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.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

76 thoughts on “Converts, conversely

  1. Interesting comments from Jack Strocchi and Tom about China. I’ve almost finished reading “When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques, which points to the continuities between the communist-capitalist hybrid which has emerged in China and the Confucian and imperial traditions. However, this is probably a topic for another thread.

  2. I don’t know China well, but my impressions are the same as Tom’s. Communist rule destroyed most of the pre-existing Confucian basis for ethics, and now that communism itself is discredited, it’s everyone for the themselves, and the devil take the hindmost.

  3. I think, Paul Norton, that an interesting case study might be Arnold Schwarzenegger. This guy goes from being a humanity busting cyborg to a compassionate Republican govenor, to a foolishly honest husband, and then back to the humanity busting bit. I think that it will be interesting to monitor the hue of his blue as he settles back into protecting his 800 million from the internal revenue service and his Democrat ex wife, and could be a litmus test for my original assertion, “does the money play a role in strength of conviction”.

  4. John Quiggin :
    @Robert in UK
    I thought WIndschuttle’s book on unemployment was pretty good back in the 1970s, but that was a long time ago. I was predisposed to agree with a lot of “The Killing of History” until he got to the bizarre point of calling Popper a relativist.
    But Windschuttle is indeed the paradigmatic L-R for Oz, but there are many others. The most prominent move in the other direction is probably Malcolm Fraser, but i think politicians post-retirement are a special case. I really can’t think of a prominent intellectual here who has made the R-L shift, but there surely must be some.

    Has Malcolm Fraser really moved from right to left?

    My impression is that perception of him as being on the right during his active political life is based on his positions on one set of issues (because those issues were politically important at the time), while perception of him as being more to the left since his political retirement has been based on his positions on a different set of issues (because they, and not the former set of issues, are the ones he now likes to talk about). I haven’t seen clear evidence that he’s actually shifted his positions substantially on either set of issues.

  5. On China what needs to be noted is the potential impact of the substantial spread of Christianity in the business and technology sectors, now around 8% of the population nationally and up to 20% in part of the south-east of the country. Part of the appeal seems to be the provision of an ethical framework that is consistent with elements of what Weber, [perhaps inaccurately)y described as the Protestant work ethic.

  6. I’ve re-read John’s post and the comments thread from 2005, and found that on that thread I described Paul Gilding as someone who had moved away from the environmentalist convictions of his youth. This was and is clearly wrong, and I unreservedly withdraw that imputation and apologise to Paul Gilding.

  7. I think from my reading of him, what Paul Gilding has said is that he has moved passed his grieving for the world and is in the territory of doing whatever we can to improve the situation and adapt to the inevitable changing environment. Hence his “Great Disruption” theme. And I agree with him fully as should be obvious from my argument that current economic thinking, while being modularly solid, is drawing the wrong conclusions leading to failed government policies. Environmental Economics is in its infancy and is still an annoying appendage of economic science rather than a structural core element….for both Left and Right. Social inclusion is also treated as being an expendable option for half of the argument, IMO.

  8. Sorry if this seems off-topic, but today happens to be JFK’s 95th birthday. Reading Alistair Horne’s “A savage war of Peace” of 1977 about the Algerian War of independence shows that in the 1950’s Senator Kennedy was an outspoken supporter of the Algerian Independence and was able to shift US policy from supporting French colonialism to neutrality even before he was elected to the office of President. Reading these excerpts show that it is not possible to exaggerate the good intentions and greatness of JFK. His example leaves to shame most of today’s warmongering world ‘leaders’.

  9. @Malthusista

    Reading these excerpts show that it is not possible to exaggerate the good intentions and greatness of JFK. His example leaves to shame most of today’s warmongering world ‘leaders’.


    1. Responsible for isolation of Cuba; numerous assasination plots against Castro, attempted disruption of Cuban economy through industrial and agricultural sabotage, swine flu etc ..
    2. Responsible for October missile crisis through positioning of missiles in Turkey. Had the USSR not backed down, a nuclear exchange might have occurred
    3. Responsible for support of Ngo Dinh Diem and then murderous coup against him in Vietnam; began escalation that led to Vietnam War

    Like Obama, he was very intelligent, and on the surface, a genial fellow, but he was driven by exactly the same thing that all US imperialist leaders are driven by, and acted accordingly. Had he lived long enough, he’d not have acted much differently from LBJ.

  10. Fran, Diane Kunz has argued that on aspects of domestic policy such as the civil rights struggle JFK would not have behaved as well as LBJ. She argues that the Kennedy clan saw the civil rights movement as a politically inconvenient phenomenon which could cost them votes, whereas Johnson actually had some decent convictions on the issue.

  11. @Fran Barlow

    The USSR did not back down. Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba in exchange for the removal of US missiles from Turkey and for guarantees of Cuban sovereignty. This was 100% of USSR and Cuban objectives. There was no other demand.

  12. @Paul Norton

    [whereas Johnson actually had some decent convictions on the issue.]

    Hmm I’m not sure about how those convictions translated in practice and especially during the 1950s over Brown b Board of Education, he had a pretty spotty record, letting the Southern states legilatively off the hook. He certainly didn’t see conscription as any kind of civil rights issue. In any event, my point was against Kennedy rather than LBJ.

  13. BilB :
    “does the money play a role in strength of conviction”.

    As the (Russian?) saying goes, when poverty walks through the door love flies out the window.

