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Who Are the Ex-Conservatives?

Perhaps it is easier to move right than left.

[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 second 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 Samuel Goldman’s The End of Political Conversions?]


Thank you for the kind and candid response to the review. I’d like to start with a thought that kept running through my head while reading your splendid book. Actually, it’s a thought that—as a student of politics—has been running through my head for a long time, and which drew me to Exit Right in the first place. There are so many memoirs, accounts, and edited works out there detailing and investigating left-to-right political conversions. Yet there are so few describing conversions that occurred in the opposite direction, from right-to-left. Why is that?

I recently and repeatedly put this very question to distinguished scholars at a five-day policy history conference. Rather than receive an answer—or something that would be deemed a passable response in a doctorate oral examination—I merely got names. And not just names, but the same three names over and over: Jacob Heilbrunn, Michael Lind, and Glenn Loury. Coincidence? Well, all three were associates of the late Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, and broke to an extent with the political disposition mainly consisting of “liberals mugged by reality.” Loury wrote for the The Public Interest, which Kristol founded in 1965, while Lind worked for and Heilbrunn is currently the editor of the The National Interest, which Kristol founded in 1985.

But are they really ex-righties? I know Heilbrunn and Lind. Heilbrunn is a “realist” and Lind “never ceased being a New Deal liberal.” I don’t know Loury personally, but I presume, based upon his writings, he self-identifies neither as either a “liberal” nor as a “progressive,” at least as these terms are contemporarily conceived. His last contribution to The Public Interest in the Spring 1997 issue was on mending affirmative action. “Arguably,” he concluded, “the time has now come for us to let go of the ready-made excuse that racism provides. And so too, it is time to accept responsibility for what we and our children do, and do not, achieve.”

In short, I took the lack of an incisive reply to confirm what I’ve long sensed. There are simply far fewer people who have undergone right-to-left odysseys. If this weren’t true, it would surely be evident. Ivory Tower eggheads would be proudly pumping out chronicles and holding conferences to illustrate that liberalism is the logical final station for those who have experienced “enlightenment.” What are your thoughts?

Further, I feel it’s just natural to move rightward as one gets on in years. Who hasn’t heard the following aphorism or some variation of it? “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you have no brain.” Well, it’s always driven me up the wall for two reasons. First, even most liberals and progressives with whom I’ve spoken who are older than I am—32—concede there’s a great deal of truth in it. Although they’re still on the Left in their 40s, 50s, 60s, etc., they openly admit they’re less leftwing than they were in the past. So relative to their starting positions, they’ve becoming more conservative. Sure, they’re still not situated on the Right. But they have become more conservative—or rather cautious in temperament, and caution is, after all, the essence of conservatism—than they were earlier in their lives.

What’s more, the reasons these liberals and progressives moved rightward are consistently the same common reasons people once of the Left ultimately became people of the Right. (They’ve come to recognize the futility of certain government programs, the harmful results of a libertine “do it if it feels good” morality, etc.) Where someone finishes up has a lot to do with where they begin. In modern times, the majority of Americans on the Left grew up as ordinary left-of-center liberals, not as zealous socialists and communists. As such, those who eventually crossed the aisle didn’t have too far to travel.

Irving Kristol’s ideological journey is widely believed to have spanned a great distance. But it didn’t. Among his friends at the City College of New York—“Harvard-on-the-Hudson,” as it was known in his day—he was pretty much the last person to join the Trotskyists and the first to leave. He and his wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, were essentially classical liberals of the British variety beginning as young adults. (I laid out this case in my essay, “The Brooklyn Burkeans,” which appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of National Affairs.) Because then they didn’t really set off as genuine devotees to the Radical Left, it’s less surprising they ended on the Right.

The second thing that bugs me about the “If you’re not a liberal…” aphorism is that its presence and recognition effectively sanctions silly behaviors and attitudes that, not infrequently, lead to negative outcomes for our nation as a whole. To be sure, it’s implying that people often need, in order to become productive members of society, to initially indulge in rainbow-soaked visions for the world. Seriously, why is that okay? There are, on balance, important differences between fun and recklessness as well as idealism and naïveté.

Interestingly, in some Amish and Mennonite communities, there’s a rite of passage known as “rumspringa,” which means “running around” in Pennsylvania Dutch. Adolescent youth are afforded the chance to leave the community and engage in otherwise rebellious behavior. With rumspringa, whatever damage is done is done outside the community and usually personally endured. On the other hand, American society, in contradistinction, is forced to deal with the repercussions of citizens who feel it’s dandy, for a period—and sometimes an interminable period—to be led by emotion rather than intellect and to prefer gratification rather than the cultivation of virtue. The point is that many of us didn’t require a midnight-swim in the Plaza fountain, as former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz has said, to become well-adjusted human beings.

You asked what I meant by my concluding statement: “[T]he task before us [conservatives] is rediscovering not what we stand against—that’s obvious—but why exactly we’re opposed to what we stand against.” Not often enough do those of us on the Right go deeply enough, exploring the moral and philosophical underpinnings that make liberal and progressive policies problematic. Fine, the policies don’t work, but why exactly don’t they work? Perhaps more importantly, what passions inspired them in the first place? Thinking on these planes helps us understand why we arrive at the proscriptions that we do, as they are amendments or negations of core left-wing impulses. It also assists in answering the most pertinent inquiries, “How do we define the ‘good life’?” and “Do our policies get us moving toward it?” If we haven’t outlined the target, then it’s impossible to assess the compatibility of legislation with a conservative vision.

