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Why Do Some Liberals Become Conservatives?

The intellectual transformation from left to right.

Jean Kaufman


March 1, 2013 - 12:13 am

These days it may seem as though the entire nation is moving ever leftward. But on the personal level it’s actually much more usual for political change to go in the opposite direction: from left to right.

It’s not that uncommon an event, either — in fact, there’s a whole literature of political memoir written by left-to-right changers (such as David Horowitz and Norman Podhoretz, to name just two).

One changer closer to home is founder and former CEO of PJ Media Roger L. Simon, who talked about his own story in a recent speech in which he admitted that, despite his having written a book about his change experience, the how and why of political change is still a mystery to him.

Political change is something I’ve thought about long and hard because it happened to me, too, about ten years ago. In fact, struggling to understand and explain that change was one of the things that first drew me to blogs and blogging. I agree with Roger Simon that the vast majority of people are exceedingly reluctant to change their political beliefs and identification, and that was my experience, too; in fact, I’ve titled my own change story “A mind is a difficult thing to change.”

It’s not easy to come up with universals, because change stories differ in their personal details: fast or slow; solitary or interactive; sparked by things heard, seen, read, or personally experienced. But over the years that I’ve been contemplating my own story and listening to or reading those of others, I’ve come to see some patterns.

Rarely, if ever, are prospective changers actually seeking change. In fact their previous political positions on the left may be quite firmly and strongly held, and they would probably consider anyone quite mad who had the audacity to inform them of the transformation about to take place.

But although they may not be interested in change, change is interested in them.  It usually begins with something external, some new information encountered seemingly by accident, something that starts to bug the person because it contradicts or doesn’t fit easily into his or her pre-existing framework. It’s like a buzzing fly that won’t quit and can’t be ignored. It causes discomfort, a sense of unease, and the disequilibrium that comes from the dilemma known as cognitive dissonance.

It’s such an unpleasant experience that people are usually eager to resolve it. How they do that is one point at which changers split off from non-changers. The latter group, if faced with that very same information, might just swat that fly — that is, in their discomfort at the knowledge that seems incongruous with their previous beliefs, they would either discredit the new information, minimize it, rationalize it, or shut it out entirely, thus ending the discomfort and the dilemma.

But those who ultimately end up as changers can’t seem to put it away that easily. For them, something once seen cannot be unseen. Perhaps they have a different habit of mind to begin with, one more accustomed to challenging its own beliefs and assumptions, one more uncomfortable with contradictions.

The process can become even more intense if the experience is a personal one in the first place. Roger Simon’s slow decades-long change, for example, began with trips to China and the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s, where he witnessed some disturbing things he found he couldn’t forget or explain away. David Horowitz discovered that a friend of his whom he’d sent to work as a bookkeeper for the Black Panthers had been murdered by them and the crime was covered up by the left. These are personal experiences of a dramatic sort, especially Horowitz’s. They act as catalysts to send the person on a path to a series of discoveries, although the initial experience doesn’t need to be so extreme to spark the same process.

The whole thing rarely happens overnight, although it can. It resembles tearing down a structure and building a new one brick by brick. The final collapse of the first building tends to be the quickest part, with the changer now perceiving that structure as having been a house of cards, essentially fragile, although previously the person had been unaware of that fact.

Another less dramatic way a change experience can begin is with the perception that the mainstream media has lied about something. It can even be something that seems quite small and unimportant by itself, but then it happens again, and again, and a pattern begins to emerge. This learning usually also comes about by accident. For example, a person might happen across the original of a speech from which a truncated quote had been taken, and suddenly realize that the quote was probably edited that way in order to purposely mislead. The advent of the internet has increased the opportunities for this sort of discovery, because it’s much easier to compare the two texts.

Again, the watershed moment is not usually the event itself, but the person’s reaction to it. Some people resolve the discrepancy by ignoring it with a shrug, and perhaps the thought, “Oh, everybody in the media lies all the time, the right even more than the left.” Or it’s dismissed with the rationalization that it’s not really a lie because a much more important truth is being told in the process. Or it can be justified with an ends/means calculation: lying in a good cause is okay. In the future, such a person might even try to avoid going to the source of quotes, in order to avoid encountering similar discrepancies that might lead to more cognitive dissonance that could lead to greater unease.

But people who end up becoming changers are much more likely to vow to get to the bottom of it and learn more, plunging ahead with research. People who do so often discover as time goes on that a great deal of what they thought they knew is actually false.

