The short answer to Jacob’s first question, the one political scientists would tell you, is that I inherited most of my political beliefs (especially my party affiliation) from my parents. They were both moderate-to-liberal Democrats. The same goes for my religious beliefs and the way they influence my political perspective. Then, having embraced these views fully in my twenties, the likelihood is that I’ll stick with them, at least in their broad outlines, throughout my life.
My political inclinations pretty comfortably match those of the Democratic Party of our moment, though I’m probably more sympathetic to conservatism than most. Two major influences there are my religious community (where I’m mostly surrounded by good people who are also well-meaning conservatives) and my historical studies (through which I came to admire Barry Goldwater).
Beyond that, I became politically aware during the Clinton administration, a period of relatively strong economic performance but with plenty of partisan bickering and lots of “scandals.” I was in college during 9/11 and initially supported the War in Iraq for liberal reasons (Hussein’s past tyranny, the hope of democracy). Though I didn’t really trust Bush or his advisors, I did trust John McCain and Colin Powell, so I thought there might be something there. (Yes, I know, I was young and foolish.) The War on Terror has always made me nervous, with its apparently open-ended justification for unilateral presidential military power. My one major disappointment is that Obama wasn’t ready to take the heat (even potentially sacrificing a second term) to close it down more effectively – including shuttering Guantanamo and repealing or replacing the Sept 2011 AUMF.
In domestic policy, I’m not nearly as suspicious of government as most conservatives (why trust corporations more?) nor as sanguine about it as most liberals (unintended consequences, anyone?). Generally, I think we ought to be more honest in balancing the highest ideals of citizenship (that some things should be accorded equally to all members of the state) and capitalism (that individuals ought to be able to flourish according to their capabilities). This nation would not be what it is without an ongoing balance of both.
The economic meltdown reminded me that both parties have a problem with how they relate to the wealthy elite in this country, especially the major financial institutions. And I’ve studied enough about the history of race in this nation to know that we have a serious and continuing problem (compounded by government actions) that we have rarely tried to resolve in any meaningful way.
I obviously believe my beliefs are best, or I would not believe them. But I also know enough to be suspicious of my own certainty, to understand that my particular set of policy ideas (what we call ideology) is more an outcome of history than a natural order of things, and to look for outside criteria whenever possible.
I think the only reasonable way, in a democracy, to determine which ideas are best is to fight for them in the public area and see which ideas win. It’s not a perfect system and it’s not guaranteed to come up with the best ideas. No system of government is perfectly designed that way. But it has the best justification (government by the governed) that I know of. More than any appeal to the supernatural, the ‘arc of history,’ natural law, or political theory, I look to the decision-making process as the legitimating force of ideas in a democracy.