What was once clear-cut is now no longer as simple-- how did you handle such a change?
May 1, 2011 8:14 AM   Subscribe

How did you handle or process political beliefs changing as your life circumstances evolved? Feeling torn...

I need to preface this by saying that this is a general question about political beliefs, not a question about a specific election or for whom I should vote.

I lived in Country A for most of my life, and I had very strong opinions about the issues and a clearly defined party affiliation, and though I understood that I was often voting for the candidate that was the lesser of the evils, I always voted for the party whose priorities matched my own beliefs.

I have now lived in Country B for 8 years, and there is an election coming up. I am finding myself in a new position-- due to major life changes (most notably becoming a business owner), I am now faced with a bit of a quandary-- to vote in alignment with the political beliefs I've had since I was a teenager, I must (based on the available candidates and their platforms) also to some degree vote against my own (new) self-interests.

This is kind of tearing me up inside. Never in my adult life did I expect that life circumstances would create for me a crisis of political identity, but here I am. I don't want to vote against my own interests, but I also don't want to vote for the candidate that is otherwise against everything I've stood for until now. And to vote for a candidate whose platform aligns with pretty much everything I've believed in, but whose priorities on some issues go directly against everything I've worked for in recent years for my own life and family and stability, feels equally wrong. To vote either way at this point just feels kind of... dirty... because I never expected to have core beliefs shaken or compromised as they seem to be now.

Now, this vote (based on the election format in Country B) is truly symbolic, because the area in which I'm voting is overwhelmingly aligned with a particular party. But I believe that if you don't vote, you don't get to complain, and voting is a right that I'm not willing to forego simply because I'm confused (though it's causing me a bit of anxiety at this point).

Have you gone through anything like this, maybe through similar life changes or others such as having children or anything else? How did you reconcile your beliefs? I'm not asking who you voted for or any specifics and I'm definitely not asking for your opinion on how I should vote, my question is purely about how one handles the emotions that come with being faced with a choice that seems to threaten one's long-standing political identity.
posted by mireille to Law & Government (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been told I'm a class traitor because of my political opinions. I really don't think that's true (I don't think my class interests are what the person insulting me thinks they are), but to the extent that it is, I believe that the things I give up by voting against my immediate interest, to the extent that I do, are less than the overall benefit to society, including me, I gain by supporting and voting for the interests I feel are right.

If I make the world a better place, I also help myself, even if it's not in my short-term interest.
posted by immlass at 8:25 AM on May 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

If you're not a socialist at twenty you don't have a heart. If you're not a conservative at thirty you don't have a brain. An old saw but none the less true. Students demonstrating in London for more money will turn into estate agents complaining about their income tax in time. Twas ever thus. One thing to remember is that nobody else cares who you vote for, such moral or political quandaries exist only in your head. The most important thing is that you have a vote, something people are dying for right now in Syria and Libya and elsewhere, so don't waste it.
posted by joannemullen at 8:26 AM on May 1, 2011

I'm a little confused. I see two possible interpretations of your question:

Politician whose values align with yours would, if elected, implement policy according to your common values, and that policy would hurt your interests. If this is the case, then things can be simplified as such: your values would result in policy that would hurt your interests. If this interest of yours is simply monetary, ie., higher taxes - well then you should either suck up the sacrifice or admit to yourself that your values are some weak sauce, change your values to align with your interest, and be honest about the fact that you're voting with your wallet - nothing more nothing less. On the other hand, this interest of yours may be something more lofty - lets take reproductive rights as an example. If your values result in policy that hurts your reproductive rights, then you have an internal conflict somewhere that needs to be resolved - either your interest in your reproductive rights or your values need to be altered.

The other interpretation is: politician whose values align with yours has one particular position where his values go against your values and your interests, but otherwise this politician is far superior to your other choice. Here, I don't think anyone can help you - you can hold your nose and vote for either one, or just not vote, or register a protest vote of some sort. I don't think anyone can tell you what the correct choice is, but I feel your pain.
posted by tempythethird at 8:31 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, hope your'e enjoying Canada, and that you can resolve your feelings about the NDP :)

