Back in the late ‘70s, I was a young lawyer practicing at Chesterfield Courthouse, and like many young lawyers, I had political ambitions.
For a few years, I was lucky. I made some mistakes, but they were honorable mistakes – nothing that would have prevented my pursuing elective office.
What ultimately deterred me from pursuing politics was that – looking forward – I couldn’t find a political party where I fit in. Then, as now, there were only two political parties – and in Virginia, neither seemed particularly attractive.
I had grown up in a political family. My parents were conservative Democrats – though the word “conservative” meant something very different in those days.
Dad called himself a “progressive conservative.” He revered the memory of FDR. He believed that progress was a good thing – so long as it was gradual and evolutionary.
He believed strongly in science and the importance of education.
As a conservative, he believed that government should not spend more than it took in, and he preferred cutting waste to raising taxes. But he also understood tax increases as a legitimate option when balancing a budget.
Obviously, he would never have qualified as a “conservative” in these benighted times.
I emerged from college and law school somewhat more progressive than Dad, but I could have remained a Democrat if the party hadn’t been such a shambles. In the mid-’70s, the Virginia Democratic Party was sharply divided between a conservative “Old Guard” and an emerging liberal, anti-war coalition.
Holding these divergent wings together was a handful of determined moderates whose strategy was to avoid offending either extreme. They attempted to promote unity by nominating candidates whom I came to think of as “Ken dolls” – mildly attractive, white males with no apparent political genitalia.
Virginia Democrats still tend to do that.
I had little in common with either wing of the Democratic Party – and no wish to become a “Ken doll.” After talking things over with Dad, I decided to try my luck with the Republicans.
In those days, it was possible to be a moderate – even a liberal – Republican. In 1977, I campaigned for John Dalton for governor, and after he won, he appointed me to a nice job as a state agency head.
The next year, I campaigned even more ardently for moderate John Warner for the U.S. Senate.
But within two years, the path ahead simply vanished. Ronald Reagan won the presidential nomination in 1980, and his arch-conservative legions gained complete control of the Virginia GOP.
My new party rolled up the welcome mat. Only hard-core conservatives were acceptable, and I wasn’t ready to pretend to believe things which struck me as absurd.
I found my way into teaching, which was – in pre-SOL days – an agreeable, respectable way to serve society.
Later, I got into acting, which allowed me to exercise the same talents as politics – only, as an actor, I could pretend to be someone I wasn’t without troubling my conscience.
I didn’t completely avoid politics. I volunteered in a few campaigns – including the insurgent campaigns of Gary Hart (in 1984, not 1988) and Howard Dean. I even tried to return to the Democratic Party early in the new century.
But in the long run, I was better off doing other things.
Still, lately, I can’t help thinking somewhat enviously of the opportunities now opening before young people with my sort of ideas.
Most of all, it seems climate change is finally breaking through as a winning issue.
It hasn’t been easy. Climate change deniers have confused the issues for decades now – borrowing from the very playbook which Big Tobacco used for so long to deny the findings of science.
Big Old, Big Coal, Detroit, and a collection of right-wing billionaires have – thanks to the Supreme Court – spent unlimited funds to buy the American political system in their own interests.
But a majority of Americans has finally accepted the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. They’re starting to ask what can be done to fight this growing menace.
And, since the answer to that question promises to open up new economic opportunities – and create an economy far superior to today’s fossil fuel economy – Americans are starting to embrace the chance to do well by doing good.
Once we get started innovating, being Americans, we will want to lead the world.
A young, aspiring politician who grasps the issue of Climate Change today will take some punishment early on – but if she has courage, the future is bright.
The American people, as Sir Winston supposedly said, will always do the right thing – once they have exhausted all other options.
Those options are pretty much used up. Ambitious young leaders, if they’re smart, will see that the future of American politics is green.
I just wish I were young enough to go along for the ride.