My family has a strong history of being involved in politics. My late grandfather was a journalist and wrote a series of newspaper articles with an obvious political agenda, like the need for conservation. For several years my grandmother worked for the Democratic Party at the North Dakota legislature, and since starting her own small business has drafted bills affecting her company and convinced legislators to pass them. I remember listening, wide-eyed and admiring, to her revel in a particularly sweet victory. She had swung a close vote in the House to her favor by going to the restaurant where the majority party (Republicans) met after-hours and forced them to talk to her about her bill before they could use the restrooms. It was particularly sweet because in passing her bill, she had thwarted a political nemesis as well. I remember talking to my father during the Dole/Clinton election and urging him to vote for Clinton, probably because my mother had off and on expressed disdain for Republicans. He listened to me, but refused to tell me who he voted for on principle, which was my first introduction to the importance of voter confidentiality. (I remember thinking, “What, he won’t tell me? I can’t do anything illegal with that information – I’m eight.”) When I was a bit older my mother would take me to political movies and rallies, like a gun-control rally at the Capitol.
Until I sat down to write this, I did not realize how much politics was a part of my childhood. I am sure my parents, especially my mother, had talks with me about politics, though I cannot remember particular conversations that created my liberal bias. Certainly I am liberal because my mother is. I think my father felt that political choices should be discussed as my sister and I grew older. It always seemed natural to think “liberal” things throughout my growing up, so my mother’s influence was probably conveyed to me not through any one conversation, but through many small comments.
My mother has a somewhat traditional take on politics: she is defined by a Democratic lean, though it is possible that a Republican could sway her if the conservatives made a strong case. As far as I can tell, she has a respect for other, non-Democratic liberals (much less so for conservatives, whom she rightly regards as supporting policies opposite to her values), but she doesn’t seem to be swayed into voting for third parties. She tends to trust that an idea in the Democratic platform will be sound, while Republicans have to prove that their ideas are better. My mother taught me that, above all, politics matters because the government acts out the social values of its members. She is the reason I tend to heavily weigh social issues over economic ones.
My father is a moderate now, but to define his political stance in the past is difficult, as he is somewhat of a moving target. Based upon the comments that both my parents made about him in the past, he was certainly more conservative when he was younger, and less thoughtful than he is now. As I have grown up and become more of his intellectual equal, he has delighted in talking to me about political issues. It seems that our conversations were/are partly a way to teach me about persuasive argument and critical thinking, and partly a way to supplement his ideas with my unique perspective. These conversations were crucial to the development of my thoughts on political debate: I see opposition for opposition’s sake as exhausting and counter-productive. My father taught me to seek understanding and respectful discourse even on passionate issues – which is partly why I am so taken aback when people show a willingness to close their ears and assume the worst about their opponents.
My stepmother and I have never discussed politics. Perhaps this is because throughout my childhood she had to walk the line between parental authority and domestic harmony, and because she knew that to argue with my mother’s opinions via me was a bad plan. My father reports that she is conservative, particularly Republican, but I do not know what that means for her.
Despite all this, I still see myself as a rather independent political being. I cannot explain my political opinions at all in the context of my parents. Take my feminism: like my liberalism, I cannot remember a time before I thought about gender roles and the fact that women clearly seemed to have a disadvantage. I am without a doubt the most radical member of my family on women’s rights, nearly entirely due to my own initiative. Certainly my mother has had feminist values most of her life; part of the reason my parents divorced was a fundamental disagreement about the gender roles and functions each of them played in the household. (This is not to imply that my father does not support a woman’s right to work and so forth, but I think that he is one of those folks who did not realize the extent of the limitations on women until he watched his daughters grow.) But I have since moved far beyond both my parents in the level of exploration and critical consideration of feminist thought.
Another characteristic of mine that seems to be fully self-formed is my commitment to civic engagement. My parents may have planted to seeds of it – voting is good, helping others is good – but I do not recall them discussing, say, the value of volunteering with me before I started doing it. One of the earliest things I did was to volunteer at a nursing home once a week, playing BINGO with the residents. While my parents lavished praise on me and made it clear how much they admired me for doing so, I don’t recall them suggesting that I start it. The impression that my ideas about how to be a good citizen are mine alone is reinforced by looking at my sister, who volunteers, but not at the level that I do. Based on her behavior, she seems to see community involvement as less inherently fun and worthwhile than I do. However, I cannot say what her opinions are on civic engagement, since that’s not something we often talk about.
So how much am I politically like my parents?
The best way to answer that is not by parsing out all the differences and similarities on issues (which I chalk up to personal style more than anything) but in the general ways I think. I have a bias toward liberals, like my mother, but before I vote I carefully consider how well each candidate represents me, as my moderate father would. Like my mother, I think certain issues like education reform and healthcare are incredibly important. But like my father, I think that considering what the role of government should be according to the Constitution is important as well. I think I’ve taken that a step farther, though, by also deeply caring about transparency; rather than the government watchdogs that declare everything is all right if taxes are low and government small, what is most important to me is the quality of the government, not the extent of its activities. Still, that we could agree on the same methods but have different policy stances indicates that there is a large degree of my own personality behind my political choices. And that independence, too, seems like something my parents have given me.