I think that what you're feeling is common, and that you need to just make decision - do you vote based on your values, and what you believe is good society or good for the most people, or do you vote based on whats good for you and what you need right now? You might find it easier to go with option A, if you think about the fact that the whole premise of value-based political beliefs is that complete self interest will rarely succeed in the way that its intended, and that voting along value lines will actually mean that you're helping shape the kind of society you'll be most happy in.
posted by Kololo at 8:34 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thing to think about is that your "interests" are probably a large and complicated thing. You say you are a business owner, but, unless you are a very large business owner, your interests would probably not align all that closely to what passes for "Business Interests" in the USA. You might therefore decide, that voting for a candidate who may improve your business environment slightly (while benefiting your larger competitors more) is less important than one who supports a social agenda in which you believe. Or vice versa. You might decide that an environmental issue will hamper your future plans to expand a plant, but that you are willing to take that hit for the sake of having a park to walk in. Paying less in property taxes now may mean a significantly more difficult time finding a decent school for your kids, or that you personally will pay much more to send you kids to the state university or whatever. There is probably not one candidate that expresses all of your interests.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:44 AM on May 1, 2011

It sounds like your immediate business interests conflict with your concern for society as a whole. So keep in mind that your circumstances might change and you might end up in a slightly different situation where the "society as a whole" piece might come more into play.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:50 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

[Please take it to memail or MetaTalk if you need to debate the topic - otherwise, just answer the question, folks. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 9:01 AM on May 1, 2011

If you're not a socialist at twenty you don't have a heart. If you're not a conservative at thirty you don't have a brain.

There's a little truth to that, but not much. I think when you are young it's possible to believe that the world is a much simpler place than it actually is. You can embrace big ideas and believe that they could actually change the world. As you get older you realize that things don't actually work this way. I don't know if that makes you more conservative. Perhaps more cynical?

Anyway, I'm 41 and still pretty liberal. For where I live I'm a moderate. By the standards of the USA as a whole, I'm a socialist.

posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:02 AM on May 1, 2011

I understand. I now look at issues pretty much individually, and I believe my current political ideology is informed by my previous one.

Ronald Reagan said he found it very hard to change parties, despite his change in views.
posted by jgirl at 9:06 AM on May 1, 2011

I don't want to vote against my own interests

If you see the choice as one between your values and your self-interest, it's basically a choice about who you want to be in life. And that is your choice, no one can make it for you.

For me, values aren't really worth squat unless you're willing to stand up for them when it costs you something, whether that something is money, popularity, effort, inconvenience or what have you.

On the other hand it is perfectly valid to reappraise your own beliefs in the light of life experiences. Just be careful that it's not just pure rationalization of your own self-interests, which we human beings are pretty prone to doing.

The way most people square looking after number one while telling themselves their values are something else really is to make up stories about deserving and undeserving. "I deserve what I got because of yadda yadda yadda... and they don't deserve any more help at my expense because of blah blah blah."

Conversely, from the other end, "I deserve more help at their expense because of yadda yadda yadda.... they don't deserve what they've got because of blah blah blah."
posted by philipy at 9:12 AM on May 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Question what is really "in your interest."

You might be interested in The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide by Robert H. Frank. Very readable (a collection of his columns). He focuses a lot on why rich people should support left-leaning economic policies even if they care only about their narrow self interest.

As one obvious point, if government policy can help poor people move up economically, those are potential customers who have more disposable income they might be more willing to spend on your company.

It's an oversimplification to assume that corporations don't like being regulated. If you and your competitors are strongly regulated, it can give you a more predictable framework in which to compete. As a business owner, you don't need to hate regulation; it's simply a fact of life along with the rest of the world, and your challenge is to get ahead within this reality.
posted by John Cohen at 9:15 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure your question is one about political belief but voting intention, which is subtly different. Your quandary is about voting against your self-interest.

A political belief system is an ideology, it is a way of seeing the world and is essentially a belief that a certain set of policies is beneficial as a whole for society, or for a majority. Most ideological conservatives believe that their political system is good for society, not just for themselves. On the contrary I get the distinct impression that you still believe in (what I imagine to be) left-wing political ideals of fairness but are torn by the fact that it is disadvantageous to you personally now to vote according to these ideals.

If you still believe that the local "conservative" party is going to disadvantage the majority or society at the expense of the richer or business then I personally don't think you should vote for them. If you think that their prescription is the right one (due to trickle-down economics or whatever) then you should. I think it is a betrayal of oneself to simply vote according to self-interest. But I am an idealist, and of course most people do.

As for your final question - yes I am in the same position as you, in that I have always been "left-wing", and now earn enough that it would be "advantageous" for me personally to be under a right wing government. But I don't vote for such governments because I believe them (at least where I live) to actively diminish equality of opportunity which is the only fundamental political principle I believe in.

Obviously this is all just my opinion.
posted by inbetweener at 9:20 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm just going to go ahead and assume you mean the Tory/NDP split in the Canadian election.

