post cover

Episodes: I voted for George W. Bush


Emily VanDerWerff

Oct 11 2016

8 min read



A couple of weeks ago, a friend was arguing with me, saying she didn't understand how someone could be a Republican. She wasn't saying she didn't know any Republicans or anything like that. Indeed, she had many in her family and had grown up around them. She just struggled to grasp how the Republican philosophy would appeal to someone.

So I said what I always say in these situations: In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush.

She looked at me, a little horrified. I shrugged. It was true! I had voted for a couple of Democrats down-ballot in that year, my first presidential election, but my top vote went to good ol' GWB himself.

I had thought about voting for Gore. He and I agreed, in total, on more issues, particularly on environmental ones (which were rapidly becoming important to my just able to vote self). But when it came to the big issue, the one I cared about most, Bush and I were simpatico. We wanted the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Sacredness of life and all that. (Also, my own past contained a passage in which I could easily have been aborted. That screwed me up for a good long while when it came to thinking about this issue in anything other than very self-oriented terms.)

I actually remember talking with my mom about it the day after the election, when it became clear that no one would know who had won for a very long time, and I told her that I had flirted, even in the voting booth, with voting for Gore. But in the end, I had decided I had to vote Bush. The abortion thing just loomed too large. (My mother was secretly glad about this, I think. When I had registered to vote, I had registered as a Democrat, mostly because of the girl I was dating at the time, and I think my parents were quietly horrified.)

And let's be honest. It was 2000. So far as most of us were convinced, both major parties were roughly two sides of the same coin, with slightly different views on social issues the only major differentiation points. So if you had really strong feelings on one of those social issues, you probably started there. And I lived in South Dakota (which went comfortably for Bush and has gone for Republicans all but five times in its existence, with three of those times being Democratic landslides -- FDR in '32 and '36, and LBJ in '64). Voting for Gore seemed like kind of a hassle, in terms of having to defend my pick to family and friends.

Bush v. Gore is so formative in the political educations of virtually everyone within about five years of my age that it's always jarring to me to remember back to that time and recall that in the little college theater troupe I was part of, one other girl and I were the only two rooting for Bush. I was, at the time, an avid reader of Salon, but somehow got from there to the National Review (probably via Camille Paglia, now that I think about it?), and that became my bible on how the Democrats were trying to steal the election. And I really did believe it was going to be stolen. I worried about it a lot, and when Bush finally prevailed, I felt a sweeping sense of relief.

But when I look back at myself from that time, I don't really remember who I was until I forcibly remind myself of it. I remember who I am now, and that's someone who's considerably more to the left, someone who was already headed in that direction in high school and college but found that journey accelerated considerably by the Bush years and especially the war in Iraq.

But when my Democratic friends recall the crushing disappointment they felt when the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore in Bush's favor, I have to force myself to remember that I was giddy. Memory is a funny thing. It tends to paper over the parts of ourselves we'd rather not think about, and smooth out the inconsistencies until we're left with a picture that makes sense. But human beings all too rarely make sense.

My appreciation of Bush steadily soured as the years went on. When he proposed invading Iraq, I actually wrote a column against the invasion in my college newspaper. I say this not to point to my credibility on any political matter (I'm sure my argument against the invasion was pretty dumb). Instead I say it to say that I had family members who wouldn't talk to me for months because of that column, family members who went and yelled at my parents about the fact that I had written it. Writing that column was not in any way me making a brave moral stand (I just didn't want my good friends in the military to go overseas for a war that Salon dot com was so skeptical of), but it ended up seeming like one when people kept yelling at me about it.

So I left. And I moved first to a swing state (living the election of 2004 in Wisconsin was pretty weird, all things considered) and then to California, the least swing-y state of them all. My politics continued to move leftward on all but a few issues (I'm still slightly more skeptical of gun control than most of my progressive pals, but only slightly), and I'm sure whenever I have a kid, my wife and I and the environment that kid is raised in will contribute to make it as hard to break toward conservatism as breaking toward progressivism was for me.

But when I think about what it was that made me slide leftward, it wasn't the inherent worthiness of progressivism, or the better data, or anything like that. No, it was that the story progressives told -- one, broadly speaking, of a big, plural America, with room for lots of people -- had a real emotional tug on me, where the story of conservatism held less sway.

But it was also that, yes, I didn't want my friends to die in Iraq, and I was worried about the environment, and I thought maybe gay people should be able to get married. It was a mix of policy and emotional narratives. It wasn't because I suddenly "saw the light" or anything. I just became more of who I was, as most of us do at that point in our lives. (Weirdly, when I met my birth mother, her politics and my politics were nearly identical. For this reason, I've always had a little sympathy for the idea that political inclination might be genetic on some level.)

The thing that always keeps me from jumping on the "Ha ha, [insert party here] are idiots!" bandwagon that passes for a lot of online political discourse is that, well, I've effectively been in both of them. Do I think the me that voted for George W. Bush was somehow a lesser person than the me that voted for John Kerry? There are only four years separating the two. They can't be that different. And yet to listen to the discourse now is to suggest that they were, essentially, entirely separate human beings.

I don't buy that. Not really. Do you? Our votes are driven by the private stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are, about who we think our communities are, about what we hope the nation will be. I reject the idea that even somebody who votes for Donald Trump (a candidate I find deeply loathsome) is somehow morally deficient, even if the man that voter props up might be.

After all, that voter might have been me. I have to always remember that on that snowy December day, when the Supreme Court made its decision, I was so elated I counted the days until I could buy Time's Person of the Year issue with Bush's face on the cover. I read it voraciously, and then I stored it in a box of important newspapers and magazines from history I kept in my closet. I'm sure it's still there, and maybe someday, I'll take it out and try to remember a person who must have been different but was still me.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter