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Family Values

Taking the Temperature of the GOP Around the Dinner Table

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 1/30/2008

I have a confession to make: I was raised by Republicans. During a mock election in third grade, when my friends were supporting Mondale, I was Reagan all the way--I still kind of remember him as reassuring father figure. One of my brothers once wrote an essay titled "Richard Nixon: American Hero," and when we played Taboo this past Thanksgiving, the first word my dad thought of to describe Bill Clinton was "sleazy."

At some point in college, I realized that I was actually a Democrat, and a pretty liberal one at that. That realization led to many holidays and summer vacations spent cringing as my parents and three brothers mocked Democrats and talked up Republicans, whom I had been assured by my fellow liberals were evil and wanted to upholster their yachts with the hides of poor children.

Once I got over disagreeing with my family just because being a Republican was, like, so lame, I started to realize that my family's views weren't the crazy Ann Coulter/Bill O'Reilly version I'd heard spewed in the media. I still didn't agree with many of their stances, but I couldn't write their positions off as evil, either.

As the current campaign season got under way ridiculously early, I noticed that there was a reversal in the air-one might even call it a flip-flop. Suddenly, the Democrats appeared strong and unified-if not under one candidate, then at least by a set of principles-and Republicans looked weak and fractured. I started to wonder how Republicans saw their party these days and how they felt about the upcoming election.

So on a recent trip home, I asked my family for their thoughts. I ended up learning about more than being a Republican during the 2008 election cycle; I learned how many different political views there can be around one dinner table. My father and my three brothers all had different views on being Republicans. Two of my sisters-in-law are Democrats. My boyfriend and my other sister-in-law are independents, but for totally different reasons. My 12-year-old niece is a Green. And my mother, the only person in my family who refused to speak on the record, insisted that we were all completely wrong about everything. She's probably right.

Of course, the Republicans in my family don't fit the usual stereotypes. I'm fairly sure the only time my father fired a gun was when he was in the Army, and the idea of a Ditkoff hunting expedition is beyond ridiculous.

My family is religious-some Jewish, some Roman Catholic-and I was raised going to church not just on Sundays, but on all holy days of obligation. Feast of the Assumption? We were in a pew. But they've never been proselytizers. When I decided in my 20s that my beliefs contradicted the Catholic Church to the point that attending church even on Christmas and Easter was hypocritical, I didn't get so much as a tsk.

They don't hate gay people either; just about everyone in my family supports gay marriage or at least civil unions. My mother even walked out on an anti-gay sermon at her church. So, why are they backing the party of Jerry Falwell?

"I grew up in the '60s and, at the time, the Republicans were the civil-rights party, and the Democrats were the party that held all the Southern seats and the segregationists," my father explains. "So you could be very supportive of views that people considered progressive and still be Republican."

That may have attracted him to the Republican Party, but what keeps him there are economic issues. "I'm a Reagan Republican, which means lower taxes, less government interference, less regulations, strong national defense," Dad says.

It makes sense that my dad would back a party that is, at least in theory, all about letting capitalism do its thing. It's a system that has treated him well. The son of a junk man, he worked his way through Yale loading boxes in a warehouse, and my mom's job as an inner-city high-school teacher was all they had to support them as he went through law school. Over the years, my father became a successful businessman, and he and my mother went from scraping by to creating a life where they can take fancy vacations without worrying about the price tag.

My oldest brother, Joseph, a prosecutor in Boston, feels that Republicans put more consistent focus on law and order and national security, and as someone who spends his days trying to put away bad guys, that's important to him.

My middle brother, Carl, a fitness consultant, thinks that political affiliation is imprinted on people. "I think, just like religion or values, you learn most of that how you grow up, and then you can disagree with it or you can try to change, but it's not like starting with a blank slate," he says.

My youngest brother, Jacob, seems like the last person who should be a Republican. He went to film school in Greenwich Village and is currently writing a novel-if anyone should be a hybrid-driving Inconvenient Truth devotee, it would be him. When I ask him why he's a member of the Grand Old Party, he says, "I think, in general, Republicans see the government as a way to help society, and Democrats tend to want the government to improve society, which I think is futile. I don't think the government can really change people."

Being a Republican can be difficult, especially in the New England blue states my family members call home. Carl lives in Amherst, Mass., and says he keeps his political affiliations to himself. "I'm afraid of hate crimes against my family, and I'm not kidding with that," he says. Shortly after Bush was re-elected, the town hall put up a Puerto Rican flag to celebrate Puerto Rican Day, and someone stole it because he thought it was the Texas flag. He says he's also met kids in his 7-year-old son's elementary school class who say they would refuse to even talk to a Republican.