I know that place; I’ve been there. It is a profoundly disorienting time, and many and even perhaps most people would do almost anything to avoid it. But those who are constructed a certain way cannot help themselves, because the discrepancy gnaws away at them. Next time they see something –  another quote, for example — that reflects badly on someone on the right, they are driven to check out its veracity by looking at the original text and its context. And of course they also check out similar stories in the press on the right, hoping to find similar distortions about the left, so it can all seem evenhanded. But if they are persistent, over time they discover the troubling fact that it’s not quite equal: generally there are more distortions (and more egregious ones) made by the left.

At some point changers usually become hungry for knowledge. Reading more and more writers on the right (sometimes for the first time), and/or talking to more people on the right, they discover a number of simpatico souls where they had thought there would be none. Ultimately, they find a coherent philosophy and their place in it. It takes a while, often quite a while, to accept that one is now a Republican or a conservative or a libertarian or a classical liberal or whatever one ends up calling oneself. Some never do; Zell Miller, who changed his mind but never could bring himself to switch his party affiliation, likened party identification to a birthmark.

And finally, of course, there are the reactions of others. Most people who’ve lived their lives in a liberal bubble have little awareness of the invective hurled at those who change– — until they become one of those people themselves. And even if they were previously aware of it, they probably remain sanguine in the notion that it won’t happen to them, because, after all, they’re talking to liberals who’ve been their friends for years.

So it is usually a tremendous shock when they have their first coming-out discussion. Even if voiced only tentatively, their departure from the liberal line is often met with tremendous hostility. Not from everyone, of course. But a large percentage of the people they now encounter, including friends and family, will express anger and contempt.

Being on the receiving end of this experience can’t help but be profoundly disturbing. Perhaps it even drives some people under cover, and or back into the liberal fold. But for most, it seems there is no turning back, because — as a fortune cookie I got a few years ago succinctly put it — “one’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

 Jean Kaufman is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.

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Top Rated Comments   
Reminds me of the old story Ted Kennedy walking down the street and seeing a young boy with a box of puppies. Kennedy asked the boy what kind of puppies they were and the boy said "these are liberal puppies". A couple days later Ted happened upon the boy and his box of puppies and again asked what kind of puppies they were. the boy said "these are conservative puppies." Taken aback, Kenendy said, "but a couple days ago you said they were Liberal puppies". To which the boy replied "yeah, but now their eyes are open."

That's how my change came about, my eyes were opened.
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
Every conservative I know who used to be a lib (I was a teenage democrat) shares the common trait of honesty. The more honest you are, the harder it is to swallow leftism.
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
I actually did exactly that. When I was first able to, I registered as Democrat and voted for Carter in '76. My parents were die-hard "D," as were my older brothers and sister. It seemed natural, all of the kumbayaa and good times from Uncle Sugar. Sounded great.

Shortly thereafter, events led me to understand, "what the *hell* did I just do?!" I had just assisted in voting a lame, barely competent ideologue to the White House, one who was clearly out of his depth.

In particular, it was my decision to join the military that led me to a big "C." Many of my relatives served quite honorably, and of course as kids we were all led to understand this was a viable option for a directionless young man.

And that's when my "peers" (loosely speaking) from High School (in a *very* Liberal Suburb just outside of Boston) began to speak to me as if I had announced I would be a toothless hillbilly as my life's choice and had just gnawed the head off of a live infant right in front of them. The sheer nasty attitude was oppressive.

In fact, it was the same stuff you hear Radical Liberals say today. Exactly the same.

So I engaged in some self-analysis and, as you say, began to read. And I discovered that as a class of people, Democrats really stood for nothing. They were, and are, nothing more than cynical opportunists who cared not one whit about me or mine. End of story, I re-registered and never looked back.

In the final analysis, I made the proper choice. I know who I am and what I stand for. God, duty, honor, country. Respect. Decency. Hard work with the rewards it brings you.

Had I remained a Democrat and fully bought into it all, I would have likely have rejected God; that Duty is a fool's errand; that our Country is racist and misogynist and damned near the "new" Nazis; Respect and Decency are provisional if it serves your base purposes. And hard work? Why bother, when we clearly all "owe" everyone else something?

I ask Democrats on occasion, "what do you stand for, exactly?" The responses are always fascinating, because they never include actual core values, it's virtually always a list of Liberal talking points. Cheap, hollow, devoid of meaning; the cause du jour.

I don't hate Democrats, I rather pity them. What kind of a life is it, to believe in nothing save what your handlers tell you to?