Canadian politics, national or provincial, lurches around. Generally things creep towards the left until the dominant party (Lib/NDP) gets rocked by scandal or enacts unpopular (though sometimes necessary, see: Rae Days) policies. Then we hand the conservatives a majority to cut the chaff and start the process all over again. You could probably line up the timing to Churchill's adage.

I've long been a centrist, and have voted for each of the 3 major national parties at some point based on the strengths and policies of the candidate-MPs in the ridings I've lived in. Ignore the posturing old white assholes at the top- each of them is as slimy as the last. And think about the numbers being thrown around on the national scale in terms of what that would mean to each taxpayer.
posted by t_dubs at 9:25 AM on May 1, 2011

I try to vote on very very basic principles and ignore specific policy proposals, mainly because it's very, very challenging to determine what form those policies will actually take in the end: there are poor odds for any politician keeping any promise, even excluding random events and the need for compromise with opponents.

This also solves problems for me in terms of self-interest versus ideals, which is what I think you're going for with this question.
posted by SMPA at 9:38 AM on May 1, 2011

In my case, it's not a question of political beliefs or values changing -- it's a question of what might be in my self interest changing, or now conflicting with my political beliefs. As far as voting decisions, I try to keep in mind how I want the society around me to be -- but while I could benefit from lower taxes, I also don't own a business on the brink of failure or anything like that. If I did, and I thought after careful consideration that voting against my beliefs was necessary to maintain it, I'd plug my nose and do it.

(Or I wouldn't vote, because one vote never makes a difference. Then I could complain about all politicians and all results.)
posted by J. Wilson at 9:53 AM on May 1, 2011

"Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead". - Aldous Huxley
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines". - Emerson

I think part of your problem is that you wish to be consistent.

I find that a lot of young people are convinced that they are going to "make it big" and so they will not require any kind of social safety net. They vote accordingly. I find this worldview naive but I still hope they get out and exercise their right to vote.

I do think that political manipulators, especially in America, have managed to convince a lot of people to actually vote against their own interests by exploiting emotional wedge issues. This approach is being adopted abroad. But I find that this means that fewer people care about what is best for their country. Hyper-partisanship is a cancer that distracts from what is in the best interests of the country; legislators lose their way in petty bickering. You talk about emotional turbulence. Is it because you are being manipulated by a wedge issue? Or is it that your previous votes are locking you into being consistent?

And please define self-interest. Try to determine what a society looks like that is relatively stable and peaceful. When 1% of the population owns just about everything, you will not have stability, and I don't think you will have safety either, even if you are in your guarded compound, walled off from the hungry hordes. If there is no regulation at all, big business will just about always cut corners. Care for some malamine in your milk or lead in your toys? I think some services are best provided by the government and that requires taxes. Wanting the services, without the taxes, seems irrational to me. But obviously, a lot of people disagree. If you look into how typhoid was eliminated from London, the rich were dying too and decided that it was in their interest to get the water supply cleaned up, benefiting the poor as well as themselves. If SARS had broken out in people with no health insurance in the U.S., how far do you think the infection would have gone? Would it have spared the rich? So what exactly is self-interest? Should public health be funded?

I do think that is worth remarking that political parties have changed a lot over the years. As an example, I just can't see Eisenhower being accepted into today's Republican party. Just because somebody voted Republican in the 50s, 60s and onwards, does that mean that the platforms and underlying principles are the same? I don't think so. To quote a prominent American economist, after meeting with Obama, "there is no left, left".

One final observation would be that I would take a careful look at the philosophical underpinnings of the parties. I think that neocon ideology based on the works on Leo Strauss has done a lot of damage to the world. If your party of choice (or its absolute ruler) is influenced by his teachings, be aware of how radical things will get. If you think the unfettered free market is always best, then take a hard look at how it has worked for Wall Street and how poorly for Main Street.

I think these ideas have been tried (in both senses of the word) long enough and been found wanting. They just don't work.

To address your question about how I reconciled my own positions, I will say that I would probably be considered liberal on a lot of issues, although I hate to see people taking advantage of the system. But I wanted to understand the mindset of American Republicans, over the years, ever since the founding of the Republic. I found a book, written by an economist who served in the Nixon White House, "Wealth and Democracy" by Phillips, to be very enlightening. So when prominent Republican diehards say that they want to turn the clock back to the late 1800's, I know exactly what they mean by it. I found that book very helpful on a lot of fronts: I don't think many Americans realize how terrified the financial elites were of what was happening in the country in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Gross economic disparity leads to tremendous instability, even in America.
posted by PickeringPete at 10:52 AM on May 1, 2011

So as I'm reading this, when you didn't have stuff, you were a liberal (in part) because liberals advocate giving things to people who don't have stuff, by taking stuff from people who have more stuff than they need.

