Growing up, in a middle to upper-middle class family, in a town called Kokomo, Indiana, gave me a fairly sheltered perspective on the world around me. In the 1970's and 80's, in a town whose main employers were General Motors and Chrysler, we had a rather unrealistic existence. High school graduates could easily make 75-100k USD annually with overtime, for the most part jobs were plentiful, and there were not too many extremely poor people. Those who one did encounter were the result of a series of tough life choices, usually ending in addiction of some kind or another, and the perspective I had was that one chose that life.
Some of my mother's family were hard-core Democrats. They lived and worked in Indianapolis, with social work and education, and saw a completely different world than I did. I had the privilege of summer camps, sports, music lessons, and parents who invested in both education and hobbies. Those of my school classmates who weren't college bound, at least had nice cars and clothes. Perhaps there were those who struggled, but it wasn't really obvious, perhaps because they worked quite hard to hide it.
In my youthful arrogance, I argued with my relatives, quite heatedly, that people choose a path and receive the life that they earn. I believed in the American Dream; I saw poverty as a lack of effort on the behalf of those who were in it, not a vicious circle that almost took miracles to exit. I was right, in my sheltered existence and limited worldview. I liked Reagan, and I liked the first Bush.
The first crack in the shell of certainty and righteousness came through my college boyfriend. We met freshman year, and despite being opposites in many ways, were attracted and dated. He was a sophisticated global citizen, of Indian blood, but raised around the world through his father's United Nations' work. He was also a hard-core Democrat and Clinton fan.
I distinctly remember visiting him over the summer, as he was in summer school at Harvard, and walking through Cambridge. He questioned my faith in the American Dream, he argued passionately for welfare, for national health care, for what I considered Socialist crap. I probably called him a Socialist.
Needless to say, despite his best efforts, he didn't convince me to vote for Clinton. The first time. But he put a good crack in my superior shell.
The second and biggest crack came through what I consider my most influential class at Northwestern: Social Inequalities. Although I learned a tremendous amount of valuable things in my other classes, this was the class that shook me to the core, that caused me to question a lot of what I knew and stood for, that opened my eyes to all the advantages I had been given that I saw as my right and my due, not my privilege.
In the class, we read about hardworking people that fell on tough times. On people who worked two jobs full-time to try to come out of poverty, but then a simple illness could send them into bankruptcy and tremendous debt. On single mothers who did all they could to protect their children from gangs and drugs, but couldn't break the chain. Of schools that had toilets that backed up and no books for children. And this was in the United States.
This wasn't a third world country in Africa. This was in one of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations in the world. This was a nation that had suburban high schools that offered 12 languages, several bands and orchestras, and college level math and sciences. The nation that had all this wealth had a rapidly growing group of people who had no insurance, could hardly pay the rent for disgusting hovels, yet worked far more hours (dirtier, less safe, and less fulfilling work, at that) than the middle and upper classes.
I began to look, and I began to see, in my own country that many children did not have the chances I did, that it was "easy" for me to compete with them. "Easy" because I had both parents with masters-level education. "Easy" because my father had a good job, that enabled my teacher mother to stay home, teach me to read and write, and to use a microscope to look at pond water and see all the living organisms. Parents who discussed important things, who taught history, geography, and government as part of the dinner table discussion.
That maybe the parents who didn't do that were neither bad nor lazy. That maybe it took everything they had to work 18 hours that day, to put a meal on the table, and stay awake enough to ask about their child's day. The constant fear that plagued them, that one more illness, one more accident, one more misfortune would pull the string to completely unravel their life.
Then, thanks to my education, I found a good job and was able to start traveling the world. Europe (at least Northwest, such as Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands) was neither only the Old World that I had pictured with the castles and fortresses, nor the devastated remnants of World War II. Northwestern Europe on the other hand, was fairly prosperous. It was also remarkably safe. There were plenty of petty crimes, such as pickpocketing, vehicle theft, or vandalism, but very little life-threatening crimes.
Part of the lack of life-threatening crimes is tighter gun control, but perhaps the stronger reason is that there is a safety net in Northwestern Europe. There isn't a level of desperation that drives an ordinary person to think the only way out is to take a gun and turn it on innocent victims. There aren't people who turn to the risk of manufacturing meth as the most reasonable way to have an income. And there just isn't as big of a gap between the top and the bottom of wage earners.
After Europe, I spent a year working on a project in South America. Unfortunately, I saw more in common between the United States and the favelas of Brazil or the slowly crumbling glory of Argentina. Infrastructure that wasn't invested in, desperate people who kidnapped foreigners for the contents of an ATM withdrawal, and a growing divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots".
I watched the USA fight wars that had less to do with human rights than oil, and watched the Republican Vice President's company (and personal wealth) profit considerably from that war.
Through all this, I just didn't feel very "Proud to be an American".
When my European soon-to-be husband and I discussed where we should live, in the end it wasn't really much of a choice. Although economically, especially with less than two children, we would be better off in the US, we chose to live in a place where a CEO might make 100 times the janitor's salary, but not 100,000. And that CEO will probably greet the janitor and treat him like a person, because that janitor, whether Mexican, Turkish, Iranian, or Chinese, is, after all, a person.
Yes, I am in a greater than 55% tax bracket. Yes, without paying that amount in taxes, I could have a fancier house, a bigger or faster car, more luxurious vacations farther abroad, and treat myself to more new clothes. But maybe I don't need those things.
Maybe I am a happier person knowing that the person who picks up my trash, who cleans my office, who fries my hamburger, or drives the bus has a decent living. That this person's son or daughter has the same opportunity (at least economically) as mine to a university education. That she is not worried about medicine or medical bills for her child with a chronic illness; nor does she need to worry about losing her job or her lack of income in the time she needs to spend caring for her child and taking him to the doctor. That he may even have a summer house or boat to enjoy on weekends and summer vacation.
Maybe I enjoy the security, and even the satisfaction, of knowing that I contribute to something greater than me. That I am a part of seeing this country and its people do well. That I have a duty and responsibility to help those less fortunate than me, and have the peace of mind to know they will help me if I fall on hard times.
Maybe I believe in health care for all people. That a child, deserves, even is entitled to a more equal start to life, at least with healthcare, education, a place to live, and people to take care of him. That if he is sick, his treatment options don't depend on the parent's insurance policy or their ability to pay the doctor's bills. That perhaps a proactive investment in good health, nutrition, and life choices can avoid expensive care later in life.
Maybe I believe that the strength of a nation comes from education being freely available and possible. That the quality of education shouldn't just depend on the property taxes of the school district. That perhaps the schools that have the least money need the most. That even if a child doesn't end up in an elite university, he has many other options to find a skill or trade, to earn a living, and to in turn, contribute back into that society.
Maybe I believe that the United States is no longer tops in the world, at least in the important metrics. Maybe I believe that what will bring this great nation to its end is the ignorance, greed, and arrogance of its own people.
But I do hope that more people will see the dangerous trajectory we are on. That making the rich richer, the poor poorer, will only lead to political and societal instability. That the nation founded on immigration needs to embrace, not fear, it. Yes, the rich can afford to build fences and have armed guards, but isn't that like putting yourself in a self-imposed prison?