I was twelve when I first realized that my mother didn’t know what she was talking about. It was 1956, and my mother assured me that the rather colourless Democrat Adlai Stevenson would easily defeat the Republican war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower in the presidential election. Her logic seemed ironclad to me: blue collar people outnumbered white collar people, and Eisenhower, like all Republicans, represented only white collar people. Most of the other students in the Catholic school I attended were enthusiastic supporters of Eisenhower, although their parents were definitely blue collar people. I looked forward with relish to their disappointment and humiliation. Eisenhower, of course, won in a landslide.
My mother’s disdain for Eisenhower and Republicans coloured my political views for the rest of my life, and Eisenhower was far from the last Republican whose victory I lamented. When years later I became involved in left-wing politics at the University of Colorado, a slightly more sophisticated version of my mother’s class-based analysis was the order of the day as was disappointment with the voting patterns of actual workers.
I can’t help wondering what she would think of the current GOP. Republicans have moved so far to the right that Eisenhower and Nixon seem almost like liberal Democrats. For sure my mother would have little truck with the Christian right—politicians like Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee. She had an almost allergic reaction to self-righteousness, and calling her anti-clerical would be way too mild. She was sure that priests were up to no good long before any sexual scandals came to light. Once one of the nuns in the Catholic school I attended thought my best friend Bob and I were a little too close and called Mom in to talk about it. “Those nuns have dirty minds,” was her comment after the conference. Fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, was not her thing.
But what would she make of Donald Trump? Would she be taken in by his blustering populism? I somehow doubt it. She was not an educated woman, but her support for the mild-mannered Stevenson with his intellectual demeanor and egghead reputation, perhaps not entirely deserved, makes me think that she was a principled Democrat. She certainly wasn’t caught up in the hero worship of Eisenhower as a war hero. She used to mock his “bald pate.” I can only imagine what her reaction to Trump’s ridiculous hairstyle would be. I suspect she would find his denigration of Mexicans the ravings of a rich man. She really didn’t like the rich, at least not the raving rich.
Of course, I’m imagining Mom with her same ideological leanings updated to accommodate African Americans and women being serious candidates for President. A preference for the underdog was an integral part of the New Deal ethos, so I don’t consider such an updating much of a stretch.
The candidate I can most see Mom supporting, I suppose, is Bernie Sanders, because his rhetoric and positions are surely closest to those of her idol Roosevelt. But she might find Hillary Clinton to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s heir, and I’m sure she loved Eleanor Roosevelt. Joe Biden would satisfy both her political and aesthetic criteria.
But all of this is the dreaming of a conflicted son. Mom’s alcoholism drove such a wedge of ambivalence into my feelings for her, and her struggles with her own demons created so many demons for her children to struggle with, that it’s nice reflect on the basic decency of her political instincts and to imagine how close we would be today.