For most of his life my father has been a man who “votes for the person, not the party,” even if that person is more often than not a Republican. This has always made sense to me, for Dad is a conservative guy (lowercase c); he generally needs to hear a good reason for changing something that seems to have worked well for quite a while. Yet he is also an undogmatic, critical thinker, pragmatic and independent. You’re never going to see him on the floor of a G.O.P. convention wearing a Stetson and waving a placard.
Still, he loves politics, a passion he bequeathed to me. Boys often accompany their dads to ball games and the like. But I was the only one who asked if I could go with him to Town Meeting, my hometown’s own incarnation of that venerable New England tradition. From a young age, I saw there in our middle school gymnasium democracy in action, with all its beauty and comic error, its low stakes and high drama.
My dad would explain every detail to me, pointing with pride, for example, to the fact that the rules required us to refer to one another as “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Jones” and to the chair of the proceedings as “Mr. Moderator.” The inherent nobility of the event, he explained, required a certain decorum and civility.
On the way home from Town Meeting, I would pepper my dad with questions about what had happened, why so-and-so had said what he did, why what’s-his-name voted the way he did. My father would patiently explain and then wrap up the evening by reminding me that politics is a noble pursuit and civic duty is something we take seriously. After all, most of the world at the time did not have the right to vote for anything.
My dad taught me all that, virtues and memories I cherish. You can imagine, then, how dispiriting it was to hear during a recent visit with my father that he was not sure whom he was going to vote for because he is so disgusted with our national politics. Hilary, Marco, The Donald—we’re all on a first-name basis now with these people we’ve never met. I suspect my father and I could adapt to that unwelcome though still rather minor social innovation.
It’s the rest of it that is so deeply troubling. I have spoken with parents who have told me they don’t let their kids watch the debates because they don’t want them to think that that is an acceptable way for adults to behave. I’ve spoken with high school principals who have told me that their students see little use for politics except as a punchline. I myself wondered whether a single young person watching this spectacle would be moved to enter public service. Would any one of them think that this is a noble calling that is worthy of the best in ourselves?
Over this last weekend, after Donald Trump called Ted Cruz “a liar” and Marco Rubio “a choke artist,” Mr. Rubio pushed back by mocking Mr. Trump’s appearance, the size of his fingers and even the size of his genitalia. Mr. Rubio’s crowds cheered him on, much like first-century Romans at a gladiatorial contest. The media, meanwhile, who share a hefty size of the blame for our descent into gutter politics, sat back in faux-shock, pretending not to know how all this came to be.
When the major candidates for president of the United States are saying and doing such things and are then rewarded for it in poll after poll, then I no longer recognize my own country. Like my father, I don’t know whom I’ll vote for. A pro-life, pro-immigration, economic liberal who is no fan of guns but still a constitutional originalist has no natural home in either party. My father, I suspect, is now similarly homeless. But he would likely say that he didn’t leave the Republican party. The party left him.