I’ve had a few brushes recently with people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right. There’s some useful discussion (and some not so useful) of this and related phenomena in this Crooked Timber comments thread following up a post by Chris Bertram about Nick Cohen, a recent exemplar of the left-right shift. I’m taking points from various commenters with whom I agreed, without acknowledging them: read the thread and you can see who has said what.
A couple of things have struck me about this process. One is that, even though the shift from radical left to neoconservativism or neoliberalism is rarely instantaneous, and appears in some ways to be a smooth transition, there doesn’t usually seem to be any intermediate stage at which people in this process hold a position similar to my own (social democratic in domestic policy, internationalist in foreign policy and reluctant to support war except as a last resort). Rather, what seems to happen is that leftist modes of critique are used, increasingly, to defend rightwing policy positions.
An obvious example is the way in which ex-Marxists seize on largely incoherent notions of ‘the new class’ and ‘elites’ (typically defined in cultural terms rather than with any analysis of economic or political power) as a way of attacking their former allies. Eventually, this kind of thing is often abandoned in favour of traditional conservative or free-market rhetoric, but by this time, the shift in political position is usually complete.
The other is that, although people change their opinions, they generally don’t change the confidence with which they express them or their attitudes to those who disagree. If they were thoughtful and sceptical as leftists, they generally remain so. If they regarded all who disagreed with their leftwing shibboleths as fools or knaves, they will take exactly the same view of those who disagree with them when they begin spouting rightwing shibboleths instead.
This is disappointing in two respects. First, having been (on your own assessment) badly wrong once, ought to inculcate some sense that it is possible you might be wrong again. I don’t think this ought to reduce you to agnostic inertia, but it’s surely a good reason for humility.
This ought to be true collectively rather than individually. I’m always stunned when people (particularly those old enough to remember the postwar boom) advance free-market economic arguments with the air of someone stating matters of scientifically proven fact. The same arguments were regarded as hopelessly exploded fallacies in the heyday of Keynesianism, refuted not only in theoretical terms but by the brute fact of the Great Depression. Experience since the 1970s suggested that Keynesians were premature in their triumph, but this ought to have produced humility about the limits of economic knowledge rather than new round of triumphalism from the neoliberal side.
Second, while the left may not have the winning argument on every issue, there are plenty of left arguments that are strong enough that the right typically ignores them rather than confronting them head-on. For example, anyone who’s looked hard at a left analysis of the way the media stereotype groups like the unemployed ought to be immune to simple-minded claims about leftwing media bias (Keith Windschuttle’s book Unemployment was very good on this point). Yet lots of ex-leftists seem to forget things they once knew, and espouse arguments they could formerly refute. (The same is true, in reverse, I’m sure, but I haven’t seen so many examples of the process).
fn1. I know I don’t always practice what I preach in this respect, and some modes of argument like opinion columns don’t allow for equivocation, but I do try to acknowledge that there are people who’ve thought carefully and well about the issue and come to the opposite conclusion.