Converts, conversely

Back in 2005, I wrote about the common experience of dealing with “ people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right” (taking as an example, Nick Cohen). Paul Norton, about the same time, wrote along similar lines.

At the time, I mentioned that there weren’t many examples of people going in the opposite direction[1].  But as a commenter points out following this Ryan Cooper link to my last post on the collapse of the rightwing parallel universe, there are now lots of prominent US examples: David Frum, David Stockman, Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett and just now Michael Fumento. I’m quite surprised by Fumento, who has always appeared to me as a stereotypical culture warrior.

Of course, there isn’t an exact symmetry here, essentially arising from the fact that, whereas most of the L-R conversions happened at a time when the left as a whole was conceding a lot of intellectual and political ground to the right, the current situation is one where the US conservative movement and their international offshoots have moved sharply to the right and remain politically potent. So, it’s much more plausible for those making the R-L shift to claim “I didn’t abandon the conservative movement, it abandoned me”.

Still, never having had such a conversion experience I find it fascinating to observe. Particularly striking is the fact that a sharp change in position doesn’t much change the confidence with which views are expressed. Someone who was cautious and sceptical before a change in view will remain so afterwards. More strikingly, converts who held their old views with absolute confidence, will be equally confident of their rightness in abandoning those views.

fn1. Some earlier examples that occur to me now (all US) are David Brock, Michael Lind and Kevin Phillips. No tendency of this kind is evident in Australia as yet – I’d be interested in views from other countries.

76 thoughts on “Converts, conversely

  1. I think the shift that John is referring to is considerably more nuanced than his blog would suggest. For one, many of the original US neocons were east coast progressives — some of them Jewish like Frum — and largely secular. While Reagan was in bed with the Christian fundamentalists, he managed to leave some space for the secular neocons, especially since the issues were largely economic (i.e., supply side theories) with a sideshow around school prayer, abortion rights, etc.

    The last Bush administration focused on tax cuts and prosecuting two wars, again leaving some space for secular fiscal conservatives and hawks like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams and others. While the culture wars and the Christian fundamentalist part was omnipresent, it was relegated to a corner — albeit an important one — in the Bush administration.

    The new conservatism in evidence in the 2011/2012 Republican presidential race is an altogether different animal. In this conservatism, the centrepiece is Christian fundamentalism and conservative cultural values, which leaves no room whatsoever for the secularists who, unlike their Tea Party and fundamentalist counterparts, are not medieval in their social views on abortion, gay rights, contraception, etc. This new brand of conservatism leaves no room for non-believers, including Jews and other non-Christian groups. Issues around the economy and war that traditionally rally neocons is secondary to firmly establishing America as a Christian nation. This vision not only excludes non-Christian neocons, but it also scares the hell out of them. Be careful what you wish for.

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