From Libertarianism to Social Democracy: A Personal Journey

By Michael Mottern

In my youth, I fancied myself as an ultra-libertarian Alex Keaton type (from the TV show “Family Ties”). As an opponent of social services, I was ignorant of the SD USA’s famed Freedom Budget or great Social Democrats like Bayard Rustin. My anti-welfare stance didn’t end until the anti-NAFTA protest in Buffalo in the late spring of 2000. 

On that occasion, I heard a woman giving a speech regarding the Trico plant in Buffalo relocating to Mexico for cheaper labor. During that protest at Front Park in the west side of Buffalo along the river (where I made the paper several times), the woman brought a tear to my eye when she described the very thing I feared as a low-level employee in the workforce, worker exploitation: how long it takes until 14-year-old female Mexican workers collapse due to exhaustion, the cost factor per laborer. The woman stood there and said that the company’s lawyers only smirked at her and said “It was legal.” 

Of course I was no high roller and even as a libertarian, I despised rich financiers and liberal opportunists. To be a person of change, you must cease to be an opportunist and work for the collective good. It was only for certain that I would ask myself a fundamental question as a political science lover and a left-leaning libertarian, since I never met a bullhorn I didn’t appreciate or a rally I didn’t respect: am I a democratic socialist?? Working at the Naval Park for $6.20/hr, I began to realize that I was.

Education didn’t come easy for me. Diagnosed with a severe learning disability by the age of four at Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, I was immediately placed in self-contained classes out of kindergarten, meeting a new and interesting academic career that began in special education. Learning about geography and Martin Luther King Jr., my first direct action was in second grade at the Early Childhood Center helping Greenpeace to raise money for the Rainbow Warrior 2. After my teacher was choked up in the class because the Rainbow Warrior 1 was bombed by the French in the anti-nuclear protest. We raised over $300 in popcorn sales for the Rainbow Warrior 2 and I got to stamp everybody’s hand with a sperm whale rubber stamp, reminding them why we were there. 

But the Early Childhood Center only went up to 2nd grade. After that I was in self-contained classes all through Elementary School, and if the Rodney King verdict and the LA riots weren’t enough, self-contained special ed (inner city) in the early 90s was no joke either. One day,  I saw the toughest guy in class – all of 13 years old –  break down in tears because he didn’t get a school lunch. That day they ran out of school lunches and I didn’t mind because the food was purchased from the Marriott company which supplied the prisons as well as the schools. My mother, after all, was a good cook and I knew quality food. However what I did not know was that school lunch was all that he had. Like the Black Panthers said in the 1970s: how are the children supposed to learn if they have nothing in their stomach, and how do they focus on learning “if they don’t have anything to eat…” The Federal School breakfast program was pioneered on that model, a program I benefited from ever since fourth grade. 

By eighth grade, special ed was a thing of the past and I made breakthroughs in the drama program because my acting teacher wrote a letter of recommendation to get me into BAVPA, the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts High School. What was supposed to be my Sean Astin “Rudy moment” was plagued by low grades and the inability to focus properly so that I could have achieve my goals. Before I got into the Performing Arts High School, I was tested by a psychologist by the name of Mrs. Peterson, a woman whose son I played hockey with in North Buffalo. She informed me – now 14 years old – that I was not going to make it at Performing Arts High School because my reading level was only that of a second grader. By ninth grade, not only was I beginning with a learning curve, my disability was apparent. While I flunked arithmetic, I excelled in Global Studies and geography. I still had my acting abilities and appeared in plays such as, “The Man Who Came To Dinner” and “Hello Dolly,” playing the union organizer and the German waiter. 

Despite Mrs. Peterson’s dire warning, I would eventually graduate from Performing Arts with one class to spare. My dad referred to it as “a bump in the road…” At Performing Arts, I was in the slums academically, graduated bottom of my class. Yet, I enjoyed Global Studies, economics (senior history), theater and technology. Those subjects I excelled in; science and math, not so much. When I was a college freshman, I started reading the 1974 Edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. Easy to read, it gave me insight on every subject out there, from World War II to baseball. That is how I taught myself how to read. My reading level jumped up significantly when I got retested in college later on. I did receive my bachelor’s degree in history from Buffalo State College with a minor in political science.

My journey was a learning experience due to the immense academic struggle in which I found myself, a struggle that resulted in me being able to understand important political facts. If not for the Working Families Party or Social Democrats USA, I wouldn’t have known where to go politically, and might have wound up on the wrong side of history. In solidarity to all who struggle in academia with severe learning disabilities, You Are Not Alone…

Michael Mottern is the first vice chair of Social Democrats USA.

2 thoughts on “From Libertarianism to Social Democracy: A Personal Journey

  1. Bravo Michael! This is such a great testimony to the practical importance of the collective organizing for the greater good that’s a hallmark of social democracy💖

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