by Megan Swift
Dr. Eric Swift, 49, grew up in a blue-collar Democratic family. He went to nine different schools, moved around a dozen times and lived in four states, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Texas, growing up.
His political colors changed after hearing the wife of a politician speak on “why she was conservative” during a GOP convention in 1996. After becoming a Republican and a big believer in individual freedom and rights, Swift traveled to Washington, D.C., on a bus to attend a Tea Party rally to protest the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
“That was the height of my political involvement other than giving some money to political candidates here and there,” Swift said. “I attended a [George W.] Bush rally and took my son to a [Donald] Trump rally as well.”
Swift received a scholarship on his 18th birthday to Duquesne University, a Catholic school in Pittsburgh. He was the first person in his family to attend college.
Swift graduated in three years with a degree in business and stayed for his master’s degree in business administration. He then worked 12 years in finance. “I was teaching part-time while working,” Swift said. “I enjoyed the four hours of teaching per week more than I enjoyed the 40 hours at Mellon Bank per week.”
He decided to return to Duquesne to pursue his doctorate degree in education. Throughout this process, he worked at the Small Business Development Center at Duquesne and taught as a part-time instructor at various Pittsburgh colleges.
For the last four years, he has been the director of the MBA program at Slippery Rock University.
“This is a good job for me because it combines my love for business and education,” Swift said. “I describe myself as a compassionate conservative or a conservative/libertarian.”
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
A: I see the whole world in terms of business – that’s my perspective. That probably shapes a lot of what I feel about politics. I’m from a blue-collar family where everyone worked in the trades and I was the first to graduate from college.
Q: Who or what inspired you to become interested in politics?
A: Well, I was never interested in politics until I was over 40 years old because my parents didn’t vote and we didn’t talk about politics growing up. After turning 40 and after having children, you realize the policy decisions people are making in Washington affect our lives on a daily basis. That’s when I became more interested.
Q: Did politics play an important role in your childhood?
A: No, like I said, we didn’t talk about politics. I know my parents did not vote. But, I do have a memorable childhood experience watching the election or reelection – I can’t remember which – of Ronald Reagan. I was probably 9 years old when Ronald Reagan was elected. I remember seeing the whole map turn red but one state. It made me think that the whole country loved this guy and voted for him. He was probably the first politician that I paid attention to. He said two things that struck me and confused me at the time. He said, “government is not the solution to your problems, government IS the problem.” He also said that the nine words Americans fear the most are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” I remember turning to my grandmother and asking why he would say that because “isn’t he the head of the government?” I didn’t really get an answer, but those two phrases stuck with me. He also stood in front of the Berlin Wall and told Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” These are powerful images to see and hear as a 9-year-old kid. From that point forward, I looked at him as this great leader during the Cold War. He was able to combat communism.
Q: What is your political affiliation and why?
A: Well, when I first turned 18 … I didn’t know what to register as because I didn’t know what the two parties stood for. So, I registered as an independent. I didn’t hear much about politics in my high school, either. But, later in college, I was watching one of the conventions during an election year and I heard the wife of one of the candidates speak. I don’t remember who it was – I’ve tried to search who it was – but it was very memorable. It might have been Elizabeth Dole in 1996. The theme of her speech was “why I am a conservative.” At the end of that speech I thought, “I guess I’m a conservative too” because I agreed with what she was advocating for. The speech was pro-American, pro-capitalism, pro-family and pro-law and order. “Compassionate conservatism” was a phrase that appealed to me and made sense to me. After that, I switched my party affiliation from Independent to Republican, which is opposite my entire family. Both sets of my grandparents were all Democrats because we all had union jobs/blue collar trade jobs.
Q: How were the elections in the past different from the elections today?
A: I just think there’s so much more information available now that people can use to make up their minds. I remember a story from my grandfather – he voted while he was at work and he was basically told who to vote for. The party bosses could see what line you were standing in and everyone had to go in and vote for the same person. There was social pressure from your union to vote for certain candidates. I felt like there wasn’t a lot of choice or a lot of information about who you were voting for or what they stood for. For the past couple elections, I’ve been able to research what candidates stand for. There’s a lot more information now. One thing that doesn’t seem to be different is that there seems to be a core 40% of people voting republican, a core 40% of people voting democrat and 20% who switch. That has remained the same and consistent over the years. There has always been a small group of swing voters – for example, the states Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida – that always swing the vote one way or another.