The supreme irony involving the Right today is that those most opposed to “the Establishment” and, hence, those most likely to stress they are “conservatives” rather than “Republicans,” primarily employ the Republican Party’s platform to judge who is within and beyond the pale. Inevitably, their use of the GOP’s ideological standards is hypocritical. If conservatism is organic, meaning capable of responding to changing circumstances, then why intransigently rely upon public policies that are inorganic, meaning specific and written? Those, for instance, who always oppose raising taxes strike me as not only dogmatic, but also fundamentally un-conservative. Conservatism’s strength is that it challenges hard-and-fast planning. Sticking to principles is one thing. Sticking to policies irrespective of vicissitudes on the ground is quite another. Is it truly impossible to imagine a situation, even on the most local level, where more money would be needed to provide a public service?

Second, why trust the GOP as a chief source of guidance when it is, as habitually reported by the grassroots, the ultimate “insider” institution? And third, why castigate “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only)—and therefore implicitly defend the title of “Republican”—if “Republicans” are the enemies? (I suppose the pronunciation of “CINO” [Conservative In Name Only] isn’t popular because it might either sound racist or too similar to a Gap clothing item.)

Here’s why there’s been so much internecine warfare. There’s a general lack of awareness (though not necessarily among the informed readers of The American Conservative) that the Republican Party platform is not “Conservatism” (as if there were such a formal thing, anyway), but instead a mish-mash of tendencies emanating from the 20th century’s major conservative schools. You express concern that it’s “incredibly difficult as a human being, over the course of a lifetime, to keep all of these impulses, insights, and considerations in proper perspective and in fruitful conversation with each other.” Yes, it is! And conservatism embraces that. Your apprehension is a remnant—or a hangover, if you will—from being on the doctrinaire Left.

It’s virtually inevitable that the conservatives among us who subscribe more or less to one school or another will fail the GOP’s ideological purity test. One must not be a proponent of, for example, either traditional marriage or laissez-faire economics to be a small-c conservative. Libertarians, who for sensible reasons regard themselves as members of the Right, are against the state regulating intimacy. Paleoconservatives and neoconservatives, who also for sensible reasons regard themselves as members of the Right, are concerned with the moral and cultural outcomes of capitalism.

Critically, while not all conservatives align on every single issue, they are united in important respects. Color and a degree of capaciousness is precisely what makes us cherish the human experience rather than centrally control and standardize it for mass consumption. We believe life is infinitely complex and dynamic and, thus, cannot be aloofly directed from above. We are convinced that flourishing occurs when the greatest amount of autonomy is granted to individuals and their voluntary associations. Yet we also maintain a vigilant eye toward the unintended and inescapable consequences of action. We are mindful that even the slightest manipulations to the social fabric are bound to elicit second-, third-, and fourth-order effects. These inclinations, in my opinion, illustrate the enduring relevance of conservatism.

Yet what is conservatism in America, as our country essentially lacked a “conservative” tradition until after the Second World War? It’s succinctly and beautifully embodied by a phrase within the Declaration of Independence. It’s an elementary belief in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That this is the case is even more apparent when one looks at the ambitions of American liberalism, which seems increasingly stuck atop the barricades of 1789 and 1968. The Left, in plain contrast to the Founding Fathers’ intentions, is bent on guaranteeing via an activist state, “pleasure, material equality, and the right to happiness.”

You note: “On a gut level I care a lot more about my friends and family than I do about the masses. I view with skepticism people who want to preach to me, from on their high horse, what I should be thinking and doing in the name of justice.” Amen, brother. It’s the hubris of lefties, their badgering insistence that they can reengineer the soul, conquer all of human history, and finally fix things with government that irritates and, frankly, frightens.

I do sense, however, that you are “holding on to a political identity, in other words, that doesn’t fit anymore” by granting that “human societies, like human beings, are flawed, imperfect, frail things” yet wishing “for the U.S. to move… in the direction of those lovely Scandinavian countries.” Your contemplations echo those of old-school neoconservatives like Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell midway through their journeys. Just remember that while they always considered themselves men of the Left, most of the population felt differently. So while you too might wish to fight for the constitution of liberalism out of either nostalgia or sincere empathy, it’s frequently the box into which others place you that determines your personal and professional trajectories.

I forecast, by the way, that political conversions in general will decrease dramatically in the near future, if they have not already. Affairs of state are becoming more and more partisan, hardening attitudes and, as a result, making the switching of sides less and less probable. It’s easier than ever to create a cocoon, to mentally shield oneself from opposing views due to the Internet’s proliferation of information. Even physical relocation is an option given the increased ease of travel.   

As for your worry that you might already be exiting right, do not fear. The barrier to entry, contrary to the noisy exhortations of integrity priests and priestesses on the Right, is actually strikingly low. All one must do is accept the world’s diverse denizens as they exist in reality, not as they exist in a fantasy of absolute equality—which you seem to have already done. “If only [the Left] would ‘fess up to its past mistakes,” you lament. “If only it would temper its utopianism with a pinch of pragmatism.” To complete the circle, I’ll channel William F. Buckley, Jr., who in amicably courting the neoconservatives in the March 9, 1971 issue of National Review, wrote “come on in, the water’s fine.”

Jonathan Bronitsky is a political strategist writing a biography of Irving Kristol to be published by Oxford University Press.

[Read Samuel Goldman’s reply.]