"I'm basically in the closet [socially]," Jacob says, because of the negative reactions he has gotten from people. It was even a potential stumbling point in his relationship with his now-wife, Emily, who describes her teenage self as "a crazy, leftist, crying, nonshaving vegetarian liberal" who used to sob over the fact that Republicans existed.

"I was really shocked," says Emily, who found out Jacob was a Republican on their first date. "I had heard he was a conservative before, but I thought it was a conservative-liberal, so he would vote for Gore instead of Nader in 2000." Though she's still a Democrat and a die-hard Obama supporter, she feels that marrying a Republican has widened her worldview: "I understand things that I don't agree with, and that's taught me a lot of tolerance."

The Christian Right becoming the face of the party hasn't helped perceptions of Republicans, either. "The idea of trying to enforce a religious belief or morality on other people, that's not consistent with Republican principles," my dad says. He points to the gay marriage issue as an example: "Basically, Republicans back to the Goldwater tradition believe that government should interfere as little as possible in people's lives. Abortion, that's a question of whether you're protecting an innocent life, so that's different, but, certainly, gay people having the same rights [is] not a threat to anybody else."

All the Republicans in my family feel the power of the Religious Right has been overstated, and that its inability to coalesce around a single candidate in this election proves it. "The fact that [Mike Huckabee] didn't win South Carolina proves that the Christian Right doesn't have that much power, because he's one of them-he's a Southern Baptist minister," Jacob says. The state went for John McCain, who has been at times openly hostile to Christian Right groups.

My family members insist that the Republican Party isn't as fragmented as it seems, but even within my family, no two Republicans are definitely backing the same horse. "I can't support a pro-abortion candidate, and so the candidate whose views are most like my own is John McCain. I'm not terribly enthusiastic about it," my dad says, pointing to McCain's age and less-than-huggable personality.

Joseph is still deciding between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. "If everything's in crisis, there's no one better than Giuliani, but he has trouble when things are quiet," he says. "Romney doesn't have Giuliani's genius, but he's strong in more situations. It all depends on how many crises we are going to see in the next few years."

Jacob didn't have any trouble picking a candidate. He is a serious Giuliani fan. "The campaign sent me an e-mail saying, 'Why don't you stuff envelopes or call people and annoy them or go to Yankee Stadium and hand out things?'" Jacob says. So, looking for a way to support Giuliani without bothering people, he started a blog (americasmayor2008.blogspot.com) filled with links to articles and Giuliani news. "I always liked Giuliani . . . and after Sept. 11 it was just sort of like everyone else became like me for a short amount of time," he says. "I always thought that he was a really great mayor, and he was someone you could really trust, like when he told a reporter that he was being a jerk, that seemed kind of refreshing to me."

When asked about the Democratic presidential candidates, the responses are surprisingly positive. Most of them like Barack Obama and consider Hillary Clinton capable of making the hard decisions necessary for the job. They think John Edwards' switch from 2004's Mr. Happy Moderate to 2008's Liberal Rebel is disingenuous at best.

They also seem resigned to a Clinton or Obama presidency unless the war in Iraq drastically improves. My dad, for one, is OK with losing: "It's sometimes better to lose an election. For example, there would not have been a Reagan presidency if Gerald Ford had been elected. Carter made Reagan possible."

And with that comment, my father proved that one man's silver lining can be his daughter's ring around the toilet. At least I'm not alone. It turns out Emily and I aren't the only liberals in the family. Carl's wife, Jen, is a Democrat, and jokes that "I just vote for whoever will cancel out Carl's vote." Joseph's wife, Susan, is an independent who says she votes for whichever candidate she feels has the best management and decision-making skills. My boyfriend, Matt, is also an independent, but not as a swing voter. "I don't believe in a two-party system. I don't believe in supporting it. There would be almost no way I'd vote for a Democrat or a Republican," Matt says. "I think elections should be like the NCAA Sweet 16 tournament-no parties, and you just have 16, and then the top eight go to the next round."

At which point our serious political discussion devolves into talk of how such a contest would be seeded. People slowly start drifting away from the table to give children baths and put them to bed and to settle in for an evening of playing board games, flipping channels, or talking about our lives rather than the super-quotient of a particular Tuesday, because regardless of how much we disagree on foreign policy or reproductive rights, at the end of the day we're still just a family.

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