By Lisa Morehouse
We don’t need to tell you the American electorate is polarized these days. You just have to tune in to any call-in show or even make an injudicious casual remark at Thanksgiving dinner to realize how personal our political identities are and how emotional discussing the issues and values surrounding them can be. So we decided it would be interesting to ask one Republican and one Democrat why they did what is unthinkable to so many: switch parties. Two portraits of political discontent…
Democrat to Republican below, and Republican to Obama voter here.
For more than 30 years, Novato resident Virginia Wolters was perfectly happy being a Democrat. Wolters grew up in a family full of union members outside of Chicago. She says she was baptized a Catholic — and a Democrat.
Though she doesn’t recall anyone saying anything specifically derisive about Republicans, she certainly understood how those around her felt. “It looked like the Democrats were the nice people,” she says. “Mom and Dad were nice, our friends were nice. Over the years I got the impression that Republicans were rich and evil.”
Those were the Kennedy years. Although she was still a child, Wolters was captivated by Jackie and John’s good looks — and the optimism around his campaign. Even the theme song for JFK’s campaign was the tune “High Hopes.” But as an adult, her political feelings lay dormant for years before springing back to life in 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for president. “I really related to the whole Clinton mystique,” Wolters says.
By this time Wolters lived in Mill Valley and enthusiastically registered voters in the town’s plaza. The only Republicans she knew were a couple of relatives on her husband’s side. At Thanksgiving dinners, she would tiptoe into political conversations with them — and then go no further. “I think I was the one to stop,” she says, “because I would feel challenged.” Her in-laws knew more about policy. “I was definitely out of my league, and I sort of knew it,” she admits.
It’s a little embarrassing for Wolters to recognize her former self now. Back then she was politically active, she says, but not engaged with the issues.
For Wolters, that all changed on September 11, 2001.
“When the second plane hit the tower,” Wolters recalls, “I turned to my husband and I said ‘That’s an act of terror.’” That day, Wolters went in to work in San Francisco, but her manager told her to go home. She got in a long line to take the ferry back to Marin. “Everyone was looking at the sky, wondering ‘Are we next?’ We didn’t know if someone was going to crash a plane into the Transamerica building. Nobody knew. Nobody knew.” Wolters felt vulnerable and helpless, like her nerve endings were exposed.
What she heard from her liberal neighbors, people she had always identified with politically, was something very different. She recalls someone on the ferry that day saying, “I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.” At a memorial held by a women’s spiritual group the next week, someone said, “Well, we’ve been going into all those countries.” Wolters says these responses amazed her. “I think it was the first time I became aware of how the left talks about America,” she says.
Wolters began researching U.S. foreign policy, reading books on terrorism, listening to more talk radio and watching Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. She felt he gave context to the events of 9/11. The more she learned, the more Wolters found herself agreeing with conservative ideology on issues other than foreign policy.
But politics are personal, especially if you find yourself disagreeing with the community around you. “It was a very slow journey,” Wolters says. “It was very painful, and it was very, very lonely, because I didn’t know anyone else who thought the way I did.”
Wolters quietly changed her voter registration to “decline to state,” and voted for George W. Bush in 2004. By 2008, she had become a bit bolder, staffing tables for John McCain at farmers’ markets around Marin.
She got some strong reactions. She says people would approach her table and say, “Wow, do you know you’re in Marin County? Why are you doing this?” or, “Shameful, I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
Finally, in 2009, she registered as a Republican. Now she is active in several women’s Republican clubs and attends some Tea Party events, but she still stays undercover in her professional life in marketing. She says other closet Marin conservatives tell her they act the same way. “We don’t put on bumper stickers because cars get keyed around here,” she says.
In her conversion process, Wolters says she’s learned a lot of things — that she’s probably always been a fiscal conservative, and that politics are contentious and she wishes we could find common ground. The most important lesson, she says, is that she learned to ask a few questions: Do you have the values you have just because those were the principles of your family? Do you vote the way you do because you really believe in these principles?
For Wolters, it all comes down to this: Why do you believe what you believe? Virginia Wolters says she finally knows.