Now that you have stuff, you don't want to give it to people who are in the same economic position you were ten years ago.

The social policies that worked to allow you (with your own personal effort added in, of course) to move from "have-not" to "have" should not be avilanble to the next generations of "have-nots".

You want the benefit of taking stuff from others when you benefit by getting the taken stuff, and you want the benefit of keeping stuff from others when you have it and benefit from keeping it.

Well, that's a rational strategy for individual profit maximization, even though it undermines society.

One might opine that by accepting help when you needed it, you entered into a social contract to similarly help others when you were in a position to do so, a contract you now want to unilaterally break.

That is, you want the benefits of the contract without the costs. How long would your small business last if I bought your products/services on credit, then informed you I had had an ideological revelation that informed me I needn't actually pay you? That's the same thing your "crisis of political identity" does to society as a whole.

But again, it's a wholly rational self-interested position you're taking. Your only practical (as opposed to ethical) problem is your lingering guilt. Traditionally that's assuaged by adopting a philosophy, like Randite Objectivism or Prosperity Gospel, that explains that have-nots are in some way morally inferior to haves, and that your guilt is that of the sentimentalist not the oath-or-contract-breaker. (And then, like Ayn Rand or Paul Ryan, both of whom took money from the social safety net, you can basically complain that as a youth (or in Rand's case, a pensioner) the socialist welfare state forced its benefits on you.)

Good luck! One caveat: as more and more people do what you hope to do, unilaterally abrogating their societal obligations in favor of their short-term self-interest, society will break down. So I recommend "getting yours" as quickly as possible, and converting it from cash money to commodities with intrinsic rather than societally-backed, value.
posted by orthogonality at 12:03 PM on May 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Ignore the posturing old white assholes at the top

What does race have to do with it? Would it be appropriate or acceptable at AskMe to refer to the "B#### A*****" at the top in the USA? Of course not! It has become fashionable in some quarters to throw around "white" in a disparaging way that should be called out as unacceptable by all standards of non-discrimination.

To the OP...Simply follow your best judgment and vote accordingly. One vote does not a crisis make. We've all been in situations at various election times where we are conflicted for one reason or another. I don't think you should beat yourself up over whatever decision you make - and just understand there will be many more elections in the future where you'll feel much the same. Rarely are things black & white, we all have to vote with the all grays that we find in political life.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 12:07 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

To sum up: Live and learn. I'd hate to be beholden to my positions on any topic from when I was a teenager. How old are you? I can only think you must not have yet had to modify any of your fundamental beliefs if you are this conflicted over your political identity. This is really a natural part of growing older and, if you're doing it right, learning and discovering more about yourself and the world. I grew up a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and my struggle was the effort involved in trying to remain in that camp; the mental gymnastics, suspension of disbelief, and other steps necessary to make all of what I "knew" (really, just what I inherited from my culture, not the result of any cognitive process... but that's another topic) fit into what discovery kept revealing to me. What may help is embracing uncertainty. If you think that you can know things with certainty, that can create a sense of obligation to derive the absolute truth. If you can arrive at a place where you're okay with not knowing (even if it takes the form of "Well, I don't know what is true... but I know what isn't!) you may find it easier to deal with these problems in life.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 12:41 PM on May 1, 2011

I changed my entire political outlook about ten years ago, and I'm pretty happy for it. I mulled it all over, and decided that I should vote for who I think would make a better society for me to live in. I don't buy the whole "what's good for you is good for the country" soundbite: I live in a society, and cannot live without that society, so I had to expand my definition of self-interest.

Embrace your new understanding of life.
posted by babbageboole at 12:58 PM on May 1, 2011

If you want to vote conservative out of self interest, one thing that can make you feel better about it is to recognize that left-leaning voters are very often doing the same thing.

For every altruist submitting himself to taxes and regulations that personally pain him, there are many more people who directly benefit from the spending of those taxes or enforcement of those regulations. Treating politics as charity is a luxury to which no one is obliged and which many guiltlessly avoid.
posted by MattD at 1:09 PM on May 1, 2011

Very good question. If all voters were as thoughtful as you, I'd have much more confidence in democracy.

For me, it comes down to separating out what's best for me and my beliefs about what kind of society I want to be a part of.

When I was younger, those two things were in alignment. Now they're not. Like you, this has led to a bit of existential angst at election time! I don't think my beliefs have changed much. What has changed, however, is (a) my own situation (I'm no longer a struggling student), and (b) my understanding of the bigger picture, economic reality, and the nuances of the impact of individual policies.

