Right To Left: Why Your Republic-Raised Kid Is Voting Blue
Guest Column by Whit Jester
This is a letter for my parents.
The day Maddi and I started dating, I stayed up late researching Type 1 Diabetes. Like many things, diabetes was something I was vaguely familiar with but would have struggled to have more than a two minute conversation about. But now I was dating someone with Type 1 Diabetes, so I felt I needed to have a deeper understanding of the topic. I learned a lot that night. I hadn’t known that you could be born with diabetes, that it could come about any way besides as a side effect of putting on weight. I didn’t really know what insulin was or how it worked. I had absolutely no concept of how diabetes affects every aspect of a diabetic’s life. But now when Maddi counted carbs, pricked her finger, and tested her insulin levels before we’d cook breakfast in her kitchen on groggy mornings, I had a context to put it all in.
Understanding this new information caused a shift in Maddi and I’s relationship. Because we were dating, her struggles and interests had become my own. I suddenly found myself interested in community health–Maddi’s major–and started reading up on universal healthcare—a term I’d heard often but had little understanding of. Maddi’s frustrations with the modern healthcare system became my own frustrations. When I read the news about the countless ordinary American families that smuggle insulin out of Canada for their diabetic loved ones, their anger and pain became my own.
I’m sure there’s a word for this phenomena of suddenly empathizing with an issue after it becomes personally relevant to you, but I’m not sure what that word is, so I’m going to call it the Empathy Effect.
I was introduced to politics during the 2008 election when I was almost 11 years old. The topic came up at a sleepover. I’d spent the day with four of my closest friends, building scarecrows and pressing cider to celebrate the arrival of autumn. In the hushed whispers and giggles late that night, after discussing who had crushes on whom and who had seen the most scandalous movie scenes, one friend posed the question: Who were our parents voting for? Around the circle, each pre-pubescent girl in too-small pajamas cheeped the same name: Obama. But the name was foreign to me. I was unaware there was an election happening, I had no idea who Barack Obama was, and I didn’t know who my parents were voting for. When it came my turn to answer the question, I shrugged.
Days later, when walking to the mailbox with my mom, I repeated the question for her. My homeschooling mother, always eager to teach on the go, explained there were two political parties and that they would vote for the Republican party nominee, John McCain. She went on to explain that she voted Republican based on two key issues: “homosexual marriage” and abortion, two issues that I had previously been clueless about. As my mother went on to explain the biblical reasons for not supporting these issues, I was too busy having my mind blown by the concept of girls dating girls (That was an option?! Why hadn’t anyone told me?!) to listen.
Whether I understood the reasoning or not, and though I was aware I was suppressing my own queerness, I spent the next four years trying to be as die-hard a Republican as the people that raised me. Being a kid raised living and breathing the church, being a Christian was possibly the most key part of my identity, so my reasoning was simple: All Christians, so far as I knew, were Republicans, so that’s what I was going to be. The first time this line of thinking was brought into question for me was while teaching Sunday school. When I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and teaching younger kids during church service, one of the students asked about gay marriage. I was quick to repeat the only sentiment I had ever heard: “The Bible says it’s wrong.”
“Well,” my co-teacher, a middle-aged, soft spoken man that often taught classes with me, started, “but the Bible says to love others, so it’s important to love people regardless of who they choose to love.”
I remember turning on him in absolute disbelief, the cognitive dissonance ringing in my head. Here was a Christian, a respected member of our church, complicating a line of thinking I’d thought was non-negotiable. Once again I was blindsided by the realization—This was an option?! For so long my ideologies had been a room with closed and locked doors; nothing to be let in to challenge them. This was a door being cracked, some light from a different view being allowed to trickle in. I still felt relatively safe in that room, accepting that cracking a door from time to time out of curiosity was okay. Then I enrolled in college, and suddenly those doors were thrown open.
Growing up, I understood little about how college worked. Neither of my parents had college degrees and once when I, at age fourteen, asked them the difference between a Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate, they were unsure of the answer. As I prepared to start college at the young age of 15, I felt clueless, alone, and unprepared. But there was one thing I knew for certain: college was not going to turn me liberal. I had heard countless stories about the small town kids I’d grown up with going to college and coming back awful things like feminists and queers. I heard the horror stories from mothers at church—they’d sent their babies off to college only to have them come back smoking pot and supporting Planned Parenthood. I, I resolved with all the determined naivety of a 15-year-old, would not be like them.
I spent my first two years of school in community college, which I think every college student should have to do. Community college, particularly Wenatchee Valley College, where I attended, was beautifully diverse. I was a 15-year-old child in classes where the median age was maybe mid-40s. My Chemistry lab-mate was a recovering addict. Working as an English tutor on campus, I edited countless papers retrieved from diaper bags by exhausted but determined mothers. The student population was 37% Hispanic or Latino, the majority of those students children of immigrant farmworkers. I went from going to school with kids like me, going to church with people like me, and attending social events with people like me, to suddenly being immersed in an environment where the level of diversity had my head spinning.
Let me tell you what doesn’t happen when your child goes to college. They don’t get badgered by Democratic professors that pressure them into being liberal. Actually, none of my community college professors tried to swing me in any direction politically. If anything, they were overwhelmingly accepting when I shared my evolving Christian worldview with them in person and in the essays I wrote. You don’t enter college and get sworn into a liberal cult under threat of death.
