My Conversion

I wasn’t always a Republican.

So I guess I fall into that category described by the philosopher C.D. Broad, who famously noted:

Not to be a radical when one is young argues hardness of the heart; to remain so when one is old argues softness of the head.

(Curiously, I have usually heard that quote ascribed to Sir Winston Churchill, and even more curiously, with the non-British political parties Democrat and Republican substituted for radical and non-radical.  I have also usually heard the quote with ages specified – such as that one is a Democrat at 18 but a Republican at 30.)

On the other hand, my conversion may have less to do with what I valued that with my understanding of what supported those values.  In this respect I may have something in common with David Horowitz, the conservative intellectual who began his political life as the radical founder of the New Left (a movement which attempted to maintain a marxist/socialist orientation while distancing themselves from the horror of Soviet Russia when Nikita Kruschev revealed the abuses of the Stalin era).  Horowitz remarked:

I make no apologies for my present position [on the political right].  My values have not changed, but my sense of what supports them and makes them possible has.

Of course, my “intellectual odyssey” (to borrow another phrase from Horowitz) was not nearly as dramatic or as filled with pain and sadness as the path walked by Horowitz.

But having been on the left creates, for me, a very interesting paradox.  On one hand I feel like I understand those on the left well because I have seen the world through their eyes.  I, too, supported the things they supported.  I feared the religious right.  I denigrated Ronald Reagan as an intellectual lightweight who obeyed both God and astrologers (I directed equal levels of disdain towards these mythical authorities).  I firmly believed that war was not the answer, that man was over-populating and destroying the earth, and that science and reason represented man’s future.

Yet on the other hand, having made the transition from those points of view, having read more and thought more and grown wiser – I look at those on the left as perhaps more alien for my experience there.  Why doesn’t everyone give up the utopian fantasies of their youth as they grow more mature?  Why didn’t my colleagues – especially those who share my profession – come to the same conclusions I did?

My point here is to describe my mystification, and the impetus behind this blog – not to denigrate or to put myself on some sort of intellectual high horse.  Clearly it is not the rule that we are radicals in our youth and conservatives in our old age.  Something explains why I have made that conversion and others have not, and it cannot be IQ or the facts at hand or the culture.  I share those things with with academic brethren.

It’s a constant analysis going on in my head.  Why am I different?  Why did I change?  Is the change a sign of maturity and thoughtfulness, or is it a sign of capriciousness and mis-analysis?

This inner dialogue probably explains my deep fascination with those who have made the intellectual journey I have.  It seems that as many conservative intellectuals have made that transition as have always been conservative.  Off the top of my head:

  • The aforementioned Horowitz, who describes his transition in Radical Son – Horowitz was the son of real Communists who acted on behalf of Stalin and who himself was a major leader of the New Left in the 1960s
  • Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine who was a leading founder of neoconservatism
  • Irving Kristol, another founder of neoconservatism who was a socialist in his younger days
  • Bill Bennett, the Ronald Reagan cabinet appointee who was a Democrat until 1986 and now is a right-wing talk show host and conservative think tank contributor
  • Michael Medved, an enthusiastic Democratic campaigner of the 1960s whose rightward shift is described in his riveting book Right Turns, and who now has a popular right-wing talk show
  • John Stossel, the investigative reporter who used to demand government action to solve consumer problems but who has, through experience, come to loudly champion free market solutions
  • Ronald Reagan, a union man and Democrat who had a singular gift for articulating conservative philosophy

I sometimes think that I will learn more about myself from studying some of these stories, though many of the stories seem to be linked to particularities of an era.  For one generation, the shift was prompted by the revelations of Stalin’s cruelty.  For another generation, it was Carter’s miserable failure and Reagan’s hopeful (and eventually successful) message.  More recently, for some, it was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

For me, what was it?  I was a Democrat through my freshman year of college.  I was a member of the College Democrats.  When my college invited Oliver North to speak, I was there on the picket line shouting insults.

Two years later I attended a Bill Clinton rally on my college campus, but I was there only because it was an event.  I was already committed to re-elect George Bush, and although I didn’t picket or protest (apparently the radical was completely gone in me), I was completely unimpressed by Clinton’s message.

I don’t think my values changed in the interim.  I had always been an admirer of our Founding Fathers and of the wisdom of the structure of the Constitution.  I had always identified the Democratic Party as the party most consistent with liberty and with the original goals of the founders.  Republicans seemed to be the prudes and the censors.  Democrats were the ones talking about racial and gender equality, expanding the meaning of the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”.  With my then-hazy understanding of church/state separation (I was atheist before I was anything politically), I saw the Republicans as threatening to that wall of separation and the Democrats protective of it.  And I saw the Republicans as hawkish and the Democrats as dovish.  (I believe that my Democratic friends would be nodding their head at this – they would think I had it right when I was a young man.)

