Burning your party card
July 10, 2006 11:51 PM   Subscribe

Are shifts in your political beliefs really inevitable as you get older?

Today I was walking down the street and some wandering idiot directed a racist remark my way. I didn't sort out what he said until he passed and actually smiled at the moron.

Most people would identify this man, rather than me as a part of the "struggle."

I find myself after a liberal arts education, two overseas stints as an international development worker, a delegate spot at a sustainable development conference and work experience in trading organic commodities on the slippery slope to an SUV and gated community. I work for a corporation now, and find the life stable and usually much easier than my social development related occupations - I make more money (I struggled in the development field and when I initiallly went coporate my attitude was that I hate the corporate world but I really need the money so act happy). I still like some lefty things, like public radio but I am really nothing like I used to be. My vote hasn't changed yet politically, but I let my party membership lapse. Is a shift really inevitable?
posted by Deep Dish to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing is inevitable. That said, a good dose of reality tends to make most people more moderate as they grow older.
posted by tnoetz01 at 12:07 AM on July 11, 2006

Using a very broad brush, I think it is a general trend for political beliefs to mellow from being more radical in youth to more moderate as one ages. This applies regardless of whether one was originally left or right wing. This mellowing could be described as an increased ability to see shades of grey in situations, and may be based on a greater experience & understanding of the pressures & forces that dictate how society, economics & politics actually work in the real world. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have switched sides.

If you consider your own beliefs, for example, you might find that you have exactly the same political orientation, but are now able to see more clearly that corporations are not necessarily evil-by-definition, or that development agencies may not be all as holy as they are cracked up to be. You might also pay more attention to competing priorities that never really existed for you before, like realising a family or owning real estate, which could temper your former idealism.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:20 AM on July 11, 2006

Perspective is dependent upon location and political viewpoints are no different. They are dependent upon your place in society. You've moved out of a a more liberal environment (college, sustainability industry) and therefore no longer associate with it. Additionally, your self-interests and priorities are changing and your political views will change accordingly:

- "Tax the rich" then, "Hands off my paycheck" now
- "Don't censor my TV" then, "I don't want my kids watching that" now (or soon)

You've now seen both sides of the fence - the key is to not become absorbed in the problems and interests of the side you're currently on and maintain a 10,000 foot view of both conditions. Don't think of it as a loss - think of it as a chance to further mutually beneficial moderation and compromise.
posted by datacenter refugee at 12:28 AM on July 11, 2006

It's not that getting older gives anyone a "good dose of reality" -- being young and unburdened by property and responsibilities is just as real and just as valid as being old and having heavier burdens and deeper roots -- but people naturally tend to vote selfishly on things that affect them directly.

Poor people want everyone to share, especially with them; rich people want to keep it all away from poor people and in their own pockets. Poor people imagine they've worked just as hard and deserve just as much as rich people; rich people think they've earned every penny, unlike people who they think are just grabbing for freebies. A poor person who becomes rich almost certainly will have a change of heart, as will a rich person who loses it all and becomes dependent on socialist state structures or private charity.

And change, especially radical change, is something much more readily welcomed by people who have little vested in the current system. Turn the government upside down? That sounds good when you're 18 and the government seems to be doing little for you and much to you, and when losing everything you own would mean losing almost nothing, but it's a frightening prospect to someone who has worked hard for years to pay for property and buy into pensions and so on that government upheaval might threaten.

It should not be surprising that a single person who owns nothing of substance and makes little or no taxable money has a different attitude towards taxes than a person with a spouse and kids and a large house and property and cars to support, even if those two people are the same person at different ages.
posted by pracowity at 12:36 AM on July 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Could it be that your orientation is shifting from "what is good" to "what is good for me"? It is easy to be all theoretical and detached when you do not own much, much harder to be interested in social programs when they require more taxes from you, not your parents or a dotcom millionaire.
posted by Cranberry at 12:44 AM on July 11, 2006

Studies show that political beliefs do not generally change with age.
posted by delmoi at 1:11 AM on July 11, 2006

I don't think your beliefs change, I think they just become less important to who you are and as a consequence become less "radical".
posted by madajb at 1:22 AM on July 11, 2006

When I was left-wing and a teenager, my Dad used to quote me the French PM Georges Pompidou.

Pompidou was a right-winger whose son became a Communist. He was asked if he would disown him, and supposedly replied "of course not, he's young, it's only natural. If he's still a communist when he's thirty I'll disown him then".

I reminded my Dad about this when I got to thirty and still had the same views.

What's my point? I think this is something the Right particularly says about Leftist thought. That it's born of naivety and inexperience and that one tends to grow out of it -- but that's not true. The young and inexperienced are just as likely to be right-wing, and it's not age that changes you, it's responsibilities and commitments, as others have said.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:12 AM on July 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I was about 16, I made the startling discovery that most of the people my own age were actually bigoted racist conservatives. This came as a shock at the time - I had formed in my head the idea that, somehow, my generation was going to be the good one - we'd got over racism, we understood how we were harming the environment, we were going to end poverty in our lifetimes.

