Let me begin with a half-baked sweeping observation: there are two groups of people in the world. The first are those who want to belong to the crowd. The second are those who want to feel special.
These desires aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, most of us have both simultaneously, all the time. And it’s possible to fulfill both at once. Everything from comic-cons to rugby clubs to the cool kids’ table are built on the concept of being special, with others.
But if pressed, one of these desires will win out. If you’re unsure of which you are, here’s a rule of thumb. If you were popular in high school, you’re probably in the first group who want to belong to the crowd. You were good at figuring out what the broader society expected, and fit in accordingly. But if you were an artsy nerd, you’re probably in the second group who like to feel special.1
Because I identify as both an artist and a nerd, I obviously skew toward the second group.
The Political Point
How is this relevant to politics? Simple: because I’m in the second group, I like my political views to make me feel special.
Working at evangelical ministries drove me toward the left. But going to a progressive law school drove me back to the right. In both situations, I viewed myself as the wise-guy in the back row, smirking at the groupthink and seeing through the propaganda.
Of course, that’s the cool way to spin it. You could also say I was the insecure nerd who chronically needed to feel more clever and moral than the people around him.
I’ll let you decide which it was. And no, you don’t have to tell me.
But whatever the reason, this led me to firebrand conservatism at my evangelical high school and college. This probably sounds counterintuitive. But as I used to say at debate tournaments2, my answer to this is twofold:
First, it’s true that both my evangelical high school and college were, on the whole, conservative. But they weren’t monoliths. My high school had a population of liberal smart-alecs3 who only attended because their parents made them, and had little or no interest in anything evangelical or conservative. And my college, while leaning conservative, had its fair share of moderate and left-of-center professors, as well as the progressive activists which are present at every campus.4 So even if the general bent was conservative, there were plenty of liberals to react against.
Relatedly, a beautiful thing about being conservative is that almost all pop culture is liberal. Every time I turned on the the tv or played a CD5, I was bombarded with knee-jerk liberalism. An embarrassment of riches to rail against.
Second, you can always feel special by moving in either direction politically. When surrounded by liberals, you can be special by becoming more conservative (like I did during law school). Or you can move even further left, and say that everybody who isn’t as far-left as you is now a fascist. As you may have seen, some of my classmates embraced this option recently….
That was my approach during high school and college. As opposed to the merely conservative, I was a firebrand conservative.
Those Poor Razorbacks
“Last question: who just won the national championship in basketball?” I pointed my microphone at the frat bro’s bristly face.
“Florida” he replied, “unfortunately…”
“I hear you.” I said conspiratorially, and we laughed like old friends. He had no idea he just proved my point–this self-proclaimed liberal didn’t know the Speaker of the House, the Secretary of Defense, or a single member of the Supreme Court. But he knew all about March Madness.
I pointed out the waiver lines for him to sign so we could use his image on our website. As he walked away, I turned to my Right of Way Show friends, grinning. “We should all transfer to Arkansas–we’d be the only people on campus who know how the government works.”
“That was perfect.” Jim said. “Who should be next?”
“How about her?” Adam pointed to a girl walking toward us under a row of flowering dogwood trees. A gulp froze in my throat–a typical reaction to pretty girls with ice blue eyes.
Jim pushed me forward and readied his camera. Like someone who just stepped off a lakeside cliff, I had no choice but to go with it.
“Excuse me.” I use my deepest voice and try make eye contact. “We’re recording a web video about college students and politics. Could I ask some questions?”
The girl nodded at the camera approvingly.
“First, what are your political views?”
After a beat, she said “liberal” with a shrug.
Just what I was hoping for. The ones who said liberal straight away might know their stuff. The ones who hesitate are just blindly following the crowd. I rattled the usual questions: who are the senators from Arkansas, how many houses of Congress are there, and what was Roe v. Wade’s actually holding.
“Who is Samuel Alito?” I asked, finally keeping eye contact..
A furrow in her soft brow. “Wasn’t he the lawyer for the OJ Simpson trials?”
My crew and I stifled laughs. I gave an encouraging nod, and started wrapping up the interview. But then a thought hit me.
“You mentioned you were a feminist,” I said innocently, “so I assume you’d join the fight to end women’s suffrage?”
She nods along. “Oh yeah. If any women have suffer…uh…we should stamp that out anywhere.” She gives me a flirty look–I think–and suddenly the guilt kicked in.
Adam gave her the waiver and the spiel about our site, and she walked away, oblivious.
“That was our best yet.” Jim said, fiddling with his camera controls. I got a distant look in my eye as he continued, “It’s amazing how all the ‘super liberals’ don’t know anything. It’s like they’re just doing what Cameron Diaz told them.”
I snapped back to reality. “And even the ones who follow politics only know the liberal side–we might as well put a giant bubble over the campus.”
Walking back to our car, I forgot about my guilt and focused on the strangeness of it all. The University of Arkansas is beautiful–ivied buildings surrounded by lush grass and tree-covered hills, professor’s houses and sororities lined with white-picket fences, students of all sorts criss-crossing to class.
But I couldn’t escape the feeling that I saw more than they did. Me and my band of John Brown students were the only ones brave enough to push back on the liberal machine. We few, we happy few, could see both sides of the issues. And we were on the right side of them.
Exposing this to the world was important–and that’s really all we were doing with the video. The girl with the ice blue eyes would teach everybody else a valuable lesson.
Or something like that…
1 Though if we nerds were being honest, many of us were driven there to compensate for not fitting in with the first group. But we’d never admit that. Instead, we became nerds because we were too sophisticated for what society expects of us….
2 Remember when I said I was a nerd?
3 High school Matt’s term
4 Except Pensacola Christian. And Bob Jones. And maybe Liberty….
5 Yes, this was a long time ago…