It doesn't sound like your core values and beliefs are changing (I use those words rather than political identity, as I think that's just a shortcut for describing values and beliefs) - it just sounds like they're no longer in alignment with your own self interest (including the interests of your family, and your business / staff). And when it comes to voting, yes, that makes for a tough decision! But that's something to be proud of - it shows that you have strong values, and that your voting history wasn't based purely on self interest.

Volunteering in areas that are important to me keeps me in touch with my local community, so it's easier for me to understand the impact of proposed policies on my community as well as the impact on me. I also have a very diverse group of friends, so for every proposed policy, I can usually find a friend who is positively impacted by it and one who is negatively impacted. Which doesn't make my decision easier, but gives me more information on which to make my decision.

Being honest with yourself about what's important to you is a good first step. Examining policies and thinking about the impact both on you and on your society is helpful. As is thinking about what sacrifices you're willing to make in order to have a society that you are proud to be a part of, and also thinking about what kind of society you want your children to grow up in (not knowing whether they're going to be high flying city bankers or single parents with health issues). What you do with that knowledge is up to you. But at least you'll be able to make a decision about who to vote for that you'll be comfortable with.

And if you wind up feeling guilty about your decision, don't beat yourself up about it - hey, there will always be another election in the not too distant future!
posted by finding.perdita at 2:50 PM on May 1, 2011

I have a solution. Vote for whoever will nudge society in the direction you want it to go. If you are a liberal, but think your country has gone too far left on one or more of your top issues, you can (depending on the country you live in) in good conscience vote for the conservative, knowing full well you will just vote for the opposite next time if they take things too far.

Even better, now that you have money, get involved. Politics needs people like you, who have a conscience and the ability to see things from multiple perspectives.
posted by blargerz at 7:40 PM on May 1, 2011

I think it's time for the "what if everybody did that" test.

What would happen if everyone voted for the candidate they believed was best for society as a whole, regardless of their own self-interest?

What would happen if everyone voted for their own self-interest, regardless of the effect on society as a whole?

Keep in mind that in either case, politicians would adjust to the way people voted.

[The variant I've heard of the quote mentioned a couple of times in this thread is "If you are a conservative at twenty, you have no heart. If you are a liberal at forty, you have no brain." If this is true, I have neither a heart nor a brain. I'm OK with that.]
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:56 AM on May 2, 2011

I appreciate everyone who answered the question as asked and your answers have helped clarify things for me. And it isn't nearly as clear-cut as I expressed in my question-- knowing how MeFites have a tendency to gloss over the question at hand, particularly in political threads, I kept my question simple. But my life changes and business ownership have nothing to do with "stuff", or with money. I don't have much of either (the bank would argue that I'm seven figures in the hole, in fact). With lots of work I should be able to retire at 65 or so, but I am aware that this alone still puts me in a really fortunate category.

What's changed for me in owning a business and in moving to a small town is that now I know people and see how various high-level policies trickle down to affect the lives of those around me, and while my vote for the greater social good was never in question before, suddenly I find myself acutely aware of a whole town-- which is a very small group of people in the big picture, but a big group in my new small picture. Voting for the "greater good" was something I thought was a matter of empathy, though now I see that it was more one of sympathy. To vote in what I call "my own self-interests" is more based on empathy with others, including business owners, in a small two-mill town of which one mill is shut down. Suddenly I see how a big decision from up on high can directly impact a town-- kill it, even-- and now that I'm part of that town I have genuine concern for those around me. And it is that over which I have been feeling conflicted.

At the core of my conflict though, was how could I compromise my values in light of this new understanding? Because I understand how life works in large cities, and it was always easy for me to see what decision best benefited the greater good. Everything was the greater good, because no policies really affected me but I wanted to make the world better for as many people as possible. But then my life changed in a huge way when I moved to a small town, and my world got a whole lot smaller (and holy fuck is it ever remote from the rest of the world), and I see things a bit differently now. I imagine all of the other small towns just trying to scrape by, and I have new empathy that I never could have imagined.

And yet I just can't bring myself to do what I know is the wrong thing based on my values, despite the pressure I feel to have some sort of consistency with my new understanding of ways the world works that I never could have seen before leaving the city. And so I'll vote today in line with what I know is right and while I'll still feel conflicted, I'll sleep fine tonight. Maybe I just wanted some logical arguments to help me back up doing the right thing. So thank-you, everyone.
posted by mireille at 11:05 AM on May 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

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