How I Used to Be a Republican and Why I Stopped

I used to be a Republican back in the gentle days of Gerald Ford.

During my childhood, I was very patriotic, and thought that the activists who protested against the Vietnam War were wrong and possibly communists. Both in 1968 (at age 11) and 1972 (at age 15), I enthusiastically supported Richard Nixon. I made little paper Nixon campaign hats for my stuffed animals that said “A New Day” and depicted a burning Russian flag. In this, I largely reflected my parents’ views—although they wanted the draft to end before I became old enough to register (it did).

Watergate was a transformative experience for me. (For those of you who do not know what this was, just google it and read about it. Republican President Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign staff had burgled the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. The discovery of this crime led to the discovery of many other secret and illegal activities conducted by Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign in 1973, the first and only resignation of an American president.) I felt that my patriotism and zeal had been betrayed. But I did not turn against the Party. Why? Because it suddenly adopted a new image.

That image was Gerald Ford. He was the very image of an ethical person, very publicly in contrast with Richard Nixon. Almost the only thing anyone could hold against Gerald Ford was that he pardoned Richard Nixon, thus preventing the truth from ever being found out. (Also, Ford was a little absent-minded, which many attributed to him having played football without a helmet back in the day. I recently ran across a cassette tape of Ford’s 1974 State of the Union, in which he proclaimed the year to be 1964, then corrected himself.) He made it clear that he and his party had welcomed the departure of Nixon. “The system worked,” he proclaimed in the 1974 State of the Union. He was such a clean guy that the Japanese called him “Mr. Clean,” referring also to the man on the label of the popular house cleaning fluid, to whom Ford bore some resemblance.

I voted for Ford in 1976, in one of my first votes. Carter won, but I liked him OK too. I voted for Carter in 1980, since I was a little afraid of the warlike stance of Ronald Reagan. This was still in the depths of the Cold War, and it seemed quite credible at the time that a nuclear war could annihilate the civilized world. A warlike American president only increased the odds of this catastrophe. Nevertheless, I paid little attention to politics. In 1983, I first heard about nuclear winter—a scientific theory, later partially discredited, that a nuclear war would create enough smoke that it would plunge the Earth into a permanently frozen state. But my mind simply could not grasp such huge possibilities, and I went on ignoring politics. This was also the time when Reagan was proclaiming that all we needed to do was to construct a missile shield (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI) and the Russians could send all the nuclear missiles they wanted, we would just blow them up in the upper atmosphere. Just bring out the lawn chairs and watch the light show. This meant that there would be no need whatever for achieving peace with the Soviets. War, combined with a defensive shield, would save us all. We could go ahead and annihilate the Russians, with impunity. But I ignored this, also.

Until Easter Sunday, 1984. I was looking through my mail, which included one of those mass mailout letters from the local Congressman. The local Congressman happened to be Dan Crane, Republican of Illinois. His newsletter had an article on the back which said, in effect: less than half the federal budget is for defense spending, and this should be brought into balance. (Think about it, then continue reading.) I re-read this several times, becoming more and more amazed that anyone could make such a stupid argument. It basically says that whatever my favorite category of spending is should be at least half the budget—that is, it should equal or exceed all other categories combined. Just define your category—for Crane, it was defense spending—and you can say that, as a basic point of logic, it deserves at least half of the funding. A librarian could say, “Fewer than half of the books in our library are about witchcraft; this should be brought into balance.” A school administrator could say, “Less than half the school district budget is for my salary; this should be brought into balance.”

This was an actual conversion moment—about 3:15 pm on Easter Sunday 1984. I suddenly realized that at least one, perhaps many, of our elected representatives were idiots. My mind was suddenly opened to actually realizing the things that I had been ignoring about the danger to the survival of the world that was posed by the Republican Party at that time. I immediately joined peace activist groups and began teaching my classes (I was a graduate teaching assistant) about nuclear winter. (BTW, Dan Crane later had to resign when it was revealed that he had had sex with a 17-year-old Congressional page. This was at the time when the Republican Party was selling itself as the bastion of moral rectitude.)

I believe the dangers posed by the Republican Party to the future of the world are even greater today than in 1984. As time goes on, I will provide justification for this belief at this website. Part of the reason it is greater today than during the Reagan presidency was that, especially in his second term, Reagan was able to relax a bit and explore the possibilities of peace. Mikhail Gorbachev knew the Soviet system was going to collapse, and was looking for a graceful way out for his country. Reagan was smart enough to recognize and capitalize upon this opportunity for peace. When Reagan stood in Berlin, he did not say, “Mr. Gorbachev, we can blast the hell out of you, and we will, because we will have a missile shield,” but “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Ronald Reagan was, a little bit, seeking peace with the kind of sincerity that is absent today from the leadership of the Republican Party. The end of the Cold War was an identity crisis for the Republican leadership—they had to find some new cause for which they could claim that the only solution was a military one. They eventually got it in 2001, the excuse they needed to take the United States back to war; this time, a permanent war.

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