Then I discovered that, no, most of the other kids were right-wing pricks.

Conversely, right now most of the radical left-wing people I know are over 45. Shit, I've been to anti-war protests with my mother-in-law, and my wife's grandparents. My father-in-law (divorced from my wife's mother) take pride in voting for the Socialist Alliance. A party that tends to get, ooh, about 0.2% of the vote, generally. (He may just be a shit-stirrer). My own father is fiercely anti-privatization, although I suppose he's conservative in other areas.

So, you're mileage may vary. Young people are entirely capable of being conservative. Old people are entirely capable of being progressive.

As for me, I still hold my views as strongly as I ever have, if not stronger as I've come to understand the world a bit more. But I don't go to too many rallys these days. I've let some memberships lapse as well. I guess my point of view hasn't shifted from "left" to "right", so much as it's shifted from "ideological" to "cynical".
posted by Jimbob at 4:05 AM on July 11, 2006

Two things: I wouldn't say I have moderated so much as I have become more aware of the complexity and complicated nature of society and politics. I am probably more left wing now than I ever was but I am also less likely to think in terms of the absolutes I relied on when I was younger.

The other thing is that I have a family member who was a right wing libertarian all of his life. When he retired he took up volunteer work representing poor people in legal aid contexts. He very quickly became a socialist. Context is important.
posted by anglophiliated at 4:38 AM on July 11, 2006

Sounds to me like you're trying to square your political beliefs with having a comfortable job that you may feel guilty about on some level.

I wouldn't say that shifts are inevitable, but as someone else said, many people tend to moderate their beliefs or they take a back seat to other parts of your life. For example, you might be really active in a political party or activities (right or left) in your twenties, but drop off as you get the full-time job, spouse, kids, etc.

It's probably healthy for some of your political ideas to change over time as you learn more and gain more experience. In my case, I've moved farther to the left on a number of issues over the years. (Background: I'm 36, and I've always been on the left side of the political spectrum.)
posted by jzb at 5:14 AM on July 11, 2006

Studies show that political beliefs do not generally change with age.

I'd love to see that study, because every Political Science class I've ever taken suggests that the older one gets, the more moderate they become (i.e., more Democratic or Republican, depending on the initial starting point).
posted by SeizeTheDay at 6:09 AM on July 11, 2006

I've found that my actual feeling about politics or society have actually become more radical as I've gotten older. BUT, my willingness to screw up my own life to champion those beliefs has waned.

When you're younger and you think you're going to live forever, it's alot easier to make reckless decisions in the name of your cause. Also, being younger and inexperienced, you're likely to be effected more strongly when encountering "radical" ideas, and hence more likely to act on them.

Once you have "established yourself", you're far less likely (IMHO) to jeopardize it with crazy activist activities. Furthermore, once you've got the job, house, and wife, it's kind of hard to come up with the time for such shenanigans.

But to answer your question specifically:

There's a saying that goes something like "If you're not liberal when you're young then you're heartless. If you're older and not conservative, then you're an idiot."

I can't remember the exact phrasing which was a bit more eloquent...Point is, while the statement may not be universally true, there's some truth to it...
posted by jaded at 6:22 AM on July 11, 2006

"Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains."
-Winston Churchill

Glad I'm a woman: I can still be liberal AND have brains! I've definitely become more and more liberal/leftist as I've gotten older.
posted by witchstone at 6:37 AM on July 11, 2006

"Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart..."

In 1899, Churchill stood as a Conservative candidate for Parliament. He was 25 at the time and, apparently, without heart.
posted by pracowity at 7:04 AM on July 11, 2006

My father used to throw the Churchill quote witchstone mentioned at me constantly. I'm 34 now and have found that age and motherhood have actually made me more liberal. I worry much more about the world my daughter will inherit, what kind of control she'll have over her body, what kind of rights she will have if she turns out to be gay, and I worry about the children just like her who don't have access to proper nutrition or a good education. So, no, I don't think a move to conservative thought is inevitable.

I do, however, find myself much more concerned with how my local (Republican) government is using my tax money. Why are we jacking up school taxes to build a new high school that may be too small in 10 years? Why aren't the developers putting in the mega-development being asked to shoulder the cost of the water treatment/sewage plant necessary to serve it? I didn't care much about those things when I was younger. But I sure as hell do now that I'm a homeowner.
posted by jrossi4r at 7:06 AM on July 11, 2006

When I was younger, I thought I was a libertarian. It turns out that I was just a douchebag.
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 AM on July 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Interesting discussion, but could you (OP) please explain the connection between your anecdote and the political-shift question. I feel like I'm missing part of the equation. What does racism have to do with your political ideology?
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 7:32 AM on July 11, 2006

That "conservative and under 25 is in want of a heart, liberal and 45 is in want of a brain." quotation isn't churchill. It's much older and originally about something else. It gets reattributed every fifty years or so.
posted by jeb at 7:35 AM on July 11, 2006

I would like to think that some kind of shift is inevitable (even though I know that's not the case), but the unstated part of the original question seems to be "shift to the right." And to that, I would say no, it's definitely not inevitable. My own political thinking has gotten more nuanced (I'd like to imagine) as I've aged, but in many ways its also moved leftward. Same is true for my parents, my mother in particular. She's hardly a radical, but her views seem to have become more firmly progressive since she turned 60.

