When I Was a Conservative

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush during the presidential election. I was six at the time and had only been a US resident for half of those years. It would be many more birthdays before I or anyone else in my family, other than my US-born sister, would become citizens. Suffice it to say, I had little understanding or concern for what was going on, except as it applied to the Democratic allegiance of my teacher at the time. Authority figures are important in Chinese culture, and teachers rank high on the list of early-life authorities. I remember she had a Harry Truman bobblehead paper weight on her desk engraved with his famous quote, "The buck stops here." I had no idea what the quote meant, but as a six-year-old immigrant, it was more the oversized bobbling head than the political platitude that won my interest.

I was living in Hoboken, NJ at the time, a pretty left leaning city. The atmosphere of the area favored Clinton, and I think it must’ve subtlety influenced my own sense of how things were meant to be when he eventually declared victory over the Republican incumbent. A six-year-old immigrant doesn’t give two shits about reading lips or new taxes, but I can guarantee they will give anything to feel like they fit in.

Four years later, Bill Clinton ran for reelection against Bob Dole. It was 1996, and my family had moved to Montville, NJ, a predominantly conservative township. I was ten and relatively new in town. Though still too young to understand policies or platforms, I was much more aware of the social tensions that politics tend to muster out of people. This time around, the affair felt more ubiquitous, like everyone had an opinion. Most importantly, I was keenly aware of the support Bob Dole was receiving from my peers, particularly my neighborhood friends and the "cool kids" whom I envied for their access to legitimate AOL accounts (oddly enough, these same "cool kids" would eventually become my first introduction to Jay-Z and DMX, not the kind of music I imagine Bob Dole would approve for tweens). I remember their support for the Republican challenger felt very threatening to me because it directly conflicted with the happy memories of Clinton’s first victory that unintentionally became part of my childhood. I didn’t understand any of the talking points, but Clinton had been the president for the majority of my life in America, and the world seemed fine to me. I remember the long albeit furtive sigh of relief I enjoyed when Clinton again clinched that election.

Years later, I revisited those strange memories where politics managed to briefly sneak its way into the formative experiences of my childhood, awkwardly nestled alongside memories of prank phone calls and anxious nights of praying for snow because I hadn’t finished a book report, and I became aware of a shameful realization that has strongly influenced my political thinking ever since.

In 1996, when I secretly rooted for Clinton, it wasn’t because I was a liberal, a Democrat, or a progressive. In fact, it was the very opposite sentiments which ironically drove me to favor the liberal candidate. I was being fundamentally conservative. Without policies or platforms to guide my judgment, I was relying solely on past experiences and a fear of change. For me, Bill Clinton had come to represent a good, stable constant in the political arena. The only reason I didn’t want Bob Dole to win was because I didn’t want the familiarity of Bill Clinton to be taken away from my world. It had nothing to do with policy, beliefs, platforms, or reason. It had everything to do with maintaining the setting I had gotten comfortable telling my story against. Clinton was simply the way things were. This, I realize now, is the very essence of conservatism. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’d like a deeper analysis. What I’ve come to realize through those childhood memories is that Conservatism isn’t defined by the policies or parties you support, but rather the other way around. Conservatism is a basic desire to hold onto the familiar and traditional. And sure, political parties, ideologies, and platforms have arisen from that primal desire, institutional symptoms we now carelessly label conservative, but the truth is that Conservatism doesn’t belong to one party. It is a reliance and preference, regardless of practical benefits, for the way things have always been, and in that way, it can afflict Democrats and Republicans alike.

I often think back on the fear I felt during the 1996 election, that somehow the world could only change for the worst if things didn’t play out along the track I’d grown accustomed to riding. That simply because Clinton was the president, he deserved to stay the president. I still enjoy marveling at the irony of my naivety. But these days I also wonder, if I hadn’t been confronted by that serendipitous dissonance between established party politics and fundamental philosophical underpinnings, would I still be clinging to candidates because they felt like the comfortable positions to support? Would I just be using policies, parties, and platforms to justify what is fundamentally nothing more than a desire to maintain my own sense of continuity? And how many people out there have still never had to confront the possibility that the reason they lean left or right has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with keeping their inner child reassured that the world will never change in ways they don’t understand?