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Why Does A Person Become a Republican?

I went to CPAC today, and unfortunately the title of this post is a little more provocative than the substance — I’m not going to try any comprehensive explanation for why people become Republicans. In some ways I am still adapting to the experience, struggling with a reaction the way Rachel Maddow was speechless after the Bobby Jindal response on Tuesday night.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t waste your time with an anecdote, but since it happened immediately after leaving this massive gathering of suit-clad, mostly young Republicans while I was reflecting on the experience, tying the two together is a decent way to close out a Friday afternoon.

The Onmi Shoreham hotel, which hosts CPAC this week, is a block from the Woodley Park Metro station. I have one of the paper cards and not the new plastic card. (For those unfamiliar with the Metro, you insert your card into the turnstile slot, and provided you have money on it to pay the minimum fare, the gates open, your card pops back up, and you go down to your train. At entry, the card captures where you got on, and when you exit and repeat the turnstile slot process it deducts the fare with a newly printed remainder.)

Well, it wouldn’t take the card, and I had $9.45 left on it. At the kiosk, the Metro employee told me that the card had become demagnetized and thus I had two choices. First, she could issue me a card to go to my next stop, the value of which was $1.65. That would be it. I’d lose $7.20, but be able to travel to my next stop. Second, I could go to a stop called Metro Center (not my stop, one stop away from mine), which was the only place they could issue me a new card so that I could retrieve the value I’d paid in advance.

Since Metro Center was close to my final destination, I took the second option. She tears a corner of my card, writes “-$1.65 = $7.75” in pen, and lets me go in through a side gate. At Metro Center, I wait in a predictably long 20 minute line. When I finally get to the front of the line, I request the $9.45 restored so that when I exit at my real stop, the $1.65 will come off and I’ll be in exactly the position I should have been in, minus the loss of time.

Of course, the Metro employee cannot do this. He can only do what it says on the card. Keep in mind, that “$9.45” is plainly printed as the lowest number on the card, followed by the handwriting. Surely this situation happens routinely. He says he can only give me $7.75.

Except, not really. I have to either give him a quarter so that he can give me an $8 card, or I lose $0.75 and he gives me a $7 card. (I had no quarter on me, because I try and minimize the metal I carry through magnetometers). So, in essence, I am going to get $7 in fare refunded to me, which will then be deducted by another $1.65 when I exit my real exit one stop away. I either had to lose $7.20 (the whole card) or lose $2.45 and some time waiting in line.

I asked him, “Why can you not give me the value that I’ve paid for?” I explained that I didn’t want “more” value, I just wanted to get the value that I’d pre-paid. I wanted the government to honor its small little contract with me. He replies, in that maddeningly passive-aggressive government employee way, “It says $7.75. I can only do what it says.” (Unless of course I happened not to have a quarter on me, then I would be further penalized). I pointed out that surely he can see what happened, he can see the $9.45 and that another Metro agent has written this, he knows $1.65 is the cost of the fare to get to Metro Center to this infernal line and that when I exit whatever stop is next, I will have to pay $1.65 or more.

He hunkered down into numbed-over bureaucrat mode and would not budge. After about two minutes of back and forth I gave up, as he surely knew I would, and then he issued me two separate cards that totaled $7. The significance of this? When you get down to the end of a card’s use, there is always some leftover change, and you have to exchange the old paper card for a new one and reload. The $3 card can’t handle two $1.65 trips; the $4 card can, but would have $0.70 left on it. So two cards just takes more time to redeem the value that’s on them than one card.

Now, I can put this all in perspective. The Metro is a great system. The number of positive interactions I’ve had with it overwhelm the negative ones. Hundreds and hundreds of CPAC attendees rode to the conference on the Metro (all around me) rather than use rugged individualism and walk.

Moreover, it’s not just government that provides these moments in life. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with Dell customer service knows that, indeed, there IS a company more desperately terrible than Comcast in this department. Conservatives would say that in theory the market would replace those horrorshow companies, but for anyone who lives in the real world and interacts with American customer service knows that the day when market forces push private sector companies asymptotically toward customer service quality is a future day well after every conservative who holds that belief will have been long dead.

Still, I walked away today, having just been in a sea of conservatives who left me speechless, and thought: this is one tiny example of a major reason people become Republicans. Disgust, anger, annoyance with government interaction (ever wait in line at the DMV?) is distorted within an emotional prism, and suddenly someone is receptive to an anti-government message. What just happened becomes explainable by a larger narrative, and now you have somewhere to channel that disgust. People don’t like to have loose disgust. It has to be funneled into a rational and ready explanation, a larger story. It helps a person feel they’re regaining control over their environment.

When CPAC attendees gather to glory in their hatred of government, the thing Grover Norquist wants to drown in a bathtub, they are insisting that government is the problem. That it cannot be efficient, and that the side effect is to steal from you (who are good and have earned it) to redistribute to others (who haven’t).

That the tone coming out of CPAC is as hard-edged as it has been (“Al Franken and ACORN: How Liberals are Destroying the American Election System”; “Health Care: The Train Wreck Ahead”; “Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?”) reflects this core fear that Democratic control of government means more and more aspects of life will be filled with interactions like this one. A lot of the spinoff spew that takes shape in prejudice behaviors of intolerance derives, I believe, from fear that a force bigger than me is taking from me with no recourse. Prejudice is about looking for targets to blame for the powerlessness.

The way that my belief in the moral force of civil rights is the foundation for why I start as less a Democrat than as an anti-Republican, and much of the rest is built outward from there, many Republicans start with the kernel that government’s inherent design is to be inefficient, and to take from your deserving pockets and put it in the pocket of passive-aggressive, government job-having bureaucrats. They, too, build outward from that core belief to the rest of the ideology. It’s a zero-sum game where limited resources mean its you or the other guy who wins.

Is this way oversimplified? Of course, there are many paths to the Republican Party. Earth-shattering in insight? Not close, since it doesn’t take a genius to point out that conservatives hate government. It’s more an idle stream of thought on a Friday afternoon from a stunned-into-silence non-conservative leaving the ultra-conservative CPAC, trying to empathize with how that ideology starts.

I mean, there are a LOT of them at this thing.