Does age make us conservative?

A Democrat when young, a Republican when mature: Does that make sense?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 12, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Do you know that old saying about people being Democrats when they are young but Republicans when they are old?  Doesn't that idea negate how we should evolve through living? Shouldn't what we experience make us more fully human?  Shouldn't we become more loving, more compassionate, more understanding, more willing to be helpful and offer kindness to others as we age? 


Dear T.K.,

Age confers many gifts, but compassion is not always one of them, nor is a sense of proportionality and pragmatism. I get what that saying is about -- that the idealism of youth gives way to the hard lessons of life, that experience teaches pragmatism. I get that.

But our political culture today does not bear that out.

Let's talk about what an ideal traditional Republican conservative might be like. He or she would value self-reliance, would see its benefit to individuals and its benefit to society, and would consider business the primary shaper of individual life and also of societies. I could understand how one would feel that way if one's experience had shaped one in that way.

A traditional conservative would favor continuity of culture and religion. I get that. I could see how a person could be a conservative because they had seen firsthand the chaos that hasty change can bring. If you have worked for a company or in a profession and want your sons and daughters to live in the same world you lived in; if you value things the way they are and don't want to see them change; if you believe that what serves society best is for people to learn that they really are on their own, in a deep and fundamental way; and if you want people to be shaped by their economic experiences in the world, a world that offers a choice of either making money by working for a private enterprise or not making any money and starving ... I could see how at one time it would make sense to be a Republican.

If you had seen the failures of world communism and had concluded that any government was therefore good insofar as it avoided any aspects of communism real or imagined and bad insofar as it embraced any ideas that could remotely be construed as communist in origin or intent, such as the wish to provide for the poor, then I could see how you would be a Republican in the traditional sense.

I understand how one could favor business and traditional cultural institutions as the primary engines of one's society. I can understand how one would want one's culture to favor self-reliance, small community decisions, minimal federal influence over local education, the care of the poor through voluntary civic efforts, religious institutions and cultural institutions.

I can see how a person who sees the world as a dangerous place wants a strong military. I can see how a person would want to be safe from crime. Especially if you had a family history of people in the military and in law enforcement, I can see how you would want a government that emphasized those things in its rhetoric and policies.

To me, the ideal traditional Republican would hold such views and also be balanced, scrupulous with the truth, commonsensical, trustworthy and courageous. I can imagine that kind of person would be appealing.

But that's not who the Republicans seem to be today. Not really.

This ideal traditional Republican I'm imagining would be for preserving the environment and for a cautious foreign policy. He or she would be a cautious steward of the financial system and would not take sides on moral issues that a traditional Republican would consider part of the private sphere of life.

That's not who these guys are.

This ideal approach to life is one that I admire and, frankly, sort of wish I could live up to. I was pretty wild in high school and college. Had I been more traditionally conservative, in the sense of being more integrated into mainstream society and business, more able to work in institutions, more respectful of my elders and of traditional religion, less starry-eyed about the prospects for radical social change, more deeply knowledgeable of history and more cautious, I think I might have done far more good in my life.

To go a bit far afield -- to indulge in exactly the kind of thinking that a traditional conservative might find shallow (while at the same time indulging in his own set of superstitious beliefs), let us consider how personality type influences political beliefs. Who is the good person? The warrior, the lover, the star, the athlete, the scientist, the nurse, the mother nurturer, the judge, the king, the scholar, the poet, the artist? And who do we consider ourselves to be?

If one has a strong warrior archetype, then one will want the appearance of strength and order; if one has a strong scientist archetype, then one will want the appearance of reason. If one has a strong nurturing archetype such as a nurse or rescuer, then one will want to see compassion and care in one's political leaders. And so forth.  Note we say "appearance," for these are symbolic qualities.

Age-wise, I'm in the middle of the four candidates. Today is my birthday. Yes, I was lucky enough to be born on 9/11. I'm 59 today. That seems pretty old.

I'm older than two and younger than two: Ryan 42, Obama 51, Romney 65 and Biden 69.

Knowledge of our shortcomings is something we might wish for as we age. Maybe age has brought me a little of that --  some caution and humility. I don't see much caution and humility in the Republican presidential candidates. I see arrogance.

Cary Tennis

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