The biggest story of the past fifty years in American politics has been the ascendancy of the right, and it’s a story of apostasy. At each stage of the conservative movement’s long march to power, crucial aid was provided by heretics from the left. Progressives recoiled from the New Deal and turned reactionary; ex-Communists helped to launch National Review, in the nineteen-fifties; recovering socialists founded neoconservatism in the sixties and seventies; New Left radicals turned on their former comrades and former selves in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan, whose Presidency brought the movement to its high-water mark, was himself once a New Deal liberal. In the course of a lifetime, the prevailing political winds are westerly—they blow from left to right. Try to think of public figures who made the opposite journey: Elizabeth Warren, Garry Wills, and Joan Didion come to mind, and Kevin Phillips, the disillusioned Nixon strategist; more recently, the writer Michael Lind and the Clinton-hater-turned-lover David Brock defected from the right to the left. That’s about it.
The most common explanation is the one variously attributed to Churchill, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George: “Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head.” The move rightward is thus a sign of the hard wisdom that comes with age and experience—or, perhaps, the callousness and curdled dreams that accompany stability and success. Irving Kristol, the ex-Trotskyist who became the godfather of neoconservatism, quipped that a neoconservative was “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Most people are hardly aware of the shift until it’s exposed by a crisis, like a major political realignment that forces us to cross party lines. Even then, they want to believe that it’s the politics, not themselves, that changed. My maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, an Alabama congressman in the early decades of the twentieth century, began his career voting with the only Socialist in Congress and ended as a bitter opponent of what he saw as the federal overreach of the New Deal. In 1935, on the floor of the House, a Democratic colleague mocked him for reversing his position on public ownership of electric power. Fuming, Huddleston insisted, “My principles and myself remain unchanged—it is the definition of ‘liberalism’ which has been changed.” Or, as Reagan famously (and falsely) claimed, he didn’t leave the Democratic Party—the Democratic Party left him.
It’s like blaming your spouse for your own unfaithfulness. Political conversions are painful affairs, as hard to face up to as falling out of love or losing your religion. Or maybe harder. Religious faith, being beyond the reach of reason, doesn’t have to answer gotcha questions about a previously held position. There’s a special contempt reserved for the political apostate—an accusation of intellectual collapse, an odor of betrayal. When you switch sides, you have to find new friends. Political identities are shaped mainly by factors that have nothing to do with rational deliberation: family and tribal origins, character traits, historical currents. In “Partisan Hearts and Minds,” published in 2002, three political scientists made an empirical case that political affiliations form in early adulthood and seldom change. Few people can be reasoned into abandoning their politics.
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