deep dish says "I make more money...I really need the money." People can be amazingly flexible when they need to be. When you put yourself in a different situation, you adapt; it becomes your new norm. Part of deep dish's norm is a more conservative worldview, and to avoid the crashing headache of continuous cognitive dissonance, you may find yourself modifying your own worldview to fit. Eventually you may find you can't keep this up. Or you may find yourself, someday, voting for Pierce Bush for President.
posted by adamrice at 7:41 AM on July 11, 2006

Age has less to do with attitude shifts than does class and wealth and even apathy. Your lifestyle doesn't have to match that of your colleagues. You don't have to join the country club and play golf on weekends. You don't have to have an immaculate lawn in your 2500 sf suburban house.
posted by JJ86 at 8:06 AM on July 11, 2006

What I've found is that as I met more people I've been forced to accept that they have valid points of view. If you're around conservatives all the time it's easy to brush off liberals, and vice versa. Some people are still raving lunatics or drooling morons to me, of course, but at least I understand better where they're coming from and can even agree with some of their goals, even if their actions seem inexplicable.
posted by kindall at 8:27 AM on July 11, 2006

Did you know that the Democrats get somewhat fewer donations than the Republicans, but for larger amounts, while the Republicans get more small donations?

interesting. a friend of mine did house-to-house canvassing for a lefty political action group a few years back. i forget what they were collecting for, but i think it was some kind of environmental issue. this was in a medium-sized midwestern city.

he said that in poor or working-class neighborhoods, many houses would give something, but usually only a small amount, like $10. in richer neighborhoods, you'd get turned away more often, but when they did donate you'd get quite a bit more.

given that most people view the democrats as the party of the poor and the republicans as the party of the rich, i wonder why the party donations follow the opposite pattern?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:51 AM on July 11, 2006

given that most people view the democrats as the party of the poor and the republicans as the party of the rich, i wonder why the party donations follow the opposite pattern?

Republicans get money from guys like your average lawyers and doctors from Midwestern states, who are well off but not super rich.

Democrats get money from movie stars and the entrenched, East Coast upper classes.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:58 AM on July 11, 2006

I've always been liberal, but I find myself leaning even more to the left as I grow older, despite having money and, I suppose, more to protect. But I've always had authority issues. Maybe I'm growing more radical in response to the administration growing more conservative.
posted by lunalaguna at 10:07 AM on July 11, 2006

will your politics change? absolutely - that's a function of living, of having more experience and meeting new people.

is there some sort of path toward moderation that they will inevitably follow? absolutely not. the idea that they will is a product of a very popular myth of linear progress... and an easy way to justify a slide in to complacency.

it seems to be even worse in the US, where - witness this discussion - things so quickly polarize in to Dem/Rep, liberal/conservative. Part of why you see so many people settling, I think, is because they feel such pressure when younger to support one of the two false extremes of the congressional system, then when they realize it's all pretty much bullshit, they've invested so much time and energy that by then the only option they see left is apathy. Either that or they've become so invested in their material agglomeration that they don't really know who they are anymore anyway, so it's hard to say what their politics are.

as i age, my politics (so far) stay just as radical, and maybe become even moreso - but they also become less extreme. to me, in my understanding of the terms, there's a crucial difference.

how radical you are is your destination - your idea of where society should go, how it should change (or stay the same). how extreme (or not) your politics are dictates how flexible you are in getting to that point, and in dealing with other people's viewpoints and contexts and their inevitable impact on the reality you're navigating.

but that's not indicative of any sort of path or progress for me. i bounce all over, back and forth, on any number of issues, many of them contradictorily.

wouldn't have it any other way.
posted by poweredbybeard at 12:37 PM on July 11, 2006

I think that what changes as you grow older is that you become less idealistic. It's natural for young people to try to reach for the stars. But as you grow older you begin to realize that you really can't reach that far, and to realize that life is all about compromises.

Young people seek perfection; older people are willing to accept "good enough", something that's better than before even if still flawed. Young people try to imagine the best possible answer, older people try to imagine the best feasible answer.

(Naturally I'm making a generalization, which doesn't apply to every single person.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:42 PM on July 11, 2006

Are shifts in your political beliefs really inevitable as you get older?

Unless you stop learning, yes.
posted by NortonDC at 4:31 PM on July 11, 2006

Surely it's only not inevitable if you never change your perr group from your influences during your formative years - i.e. parents, teachers, friends - as they're they ones who generally cause the formation of beliefs.

As soon as you talk to other people, read a different newspaper to the one your Dad gets every day, watch a different new channel, then you get exposed to different viewpoints which, over time, will mostly lead you on a journey of introspection, which may change your beliefs.

Even if you don't change over time, you'll become more able to justify your beliefs - hold rational discussions, and argue for or against policital situations - whereas as a youngster things tended to end up in fights... although this may still happen!
posted by Chunder at 6:53 AM on July 12, 2006

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