How I Became a Conservative

It started with a basketball game in 1993. There were two fourth-grade classes in my son's elementary school, and each fielded an eight-player team in an after-school sports league. Both teams were good. My son's team went undefeated during the regular season. His best friend -- we'll call him Jay -- played on the other team, which lost just one game. Eventually, in the post-season playoffs, the two teams were scheduled to face each other for the first time all season in the championship game.

A few days before the game, Jay's father called me. He and the other parents of his son's team were "very, very concerned." Even alarmed. Apparently, as the championship game neared, the boys were doing a lot trash-talking at each other. Surely we could all agree that the real reason for the competition was to teach the boys cooperation and sportsmanship. Playing the game would mean one of the teams would lose, which would lead the winning team to "bragging rights in the schoolyard." And that would not be healthy. It would undermine the real lessons to be learned about self-esteem and mutual respect.

He dwelled on these points for a while, finally landing heavily on the notion that this was a wonderful opportunity for us, as parents, to "frame the situation as a teaching moment." Eventually, he got to the money point: He and the other parents of Jay's team wanted to cancel the championship game. After all, we could all agree that both teams were already winners, right?

Initially, I was nonplussed. But I heard myself saying something like, "You're way over-complicating this. The purpose of playing the game is to win it. And by the way, the winning team has earned bragging rights."

As it happened, the two teams fell out along socioeconomic lines. Most of the parents from the other team were professors at the nearby state university, with a couple of doctors as well. Their coach was a well-published sociologist; Jay's father taught psychology. Our coach was a private detective with a scar on his face, a reminder of a knife fight he had had in Mexico. One of our team's parents was a real estate broker, another a chef; one sold insurance, one was a building inspector.

Fast forward two nights to a meeting at my house. Our living room was large enough to accommodate all 32 parents, 16 from each team. The coach of Jay's team presented the same pitch I had heard from Jay's father about our obligation as parents to frame the situation into a teaching moment that emphasized sportsmanship. One of our parents responded that sportsmanship is only possible if there's a sport to begin with. One of theirs said something about helping the children to build healthy self-esteem. One of ours responded that being perceived as too chicken to play the game wasn't likely to build a whole lot of self-esteem in anybody. One of theirs raised the issue of trophies, suggesting that if the game were played, then every player should receive the same trophy. One of ours said sure, trophies for all, as long as they were marked champion and runner-up and given to the right kids.

My favorite comment came from the real estate broker. He said that for him, after listening to all of the arguments pro and con, failing to play the game just seemed unnatural.

I thought I was a good liberal. Always voted Democrat. Felt a little smug around conservatives. My father served in World War II and loved our country, but he also was a liberal professor who opposed the Viet Nam war, organized teach-ins, and sponsored radical groups on various campuses. During my high school years, our apartment featured a glossy black wall with oversized posters of Leon Trotsky and Ho Chi Minh. But at that meeting, my liberal pedigree buckled permanently under the condescension from the parents of the other team. (The professors spoke to us as though we were being scolded in the principal's office.) The attempt to manufacture individual self-esteem through group actions, to engineer an equality of outcome based on "fairness" rather than achievement, seemed like an effort to feminize young boys.

By the end of the meeting, it was clear what was really happening. This was a head-to-head confrontation between liberal and conservative values. In my newfound home in the conservative camp, I was not offended by the liberal arguments -- that felt a little too like something a liberal might feel. I was just disgusted.

The vote split down party lines. Sixteen for playing, sixteen against. My vote to play was also a way to honor my father. Yes, he was a liberal -- but an old-fashioned one. As center for the St. Paul Central football team, he too would have voted to play the game. And in the end, the game was played. We forced their hand by vowing to show up. Whatever they decided, we promised to be there ready to play. But in the interest of good will, we agreed to forgo trophies.

It was a good game. As I expected, my son's team won going away. Afterwards we all went out for pizza. The parents spoke through frozen smiles. The kids had a great, noisy time. The boys did not feel a need for trophies, and there was a little trash-talking. The outcome did not seem to bother anybody except maybe some of the parents. Seventeen years later, my son and Jay are still friends. Through the years they played a lot of pickup games.

Strange as it sounds, it took a bunch of children and a basketball game to rouse me from a lifelong mushy dream of liberalism.