By Jay Kirell
I walked into my comparative politics class this morning, took my usual seat and began to flip to a fresh page in my notebook when I received a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and a young man I hadn’t noticed in class before (probably because he sat right behind me) said “Excuse me, I just wanted to let you know I fact-checked what you said in class last week about the 2000 election.”
I looked at him, trying to remember what it was I said last week about the 2000 election. I remember it being brought up as the first real political memory for pretty much everyone in the class way back on the first day. We’ve had three or four classes since then and it’s been brought up periodically for varied reasons, but I struggled to think of what I might have said at some point that caused this fellow to go home and do research.
“Go on,” I said.
“You mentioned last week that the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election the way they did because they were all appointed by George Bush’s father. I checked, and only two were appointed by Bush’s father.”
I was momentarily stunned. Not just because of his desire to fact-check a random point I made in passing about the 2000 election – I mean, what college student fact-checks another college student – but because that totally didn’t sound like something I would say. Considering, you know, it’s not true.
So I racked and racked my brain trying to remember what it was that I said, until I finally recalled it. The professor had asked if anyone knew what the controversy was about the 2000 election. I raised my hand and said there were a lot of controversial aspects of that election, with one of the biggest being the Supreme Court taking the case in the first place.
Then I explained the reasons why that was considered controversial, including the fact that two of the justices at the time were appointed by the father of the Plaintiff and most were appointed by Republicans.
I think the kid behind me just misheard me – so I explained that to him and expected that to be the end of that.
Apparently I had just entered the mid-level college version of the “No Spin Zone” because this Bill O’Reilly-in-training wouldn’t let the issue go.
“Yeah, but your point was the 2000 election was different because Republicans tried to steal it. Democrats try to steal elections all the time.”
It was at this point I went from craning my neck to make eye contact with this kid to literally swiveled my entire desk-chair apparatus thing to face him.
I don’t think he was expecting me to turn and face him, as he leaned back a little.
“Voter intimidation,” he said. “Voter suppression.”
“Yeah, just this last election.”
I had a hunch where this kid was going. But I needed to follow-up to make sure.
“What are you referring to?” I asked.
“The Black Panthers being at polling sites, intimidating voters. Voter fraud with ACORN trying to get phony people to vote for Obama.”
When he stopped speaking. I looked at this kid and tried to figure out the best way to respond. It was clear he had heard a few names and terms and events, but didn’t know the context. Something not exactly unheard of for people just coming into their own politically, who tend to take to aping other people’s summations as their own.
“Well…,” I began. “There was one member that looked like he could have been a member of the Black Panthers at one polling site that I recall from election day.”
“Yeah, but he was there intimidating people,” lil O’Reilly countered before going in for the kill. “What about ACORN?”
I started to feel bad for the kid.
“Do you know what ACORN is?” I asked.
“uh…It’s an organization that…um… goes around getting fake people to vote for Obama,” he said – synapses clearly firing on all cylinders while he struggled to remember the reason he heard the term ACORN. “It’s voter fraud.”
I couldn’t help but smile. This kid reminded me so much of myself when I originally entered college. I entered my freshman year in 1996 having just voted for Bob Dole because I didn’t like Clinton – even if I couldn’t articulate why I didn’t like him. I wrote pro-life essays for my college newspaper as a freshman even though I never knew anyone who had an abortion or had ever even gotten pregnant.
Basically, I was an ideological egg shell filled with nothing but the talking points of partisans I had seen on TV. But oh, was I certain I had all the answers.
Armed with this personal knowledge of how a young, conservative mind thinks – and how it is much easier to change a person’s ideology while they’re still in the stages of developing it – I made the decision to engage in an intervention. This kid now has become my new project for the rest of the semester.
Step one of the intervention was correcting what I already knew were established facts in his brain.
“Okay,” I began. “The controversy over ACORN wasn’t that they were an organization that went around committing voter fraud. What ACORN actually was – and I say ‘was’ since they actually don’t exist anymore – was a collection of smaller organizations that went around registering people to vote. The controversy was that they had workers going around putting fake names on registration forms – not that those fake names were actually going out and voting. Just because Mickey Mouse is a name on a voter registration form doesn’t mean Mickey Mouse is actually going to walk into a polling place and illegally vote. And if you’d like an example of voter suppression – you can look to the 8-hour lines in Florida and Ohio as a good starting points.”
“But waiting a while to vote isn’t voter suppression,” he fought back. “It’s not like it was on purpose.”
“It is when the long lines occur in almost exclusively minority voting areas – since minorities tend to vote Democrat,” I countered.
“Well, that’s not what my family says happened,” lil O’Reilly shot back with what was probably his most truthful statement.
“I take it your parents are Republicans?” I asked him.
“My whole family are Republicans,” he replied.
It was at this point the professor started the lecture for the day. I was forced to turn my chair back around and detach myself from the first real political engagement I’ve involved myself in since I’ve been back at college.
I found it stimulating. I found it fascinating. I found it encouraging that something I said actually stuck with another student so much he went home and researched it.
To me, that’s a signal there’s something within his mind searching for other answers. There’s a chance, maybe small, that his ideology can be turned.
And I believe I can turn him, much the same way I was turned years ago by an older student, skilled at debate and radically liberal, who had an answer for every point I made, and made points I had no answer for. This ideological mentor of mine took the time to engage me in long debates and dissected nearly every one of my arguments so neatly and efficiently that I had no choice but to eventually relent and abandon my conservative views.
Maybe my situation was a rare case. Maybe not. I’ll just have to experiment on this kid to find out.