Taylor had agreed to talk with me in 2012 because his childhood friend asked him to participate in my conversation project. Back then he had just finished college at a Christian school. Both then and now he really didn’t want to engage in the divisiveness of politics, and yet he was willing to thoughtfully converse with me – even though I specifically wanted to talk with him because of our political differences.
When I asked him how this decade in American politics has affected him he gently recentered the question on how much his life has changed in general over that time: he got married, had a child, spent a couple years living in Australia, and became a small business owner of a real estate firm where he now employs 17 people. He said he doesn’t feel like his personal life has been particularly impacted by the political turmoil that has happened in the last ten years and he recognizes that that makes him fortunate.
I noted his gracious self awareness around how it is a privilege to be able to avoid the direct consequences of our current political upheaval. His self identification as a small business owner also stood out to me, as that can invoke a whole set of conservative political assumptions around what matters in life, such as prioritizing lower taxes over well funded public services, and a belief in the capitalist myth of the self-made made man where those who succeed deserve it and those who don’t didn’t try hard enough.
He said, “I really feel like business owners are a big part of our economy and it’s cool that our country is set up in a way to encourage people that work really, really hard to do really cool things for their families and their communities.”
“So anything that encourages small businesses and entrepreneurship, and I’m all for that.”
I asked about the other people who also work really really hard in our economy, people who do manual labor, or have to work multiple jobs, but are still stuck in poverty.
He said, “it’s tough because in this kind of capitalistic economy, however many people gain from it, there’s other people that kind of lose from it. I don’t know what is a better option. These are the rules of the game. I’m just going to do the best I can to work hard and provide for my family. And provide any access that I might have to help those around me.”
I asked him what he thought about how home ownership in the US is so disproportionately white and whether he thinks that is a problem we have a responsibility to fix.
He told me how some of the people who work for his business came from poverty, and seemed to imply that several were people of color, though he didn’t say that directly. He explained how he sees his job as a way to help people create better lives for themselves and potentially even move towards more equitable home ownership and a more diverse real estate industry.
He said “the beauty of America is diversity of backgrounds and opinions. That’s what the United States was founded on, and, ultimately, I’m a big believer in how this country was founded: people having different opinions, and freedom of thought and religion.”
I told him that from my left leaning perspective one of the problems that I believe we have to address is the disconnect between those foundational ideals and the reality that they were never equally accessible to all people – in particular to Black and Indigenous people or to women. How do we reconcile with that discrepancy and then remedy it?
He responded that it was a good question, but one he didn’t yet have an answer for. He still thinks we are a country that was founded on good intentions, but that humans are flawed and so we have gone awry in some ways, and he isn’t sure how you fix really ingrained problems that started a long time ago.
Thinking back on this conversation, and even the one we had a decade ago, one of the things that stands out to me is Taylor’s perception of his own life experience as being the norm. In 2012 he mentioned that his dad fell asleep watching Fox news and said, “like so many dads do” which made me realize we had very different experiences of regular life. This time when Taylor said he was like the majority of his Millennial generation – “fiscally conservative, socially, a little bit more liberal” it stood out to me because from everything I hear the Millennial generation is more anti-capitalist, and even pro-socialism than the previous several generations.
Part of what is going on here is good old confirmation bias: we all take in information that confirms our own beliefs much more easily than information that contradicts our existing frameworks. And we all kinda think our own way of being is normal, because it is the most normal thing to us. But I have also always known that many aspects of my life experience are not ordinary to other people, such as growing up off the grid, so it has never been an option to assume other people perceive my way of life as standard. I wonder what it would feel like to believe that your experience is the norm for your country.
Maybe if you perceive yourself as part of a mainstream you are more likely to want to conserve things in society as you know them to be, and therefore feel pulled toward conservative values. Whereas if you see yourself as outside of what counts as standard, that sense of difference gets built into your identity and aligns you with a desire to remake the world in a more equitable way.
He plays by the current rules of the game and aims to do that successfully and with kindness. I am driven to change the rules of the game because I see they aren’t working well or fairly for me and many other people.