipated, and it seemed that the forlorn Palestinians were the main victims of the situation in the Middle East I supported the efforts to solve the problem, often supporting Israeli concessions. James Baker, with his famous "F*ck the Jews, they didn't vote for us anyway", was a powerful face of the Republican party and supported all the assumptions about right-wing anti-Semitism, and it always seemed that the Democrats were more likely to solve the problem anyway. The Oslo accords were an exciting time, yet they turned out to be a disaster and their failure was difficult to pin on the Israelis. When even Bill Clinton concluded the Palestinians had no interest in peace, another important assumption crashed with a tremendous impact.
During the 90s, another significant assumption showed signs of erosion. Clinton's success at shepherding a booming economy seemed to suggest that Liberal Democracy wedded with Capitalism was the greatest way to make everyone rich; trickle down worked when the trickle was turning into a flood! Business wasn't the problem, it was the answer! One more quasi-Communist assumption down the drain.
Yet with all these pillars of assumption being removed from under the edifice of my Liberal Democracy, there was still no way that I would ever have pulled the lever for George Bush without 9/11. The bed rock assumption, that Republicans were evil, selfish, greedy, stupid, and uncaring was too difficult to surmount. Everyone I knew was a Liberal Democrat!
Paradigms rarely shift slowly. There are usually a multitude of small accumulations of erosion of the current paradigm until the new paradigm crystallizes and the entire edifice crumbles, to be instantly rebuilt in a more robust and stable form. This is the history of science and intellectual development; it is the history of psychotherapeutic change; it is the history of my political evolution.