As I learned more though – about the way the world worked, about facts of history, about political philosophy, about the successes of the free market and the American enterprise – I found a new word to describe my political orientation: Libertarian.  I started to see mistakes in the Democratic approach.  Historically, I saw massive failures of socialist attempts at leveling the “classes” – failures in Cuba, the Soviet Union, China.  In the U.S., I saw the failures of welfare and Johnson’s Great Society.  I began to learn psychology and I understood the tremendous harm that dependency did to people, how it could trap people in a cycle (even a generational cycle) of underachievement and misery.  I began to recognize the great good being done by private charities (including, gasp! – religious ones) and the tremendous inefficiency (and dubious morality – i.e., charity involves a voluntary action) of public ones.  I began to understand how subsidies, wealth redistribution, and preferences disrupted the market and disconnected the cost of services and products from their true value, and how centralization and bureaucratization lowered quality.

And so I was disappointed with the two parties that I had to choose from.  I spent a year no longer being a College Democrat, but being completely unwilling to be a Republican.

But a year later, that changed.  As I grew up – as I lived in a real society – I began to see that the kinds of things that scared me about Republicans were all theoretical.  No one was really threatening my atheism.  I wasn’t likely to be burned at the stake as a heretic.  But what the Democrats were doing – that was affecting my life.  The Democrats were the activists, the radicals if you will – they were the ones gumming up the market, growing government, and day by day, law by law, taking the United States farther from that beautiful system of federalism and individual liberty.

That was a shock.  The Democrats were scarier than the Republicans.  Worse, the Republicans might even be better than the Libertarians.  For one, they had actual power.  For another, they were right about foreign policy, where the Libertarian philosophy was more or less silent.  The world was a much safer place after Reagan’s peace through strength policy than it was during Carter’s pacifist presidency.  And I began to see that was repeated through history.  When Europe talked about disarmament after the horrors of World War I, the world got dangerous again.  Truman’s fast action in Berlin after World War II may have saved half of Europe from the misery (and the multi-millions of deaths experienced by the other half thanks to Stalin).  The list of examples could be extended, but that will be for another essay.

So in the course of two years – in college of all places – I had gone from activist Democrat to confused Libertarian to astonished Republican.  And so I have remained in the decades since – never quite sure how the conversion happened, never quite sure if the conversion will stick.  But even more confused as to why Broad’s axiom didn’t apply to most of my friends.

Coda

I thought it would be interesting to use this post to keep a running list of conversion stories, partly because a reader suggested a really good one (Christopher Hitchens) and partly because I heard of a new one last night on the radio:

  • Christopher Hitchens, whose politics shifted rightward in the wake of the September 11 attacks, though his political philosophy is very difficult to describe in a soundbite
  • Artur Davis, a Democratic Congressman from Alabama and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, who recently switched his party affiliation to Republican
  • Thomas Sowell, an economist who began life as a Marxist (even while learning the art from conservative lights such as Milton Friedman) but who became a free marketeer during his time in the Department of Labor when he realized that leftists were uninterested in testing their theories against data (and when the data revealed that the leftist theories weren’t working in practice)
  • P.J. O’Rourke, the essayist who has somehow managed to continue contributing to typically-left magazines after coming out
  • David Brooks, the N.Y. Times columnist whose conservatism is still questioned by the red meat wing of the Republican Party
  • Dinesh D’Souza, popular author and outspoken Christian
  • Dennis Prager, the author and radio talk show host, voted for the first time for Reagan in 1980 and did not become a Republican until the 1990s
  • Richard Bernstein, an author and life-long Democrat who became disgusted with the way the Democratic Party undermined the unity of the country after September 11, 2001

(O’Rourke, Brooks, and D’Souza I presume to be conversion stories given their appearance in the Table Of Contents of a book recommended by a friend – Why I Turned Right.)

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4 comments

  1. lolzerzilla · · Reply

    I find this post and this blog fascinating, it’s not often you hear from a Republican atheist professor. It’s not often you hear about these conversions although I was aware of Podhoretz, Horowitz, Kristol and Reagan before I read your post, you might want to add the late Christopher Hitchens to the list of the converted. Your story actually reminds me of my father, who came from a family of union Democrats and once he went to college and started reading the newspapers and forming his opinions, he realized he was not a Democrat at all. He tells me the same thing will happen to me and in some regards he is right. I am for gun rights, I value private capital, I am for the most part against welfare and prize private sector, I believe individuals can and do have a better effect than federal programs but I am still staunchly a feminist, an environmentalist, civil libertarian and for LGBT rights, It is just an interesting mix that will keep on changing and even with those labels it’s hard to pin down what I am. I do recognize however that you are quite bright (the professor title gave it away haha) so I look forward to reading more of your posts. Best of luck with the blog!

    1. Christopher Hitchens is a good suggestion – I believe September 11 was the moment of truth for him. I think there may be many people like your father (and you?) who might consider voting Republican if there was another great communicator of conservative ideals like Reagan (who famously brought many Democrats over). Of course, it would also help if there was less inflammatory rhetoric that turned off people like you who care deeply about the environment and homosexual rights. Thank you for the supportive comments!

  2. Great stuff. As a professor who converted from left to right about six or seven years ago, I would say the most important figures for me were Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and John Stossel.

    1. Well it is certainly nice to know there’s another conservative professor out there! As I said somewhere on this blog, I’m a “religious sympathizer”, so even though your blog is from a deist perspective, I think we probably have a lot in common (I’m adding your blog to my reading list). Your list of conservative intellectuals is very close to mine – I have read Williams less, but the four others quite a bit. I’d add David Horowitz and George Will to my pantheon. Thanks for the comments.

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