APRIL 2, 2007
What causes lefties to turn into conservatives? Conservatives are fascinated with this question, repeating, often for years on end, their stories of deliverance from liberal hell to conservative heaven. Several such testimonies can be found in a new volume, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. Most of the journeys described are short ones--from apolitical child of (generally) conservative parents to conservative young adult. (Rich Lowry's progression from son of Republican parents to avid teenage reader of National Review to editor of National Review lacks the dramatic tension of, say, Whittaker Chambers's Witness.) Of the essays that do describe genuine left-to-right conversions, the striking thing about them is that encounters with actual liberalism are virtually absent.; Heather Mac Donald details her experiences in academia with literary deconstructionism and critical legal studies. P.J. O'Rourke recalls that he "was a communist, unless I really was an anarchist or an anarcho-syndicalist or a Trotskyite or a Maoist." And Stanley Kurtz describes campus activists cheering when Ronald Reagan was shot and the sight of "severed pig heads impaled on poles carried by antiwar demonstrators in New York's Central Park."
If I have my history correct, however, the Brookings Institution does not take its principal intellectual inspiration from Michel Foucault; Tip O'Neill did not cheer Reagan's shooting; and attendees of the Democratic National Committee never marched in public with impaled pigs' heads. I guess I don't understand how the recoiling from an ugly campus protest leads directly to a desire to privatize Social Security.
The older generation of neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, at least had the decency to defect to the right in the late '60s and early '70s, at a time when the Democratic Party and mainstream liberalism were flirting with radicalism. The new generation of right-wing converts, on the other hand, switched sides after the Democratic Party had already pulled back from the McGovernite brink. (Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis were centrist technocrats; Walter Mondale was an heir to Hubert Humphrey, the "Hump" in the New Left slogan "Dump the Hump.") And yet the converts all seem to consider the GOP the only alternative to joining the pigs'-heads marchers.
The conversion stories featured in Why I Turned Right are not atypical in this regard. David Horowitz offers the model for this left-right metamorphosis, having changed almost overnight from gun- storing Black Panther wannabe to radical right-wing culture warrior--a story he has recounted in no fewer than four (as we go to press) books.
Christopher Hitchens is a more recent example of the phenomenon. In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly essay, Hitchens excoriated figures like Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, and Oliver Stone before concluding with a general denunciation of "America's liberals"--as if his targets were typical liberals, or even liberals at all. One day Hitchens was denouncing liberals as cruel imperialist aggressors (e.g., attacking Bill Clinton's 1998 air strike against Sudan), the next day as cowardly appeasers. Hitchens differs from the typical convert only in that he has managed to retain many of his Trotskyite beliefs even as he's adopted new, neoconservative ones.
Why do these converts register their disgust with the far left by immediately hopping into bed with the right, rather than settling down with some nice neoliberal think tank? The answer is that the content of one's beliefs can change, but one's intellectual style rarely does.
For example, in her chapter in Why I Turned Right, Manhattan Institute fellow Mac Donald describes how she "had fallen under the thrall of deconstruction." She aptly skewers her former belief system as a kind of exotic wordplay in which "ethical responsibility is a fiction and good and evil are completely interchangeable." Unfortunately, this description bears more than a passing similarity to Mac Donald's current work explaining away American torture. (In a typical article, she accused torture critics of "succumbing to the utopian illusion that we can prevail while immaculately observing every precept of the Sermon on the Mount.") Conversely, it's not surprising that the one contributor to Why I Turned Right who describes himself as at all uncomfortable with the tenets of conservatism, David Brooks, also declares himself to have been a moderate liberal in his prior incarnation.
Stylistically, leftism and conservatism have more in common with each other than either does with liberalism. The ex-radical once believed the free market and the U.S. military were perfectly evil; now he believes the exact opposite. He will never be satisfied with the "well, yes, sort of, but ... " explanations. He craves--to use a favorite conservative slogan--moral clarity.
Newly christened conservatives also have the thrill of joining a movement: "I found myself in the same trench as people like Paul Wolfowitz and Jeane Kirkpatrick," as Hitchens put it. Most conservative converts convey a similar sense that they have joined a hardy band of fellow believers who have broken through the tissue of lies fed to them by the academy and media.
Memoirs of conservatives who have moved left are rarer and tend to read like the tales of cult escapees. The emphasis is on what was left behind-- Michael Lind's Up from Conservatism, David Brock's Blinded by the Right--rather than what is joined. Conservative stories, by contrast, follow the arc of religious redemption (or, less charitably, of joining a cult): I was lost until, praised be Reagan, I found the true path.
One of the oddities of conversion literature is how proudly converts trumpet their former stupidity. "When my Holdsworth bicycle was stolen from in front of the Yale law school," recalls Mac Donald, "I felt that redistributionist justice had been done." (Today, no doubt, tax cuts for the rich give her the same feeling.)
Let me just note that, when my college bike was stolen, I felt no ideological gratification. Nor did four years in Ann Arbor fighting some truly nutty left-wingers make me one iota more sympathetic to Newt Gingrich. Mac Donald explains her leftist naivete as an unconscious swallowing of liberal propaganda--she was "a liberal by default, the inevitable condition of those who do not bother to educate themselves about social facts." Default, dear Heather, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.