  14. Re Fran Barlow, it’s often remarked that for all his flaws, Nixon got it right on China and I understand, also had a more advanced outlook on economics and ecology than neolib politicians forty years down the line.
    Is it politicians who have moved to the right or just the politics? Would Nixon be todays version of Rick Perry, given that he was an opportunist, or is it true that Nixon would have abhorred the antics of the Goldman Sachs T Party Right, given the type of policy issues he was interested in.
    Politicians have been sold on the twin towers of Huntingdonism, cultural/racial superiority and arbitrary warfare and war against restrainton behalf of that residual cathedral of the ego, neoliberalism. Since Nixon’s era, the aim has been to dismember Settlement society, not work to make it work, because capitalism found successful ways of throwing off the constraints enacted for the good of the community in the cause of its own little self understood drive for control and wealth.
    The rupture of the two thousands has been a multi trillion dollar rupture and things will get worse from now on, not better, for most and youve only got to look at the likes of Murdoch, Koch Bros and Rinehart to realise that the infestation could kill the patient.
    There has been a rupture, no one is in charge of the runaway train

  15. @rog
    Pretty well right on topic for any political discussion. If you can’t deal with systematic biases in thinking it’s hardly retional to argue about the facts.

  16. @John Quiggin

    Ooh no, mainland Chinese are big on family and friends – that they often have no sense of duty to wider institutions does not make them selfish egoists. Nepotism is chinese family values.

  17. @J-D

    Yes, Malcolm Fraser always had strong anti-racist and anti-colonialist views – they even got him into trouble in his own party when he was PM. A pity he was, and maybe still is, pretty much a reactionary on most other issues.

  18. @paul walter
    Paul, I think in later years Nixon would have been as sold on neoliberalism as Thatcher was, and by exactly the same sales pitch – it destroys old-money elites. Bitter resentment of the East Coast establishment (in one case) or the Tory grandees (in the other) was a powerul part of their psyche.

  19. @derrida derider

    I kind of don’t want to derail the thread again, but “mainland Chinese are big on family and friends” is not a very accurate claim. I like a lot other Chinese have a very large extended family in China and yes the family meet up once or twice a year whenever the situtation allows the members to do so (e.g. not sick or too busy). So yes, it does appear that the family members of the extended family have close links to each other and are indeed quite friendly and offers you the best help when they can; but not when it comes to financial issues, you can have somebody in the extended family that is a multi-billionaire boss but another living in a slump long term unemployed, and that situtation is unfortunately not uncommon.

    The second thing is how close of a friend you are to someone, in Mainland Chinese, especially the recent decade or two. People are living in an extremely competitive society and as such, “using your friend” to gain benefits is very common. Especially, that they don’t really care if there will be any consequences inflicted on you (e.g. asking you to be a loan guarantor and then “vanish” with the money). Chinese people knows this and as such they have different groups of friends and they interact differently to each group. Back in the 60-70s, people trust most of their friends in their student age even upto university friends. When you are considered as a close and trustworthy friend, they will give you all sorts of advises and helps if they can. However, I have a number of Chinese friends (currently in their 20s, fulltime employed in China) told me that you can’t really trust any friends, even school friends post primary school unless you really know them. You don’t need to be a genius to wonder what this means and why this is the case.

  20. I don’t think there is much symmetry between those moving from left to right and those going from right to left.

    The shifts from left to right are almost all cases of people who are given to seeing the world in very stark terms, with everyone who does not agree with them utterly beyond the pale. They are also frequently bullies, whichever side of the fence they are on, and simply reverse their positions.

    I’m not familiar with some of those you refer to shifting from right to left, but those I am seem far more part of a drift towards more sophisticated thinking, moving towards the centre in the process. There is plenty of this on the left, but it doesn’t draw much comment when socialists turn into social democrats. It’s usually a case of people holding onto the same basic goals, but both becoming more patient about achieving them and realising the world is more complex than they thought and calls for more subtlety than they had realised.

    I’ve noted this before when the topic comes up, but the shift from dogmatic left to dogmatic right doesn’t seem to have occurred much amongst those referred to as Gen X and Y. I know our host doesn’t place much store in these generational things, but if you look at the boomers, plenty had crossed before they were 40. On the other hand the only examples I can think of amongst Gen X are David Penberthy and arguably Paul Howes and Joe Hildebrand. I can’t think of anyone famous, but I know quite a few people my age and younger who were in the right at university, but have shifted to the moderate left. In some cases this was about becoming comfortable with their sexuality, in others about disgust with the simplicity and dishonesty that characterises most of the right these days.

  21. Stephen @23:

    “The shifts from left to right are almost all cases of people who are given to seeing the world in very stark terms, with everyone who does not agree with them utterly beyond the pale. They are also frequently bullies, whichever side of the fence they are on, and simply reverse their positions.”

    This brings to mind those student Maoists from the 1960s and 1970s who have become right-wingers of the QuadRANT school in recent decades. They have gone from believing that you had to be a Stalinist in order to be a leftist to believing that, if you are a leftist, you must be a Stalinist.

  22. You should read of the popular unrest in Quebec led by the courageous students against their tyrannical provincial government and brutal police force. Presumably many who are now fighting in the streets against the Quebec government voted for them at the last elections.

    The Quebec Government is attempting to do to their Universities, what Hawke and Keating started in 1986 when they introduced the so-called “Higher Education Contribution Scheme” (HECS). As a consequence of the ‘contribution’ asked of students been raised repeatedly by Hawke, Keating and then Howard, Australian Universities have become globalised with many Australians unable to afford the fees. Consequently native Australians form only a small minority of students on many Australian campuses.

  23. 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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