Anyways, 'nuff said. Apologies for the extended ramble.
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (87)
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Like most who graduated college in 1972, I was a Lefty.

The change came sometime prior to the 1976 election. The driving force behind this change was a 1-2 punch: Solzhenitsyn and Hayek.

Solzhenitsyn demonstrated that Soviet Communists treated their people similarly to German Nazis.

Hayek made the intellectual argument that linked these two criminal ideologies together.

If Communism and Fascism/Nazism are not opposites, what is the opposite of these totalitarian movements? Ordered Liberty as outlined in the Declaration and Constitution.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It happened to me, too! In 1991, after 4 years at the U of TX with a degree in Speech Communication (specializing in Intercultural Comm) & enough hours of philosophy classes to have an unofficial minor, my liberal brainwashing was complete. Then, something that seemed so very small & unassuming happened. I watched an episode of Murphy Brown. (Yes, I know I'm "dating" myself by revealing this!) In this particular episode, a speech Dan Quayle had made about TV/Media "glorifying" unwed mothers, using the show, Murphy Brown as an example was actual aired on Murphy Brown. What the VP meant as an example of media was completely taken out of context as an assault on an actual "person". They used his speech in that episode "as if" he were criticizing an ACTUAL unwed mother - Murphy Brown! This was the proverbial grain of sand that began to irritate me enough to form the pearl of Conservatism. professors at UT were ALL about "questioning authority" - as long as the authority had an "R" by their name. But what they didn't realize is I took that to heart & began to look at the media & how they manipulated, edited & portrayed everything. My complete "conversion" took many years...but with the guidance of radio personalities like Dennis Prager (whose mantra: "I prefer clarity to agreement" really hit home with me), by the late 90s, I became a diehard Conservative. I'll also never forget the words of one of my college boyfriend's father: "You don't become a conservative until you have something to conserve." At the time, I rolled my eyes as I thought what a selfish, greedy man he was. But years later, I finally "got it".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's actually less to do with experiences, changing peer groups, and all the rest cited above. It is far simpler and much more physical. As liberals age, their spines stiffen, and this makes it increasingly difficult to keep their heads stuck up their asses!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
P.S.: Meant to add that the "defining moment" for me was a trip to Israel. Even as a Christian, i was blown away by how honest, decent, peace and human rights loving the Israelis are. All peoples, religions, sexual preferences, etc., are accepted and even taken care of by the government.

And how essentially all the brutal Islamic theocracies surrounding them are NONE of these,brutally suppressing all dissent and other religions, keeping their people poor and uneducated, and using "hate Israel" as a pathetic distraction to the masses' real problems in these Islamic states--their own governments.

So when i got home and started noticing news and feature articles about the Mideast which previously i hadn't paid much attention to, i was absolutely astounded to see how the "mainstream" media represents the situation there--the murderous terror-loving radical Islamists are somehow the "good guys", while the democratic tolerant peaceful Westernized great U.S. ally Israel has become "bad"!?
How the Left which ostensibly espouses human rights, tolerance, free speech, factual approach to history, etc., etc. has come to support the Islamic terrorists is perhaps the greatest political mystery of my fairly long life, since their brutal intolerant behaviors would seem to fly in the face of very principle the liberals claim is important to then.

And then to read repeatedly the distortion, biased reporting, total mischaracterization, and outright lies written regularly about Israel I(NY Times, TIME magazine, Reuters, Atlantic Monthly, Huff Post,, etc.etc.), one begins to realize how fundamentally dishonest the Lefties have become in service of their now badly distorted ideology.
So that's how I left liberalism and am embarrassed by the many years i spent believing pretty much everything the "mainstream" media *(esp. The Times) wrote! I've now seen so much distortion, bias and outright dishonesty in the Times that i believe virtually NOTHING they write, and have stopped subscribing long ago.
Sad indeed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
May I suggest What's Left: How the Left Lost It's Way by Nick Cohen for a good primer on the subject.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As Winston Churchill famously said, "If you're not a liberal when you're young, you have no heart; if you don't become a Conservative once you're older, you have no head"!
That's what happens to many who are naturally drawn to liberalism in their youth, academic days, etc. The liberal narrative SOUNDS appealing, about helping the less fortunate, being inclusive, tolerant of others, peace-loving, etc., etc.
And indeed these are all commendable. Problem is that the New Left has basically coopted liberalism and turned it on its head, so that the strident Leftists of the world observe NONE of the principles they originally deemed important, like truth, fairness, tolerance, freedom of speech, honesty, etc. etc.
In the Left's zeal to embrace political correctness, they've basically become a bunch of liars, whose arrogance is reflected in how hard they try to silence any voices pointing out their dishonesty. They've become the New Fascists (try to speak on behalf of Israel on ANY major Eastern U.S campus!).
With their narrative, Islamic radical Palestinian terrorists are "freedom fighters", courageous peace-loving democratic little Israel is the "bad guy" in the Mideast (while Assad slaughters thousands, etc.!), Obama really is competent and honest and a good President and wasn't elected just because he's black, blacks don't need to do anything to change their culture and lifestyles 'cause all their problems are caused by racism, immigration should be totally unregulated and those who broke our laws by sneaking in here should be rewarded with citizenship, global warming has been definitely proved, Eric Holder isn't the most corrupt law-breaking Atty. Gen. in history, Obama minions didn't rig any election boxes, the Muslim Brotherhood truly seeks peace, etc., etc., etc.

