“My parents are voting for Kerry!” I shout. “We HATE George W. Bush!”
Ian, a little hyperactive, throws a handful of mulch up in the air.
My classmates holler back, “Well, we’re voting for Bush! Kerry’s bad!”
And just like that, I learned how to talk politics. Everything about this conversation — the canned rehashing of what someone else thinks, the ad hominem attacks, the name- calling, even the mulch-throwing — would characterize my development as a political thinker.
I grew up defiantly liberal. My parents were transplanted academics from the East Coast, and I never really had a chance of balanced dialogue in my house. But my parents’ politics went beyond supporting the Democratic Party: it came coupled with a hatred of Republicans. The phrase “conservative pig dogs” was and is a favorite phrase of my father’s, and I repeated it without a second thought until high school when I realized that while I agreed with my parents, my agreement didn’t have to hinge on my hatred of the opposing viewpoint. Where my parents would broadly dismiss families for their conservative views and use the adjective Republican as an insult, I had a different experience with those who my parents found so infuriating. They were my friends, people who — like me — had inherited these political leanings just as they inherited their eye color.
The politics of the baby boomers — the politics of our parents — are characterized by partisanship. In a split that historians trace to Southern Democrats’ defection to the Republican Party in the 1960s, our nation’s two political parties have moved farther and farther away from each other. This maybe explains why the historically conservative Indiana went blue in the last election, attracted to Obama’s rhetoric about there only being one America, not a red or a blue one. After all, for all my parents’ shouting and yelling and screaming, my conservative friends aren’t all that soulless or fascist or even really that racist; they’re just Midwesterners with Midwestern values and a Midwestern stubbornness that really didn’t support any government involvement in their lives, but at the same time rejected conservative policies that made things harder for the middle class.
By the time I got to high school, I was over my fiery liberal rage. I wasn’t so thrilled with my parents anymore because they wouldn’t let me stay out past midnight or skip school or do all the other things I thought I was entitled to, and the friends I used to fight with on the playground were similarly disenchanted with their parents and their political leanings. Collectively, we were rejecting our parents’ ideas of what we should be and what the country should be because though we could hear them shouting at each other, we couldn’t really see them doing anything.
It is summer 2012. I’m back home in Indiana. I visit the mall — a new kind of playground. As I pass the recently opened Urban Outfitters (Indianapolis is hip now!), I notice a huge window display, a display meant to convince me and people like me to spend money in their store. In bright block letters it reads: “Democrat. Republican. Free-thinking individual.”
At its core, this is an advertising campaign. This is a strategy meant to make money for Urban Outfitters and its stockholders. But the fact that those in charge of advertising feel there is enough political discontent among their core consumer base that such an ad would be successful says more about our generation than a Gallup poll could. I mean, it’s Urban Outfitters, the arbiter of all things hip, and it basically just made being politcally independent cool.
It might just be another quirk of the me generation, us kids raised to believe we’re too special and complicated and unique to fall into such predetermined labels. After all, we’re deeper than that, and I think maybe I don’t mean this ironically. We were raised multicultural, steeped in morality soup, experienced in extenuating circumstances, comfortable with the word “maybe.” I sense in none of my friends the righteous political rage I see in my parents, and while I can hear right now a middle-aged political pundit shouting on television about our apathy, our disinterest and our selfishness, I think what it comes down to is our ability to see colors beyond black and white, blue and red.
Susannah Sharpless is a sophomore from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.