Personal stories matter in politics. Personal stories connect us to the issues. They tie large, abstract issues to personal, human events. They help us empathize. They help us connect to each other, allowing us to understand, even if we don’t agree. It’s personal stories that change opinions.
At a Centrist Project event last week, I met Jimmy LaSalvia, a gay conservative who has left the Republican Party. For years Jimmy had worked inside his party as founder of GOProud and as national staff for the Log Cabin Republicans. In 2014, disillusioned by the deeply entrenched opinions on evolving social and cultural issues, Jimmy announced he was leaving the Republican party, changing his affiliation to “no party.”
My conversation with Jimmy got me thinking about the personal events that lead us to the political decisions we make. Among frustrated voters — Independents, non-voters, and even voters who maintain a party affiliation — these stories are even more important, helping to ground and humanize a conscious decision to reject some of our countries oldest institutions.
These stories are more complex and personal than a one sentence explanation for why we make political decisions. An Independent voter’s story is more personal than just “neither party represents me.” A non-voter’s story is more complex than “why bother?” And most party voter’s have a more complicated relationship with their party than “I agree with them.”
This fall, Jimmy LaSalvia will be launching an effort to collect these stories from people like you, the disaffected American voters. He has already begun collecting stories from voters. You can find his call to action and submit your own story here. As an introduction, I thought I would share part of my own story below, in the hopes that readers will follow suit.
A request to readers: If you are going to read this, read it in its entirety. Some more hardline conservatives or liberals will undoubtedly disagree with me. I believe we as a nation have an underappreciated capacity to understand. You can vehemently disagree, turn red, blow smoke, and email me, or you can take this story as it is: a human story about the evolution of a diverse array of opinions by someone who experiences life just like you.
I grew up in a liberal family in a liberal town in Massachusetts. As a kid, I remember asking my Dad what the difference between Republicans and Democrats was. He told me “Democrats want to help people. Republicans want to help business.”
I vaguely remember staying up late with my Mom on election night in 2000, and the last thing I remember is Al Gore’s premature victory celebration. This was not to be, and my political coming of age occurred during the Bush presidency.
Bush’s first term might have been the height of name calling in politics. People loved to call Bush stupid. It seemed most people around me doubted he could string two coherent sentences together. I had a tough time accepting this. Degrees of intelligence aside, the man was president. I don’t care who you are, but if you reach the pinnacle of leadership and public service in America, you have to have some degree of intelligence.
It also felt like we were calling him stupid because we couldn’t beat him. On the issues, or in elections, Democrats kept losing to Bush, but kept calling him stupid. If he was as dumb as we said he was, what did this say about our own intelligence? It felt like we were missing the rational link, not the Republicans.
I also doubted what this name calling was accomplishing. Who were we convincing? It felt like we were incapable of making an intelligent argument on the issues. If we really cared about policy, we would drop the name calling and make strong arguments. Maybe then we could convince conservatives we were right, and actually effect the change we believed in.
In 2008 during my junior year of high school I participated in Presidential Classroom, an organization with its roots in the Kennedy administration that brought high school students together from across the country to spend a week in Washington D.C., where they would attend events with guest speakers, debate policy, and visit D.C. political organizations.
For the policy debates we were grouped by our party affiliation, and there was one Democrat in my group who completely personified everything I disliked about my party. During debates our conservative opponents would make passionate, logical arguments in favor of their policies, and he would respond with derogatory, irrelevant name calling.
One moment crystalized my growing disillusionment with the party of my birth. One of our guest speakers that week was Ralph Nader. More than seven years removed from his 2000 presidential campaign, Nader gave an incredible speech passionately arguing against the diminishing rights of American voters and the abuses of major American institutions.
You had to respect him. An elderly man who had been a fixture of politics for decades and by all accounts had had the crap kicked out of him. He had every right to be tired and disillusioned, but there he was, making a passionate speech on the same issues he had been fighting for his entire life.
At the end of the speech, my Democratic opponent got up to ask a question. His demeanor oozed arrogance, and you could tell what he was going to ask before he said it. “How can you justify costing Al Gore the 2000 election?”
I was disgusted. The whole room seemed disgusted. A few people shouted for him to sit down. He had taken nothing from the speech.
Coming away from something like that, I had to ask myself, “Is this the kind of person that I want to be associated with?” Every time he spoke, he represented the Democratic party, and by extension, me. Was I comfortable with people knowing everything they needed to about my politics based on one label?
In this moment it became clear to me that my political opinions cannot be defined by one broad group label, and that I was not comfortable with anyone bearing this label representing me.
This moment represents an important step in a continuing process. Many, many more steps followed, each with a story attached to it. My time living with a libertarian, my personal struggle with student loan debt, many, many other factors, they have all played their part. I credit my experience in Presidential Classroom with opening the floodgates, and making me more receptive to all of the experiences to follow.
Personal stories have a very important role to play in this broader movement. They can help ground us in the real, personal motivations of our politics, help define a rapidly growing group of people who reject definition. They show that our political decisions are made by rational human actors, all Americans participating in one of the great, and silent, political shifts of our time.
I hope that everyone reading this reaches out to Jimmy and submits their own personal story as we build the narrative of this greater movement.