Q: Is there anything you would change about the political system and why?
A: I think it’s too divisive and I have a bad view of politicians as a whole. They don’t keep their word. They do what’s best for their party instead of what’s best for the people. I read an article that says we aren’t even a democracy anymore; we are really an oligarchy because only 2-4% of the population actively contributes to campaigns. Politicians have to do the bidding of their funders and if only 2-4% of people are contributing, then they’re controlling that. There have been millionaires and billionaires running during the past few elections. One thing I would change is that Congress used to be volunteer-based. I don’t think politicians should get rich off of serving. I would consider term limits or salary caps. I just think that people should go to Congress to serve, not to get rich. Most of these politicians become much richer after they’re president. They are able to leverage that role and become wealthier after the fact. I’m certainly not against people becoming wealthy, but politicians are there to serve and instead, are really serving themselves. I want there to be fresher blood and a greater turnover. The incumbents usually win in Congress. Once you get in office, you have enough power to stay in office. So, I think there should be greater turnover with fresh ideas.
Q: Who is your favorite president and why?
A: I don’t have a favorite president. I used to like to hear stories about Washington and Lincoln and the founders of our country. I think in modern times, my two favorites are John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. You’re probably shocked that I picked one Democrat and one Republican. I think that both of them had a certain air about them. The Kennedys were even viewed as the royalty of our country. Both of them could speak very well – so could Clinton. They have a certain presence. Both Kennedy and Reagan sounded very visionary to me. The speech that Kennedy gave about [the sacrifices it would take to go] to the moon – “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” was very powerful. Actually, Kennedy and Reagan were more closely similar in their position. Both were strong in defense against Russians, cut taxes and would talk about individual freedom. They both were sort of outsiders in terms of their upbringing. Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president and Reagan was an actor. I like Reagan the best because I grew up listening to him and he had a great sense of humor – a self-effacing sense of humor.
Q: Donald Trump is considered a controversial figure. How do you view him and his presidency?
A: Well, I don’t think he’s as controversial as some others might think. He’s one of the few presidents who’s done what he said he would do. I feel like most candidates just say what they need to say to get elected; it’s what their funders want to do. That’s what I feared about Trump. I thought that once he got in there he would move to the left. That hasn’t been the case. He’s done what he said he would do. However, I think he talks too much, he tweets too much and he’s not polished or diplomatic with his answers. But, interestingly, if we think about strengths or weaknesses of presidents – Bush didn’t defend himself enough, but Obama and Trump both have big egos and thin skins. That’s just my own perspective. Both get defensive and attack others if they are attacked. I think Trump appears controversial because 9/10 media stories are negative and he’s not a Washington insider. Even some people in the Republican Party were against him running. For example, the editors of the National Review and some conservative pundits were against him from the beginning. So, I think that’s why he appears controversial.
Q: What do you look for in a presidential candidate?
A: Both Obama and Trump were not my first choice. I think being a governor is the best experience for becoming president. Obama was a senator and Trump wasn’t even a politician. I generally favor voting for governors. The big thing is some kind of executive level of experience. Additionally, I really look for the presence, or someone who looks like they have character, a bigger vision and will do what’s right. They need passion and energy. People like Al Gore and Mitt Romney don’t come off as energetic and passionate. I almost feel like they’re cardboard cutouts of people. That wasn’t the case for Kennedy, Reagan or Trump. They have more magnetic personalities. Charisma and character are the right words for it. Obama and Clinton were both very charismatic.
Q: Even though you didn’t talk politics at the dinner table as a child, did you or did you not have those kinds of discussions with your own children? Why or why not?
A: I commented on economic theories and political viewpoints when my kids were in high school in relation to homework assignments/courses. I also explained my opinions when they had specific questions. I would try and counteract specific comments that they would bring home from school to provide a framework for them. I often gave both perspectives on both sides of an issue in order to allow them to understand for themselves. During the presidential election in 2016, I watched the debates closely with my kids and explained the process to them. I also helped them to understand what each candidate stood for.
“I don’t really like politicians,” Swift concluded. “I’m cynical and distrustful of all politicians because most of them aren’t authentic.”