Rather, what happens to many students—what happened to me—was much more subtle. I simply met people different than me. This was unavoidable. As much as I tried to cling to my old, conservative-leaning social groups, I couldn’t help but befriend the countless other people that were eager to welcome me into their lives. The middle-aged queer women that worked as English tutors with me and taught me about poetry and woodworking. The felon-turned-farmer who was studying agriculture, taught me to skateboard, and pushed me to read religious texts besides the Bible. My math professor who loaned me books by Isabel Allende. My English professor who told me to keep writing and writing and writing and who inspired this blog. It was the Empathy Effect leaching into my life through the kindness and openness of strangers.
It couldn’t be avoided. Even when my mother convinced me to attend Whitworth—a tiny, private, Christian university—for my last two years of school because she was concerned about “what public school could do to you,” the change couldn’t be avoided. Even in a school as lacking in diversity as Whitworth, I was inundated by people different from me and over and over again danced with the Empathy Effect. It was at Whitworth that I came out, both to myself and others. I met Maddi at Whitworth. I made Muslim friends and learned about Islam from actual Muslims for the first time. I became president of the sustainability club and learned to advocate for environmental justice. I met sex workers and drug addicts. I met the first Christians I’d ever known that voted Democrat. I met Christians who were scientists, who wrote books about evolution and climate change and faith and creation care. Each of these people flung open the doors of my ideologies and introduced all sorts of wonders and forces that would change them forever.
Of course, I’m not saying this is a universal phenomena, because obviously it’s not. 38% of white Americans with a four-year degree that voted in 2016 voted for President Trump. Not everyone who leaves home and goes to college ends up a Democrat. But it is a common experience. And it was my experience.
By the time I graduated, nineteen and an agnostic, liberal Democrat living in Trump’s America, I was a different person than when I had started college. Surely my family, who I avoided going home to see, felt they barely knew me. When I thought of the person I’d been before—so certain of values that had never been challenged—I felt like I didn’t know that person either. I’ve spent the years since coming to terms with being who I am, having lived the experiences I have, and holding the values I hold against the backdrop of my conservative family and hometown.
After graduating, I went as far away from my small town as I could. I’d felt adrift in my identity—I’d become a new person but had nowhere to land. The last time I’d lived in my hometown, I’d sworn I wouldn’t come back “one of those liberals.” Now, not only liberal but also coming into my queerness and still very much discovering my identity, I felt excluded from and unwanted in the spaces that had raised me. The church that had been like family to me suddenly felt unsafe. The family that had watched me grow suddenly felt foreign. I was a stranger in my homeland. Spending two years in the Peace Corps in Paraguay was a sort of cleansing for me, the distance I needed to continue discovering myself while also growing empathy and a thick skin, both of which would be needed returning to small, rural America at the end of 2019.
It saddens me to know young people like me are fleeing their small hometowns after changing their ideologies, leaving the towns to age and become even less diverse. I have a deep love for rural America and want to hold my own space there. Since returning home, I’ve lived and worked on a farm in a town of less than 6,000 people. And, finally, I visit home often to see my family. What I discovered while in Peace Corps, and what has allowed me to routinely return to my small hometown with confidence and grace, is that, yes, my empathy has blessedly expanded to people vastly different to me, but empathy isn’t a zero sum game. My empathy will always run deepest for the people like me and the people close to me, and my political ideologies actually embrace and benefit those people rather than exclude them.
I come from several generations of farmers. From the cotton fields of Arkansas to the apple orchards of the Wenatchee Valley, my ancestors have worked the land across the nation; and I’ve been a farmer my whole life. My whole childhood I watched my dad work endless hours of overtime on the ranch, stopping only to catch fifteen minute armchair naps during his break time. I know the pride that comes with growing up in a small town and making a way for yourself with your own two hands. A millionaire who’s had life handed to him on a silver platter doesn’t represent me or the people I love and isn’t interested in the support we need. I want to vote for politicians that represent my family—who will offer subsidies and grants to the farmers I love, provide healthcare for the hardworking grandparents I love, protect land for the hunters I love, and ensure every young dreaming kid like me can make a living wage wherever we choose to work. And so, from the month I turned nineteen during the 2016 election and until this day, I vote blue.
The Empathy Effect continues to rock my world. While living in Paraguay, I was introduced to a whole demographic of people, people at the very bottom rung of poverty, that I’d never met before. I saw the current and significant effects of climate change firsthand, and because of those experiences, today I’m studying for a Masters in Climate Change and Development. While in Paraguay I was hurt, harassed, assaulted, stalked, shunned, excluded… And I was shown more love and acceptance and kindness than I could have imagined. And I’m still learning how to hold those things. I’m in therapy. I’m learning to offer empathy while also drawing emotional boundaries for my own mental health. I’m striving to continue exposing myself to people different than me, whether that means befriending people in my small town or starting discussions with the people in my new graduate program. I’m trying to love my family even while knowing their political beliefs could undermine my basic human rights as a queer person. I’ve found my empathy shouldn’t stop just because the people that are different than me are the people that were once like me. If anything, it should be easiest for me to empathize with my family. Because I was like them. I believed what they believe. I didn’t try hard to leave conservative circles; I got lucky. I was just exposed to other people. So I’ll keep finding those people, keep striving to be like those people, to be like that Sunday school teacher telling me to love others, to be that person that cracks someone else’s door open.