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The End of Political Conversions?

The scope of political controversy has narrowed considerably since the end of the Cold War.

[The May/June issue of The American Conservative featured Jonathan Bronitsky’s review of Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. This is the third installment in a series of articles responding to the original review. Be sure not to miss Oppenheimer’s “Why I Am a Conservative Leftist” and Bronitsky’s “Who Are the Ex-Conservatives?]

Jonathan Bronitsky asks why there are so few works that describe conversions away from the Right, when “goodbye to the Left” is such a popular genre. He suggests that there just aren’t as many people who have experienced such conversions. And some of those who did may not really have been on the Right in the first place. Jacob Heilbrunn and Michael Lind, for example, were never full-spectrum conservatives.

I’m not sure these examples are exhaustive. Garry Wills made a career out of his status as an ex-conservative. At a much lower level of intellectual seriousness, so has David Brock. In different ways, Frank Fukuyama and Bruce Bartlett could be placed in this group. It’s not so small, once you start thinking about it.

It’s true, however, that few refugees from the Right have produced literary accounts of their conversions. I suspect this has something to do with their sense that, in moving Left, they’re simply doing the natural, rational thing. You don’t have to explain why you’ve chosen to go with the flow, to swim with the tide. It’s resistance that needs no justification.

Witness is the most impressive reflection on this situation. Unlike, say, David Horowitz, Chambers believed he was abandoning the winners of the great struggle of his time for its losers. That’s what gives Witness its pathos.

Right-to-Left conversions are less dramatic because there’s less at stake. Making that transition can be personally wrenching, but it is consistent with the existing structure of social and professional incentives. “How I decided to support Hillary Clinton and got more peaceful family holidays and a better job” isn’t a very compelling story.

It’s also worth noting that most ex-conservatives who move left end up as mainstream liberals. The only figure I can think of who moved from the “countercultural” Right to the radical Left is Karl Hess. Even when they change their views, then, former Rightists often remain “small-c” conservative in their general outlook. That’s less a conversion than a modification—which isn’t such an interesting subject for autobiography.

Toward the end of his response to Oppenheimer, Bronitsky forecasts that we’ll see fewer stories of conversion from either direction in the years to come. He suggests that’s because it has become easier to insulate oneself from disagreement. Why would you change your mind if you don’t know anyone who thinks differently?

I agree that political conversion doesn’t have much future as a literary genre, but for a different reason. Although it sometimes seems as if we’re more partisan than ever, the scope of political controversy has narrowed considerably since the end of the Cold War. The intellectuals Oppenheimer describes were literally concerned with the fate of human civilization. None of the issues we debate today—important as they are—rises to that level of importance or encourages such intensity of disagreement. Although it’s taken a lot of heat recently, I’m inclined to think Fukuyama’s “end of history thesis” is basically right. At least in the West, there’s still no plausible competitor to liberal democracy.

A revival of the political conversion genre would require the emergence of an alternative form of social order that could command the allegiance of serious people. Then we might again be forced to choose sides.

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University.