So if your embedded self-identification as "liberal" and you feel you need to
agree with your like-minded colleagues and friends and NOT be considered uncool or unsmart or unsophisticated, you cling to these absurd lies desperately, since they're all part of the official Leftist p.c. playbook.
And if your emotions cause you to cling to lies, fashionable or not, you've become a liar.

And that my friends, is where the liberal Left is today. Very sad, considering their noble origins and their corrupt degeneration.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The commenter formerly known as chuck. I apparently did something wrong when signing in to the new system and was told that "chuck" was already being used.
My family was always Republican but as a young person I noticed that the cool people were always liberal and the liberals always supported the cool cause of the day. I used to think "if only the Republicans would just be more cool.
When I was about thirty I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and would turn to the opinion pages first thing every day. It didn't take long to see that the conservative columnists simply followed the facts where they lead, but the liberals who were on the opposite page, would almost always twist their arguments into absurd contortions of logic to support their pre-ordained conclusion. It wasn't long before "what was seen couldn't be unseen".
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
Raised during the Cold War "in the shadow of the Berlin Wall", with the icy breath of Communism breathing down our necks, I could not but be in favor of American exceptionalism and America as a military superpower. Socially, however, I was a liberal. My complete transformation to conservatism occurred when I became a California college professor in my mid-twenties. I realized that the American university is the "theatre of the absurd", a stage where liberalism plays out as parody -- a parody so surreal that it defies all reason. I became a conservative, no if's or but's. Alas, I've paid, and continue to pay, a high price for objecting to academe's obsession with sustainability, "diversity", and racial preferences. The academic left will not tolerate conservatives among its ranks.
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
Raised in the same environment, among leftists hiding out under the American military umbrella while publicly reviling all that the USA stands for, I couldn't help but be what is here called a "right wing extremist" (but then, everyone who's not a hardcore socialist is called that in Europe by now).

That said, I fully realise that to go from our current system of government controlled everything to a libertarian society isn't something that's possible without a long transition period.
People don't have the funds to pay for their own retirement for example, they've never needed to, nor have they ever had the disposable income to set aside such funds as they were always taxed into oblivion.
Same with all the other government programs intended to keep people wards of the state all their life.
If they're ever going to be dismantled it will have to be done very gradually, in small increments, in order to give people time to adjust their life and lifestyles to the new reality.
Plunging someone into a system without government pensions, government sponsored healthcare, government sponsored public transportation, government paid social security, disability pensions, etc. etc. while they've never saved a penny towards them, having that penny instead taxed and turned into those government programs, is tantamount to betrayal and murder, all but the youngest who have as yet a lifetime to produce their own funds will end up penniless, starving, incapable of paying even a visit to their family doctors, and inevitably dead very quickly.

I weep at the lost friends and family relations, seeing even my parents failing to realise that the party they've voted for all their lives was sliding ever further left over the last decade while I jumped ship.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That said, there's much amiss with libertarians and other conservatives as well.
Many are just as intolerant of people with different ideas and especially lifestyles as are their leftwing peers.

I'm sick of the amount of deregatory commentary about homosexuals, transgender people, nudists, people who were clothes that are out of the mainstream ca. 1850 that keeps appearing on sites like this one.
I'm appalled at the number of times commentators here and on conservative blogs scream for 'decency laws', banning of specific modes of dress, etc. etc.. They're no different from those calling for hate crime laws to get at those who disagree with them.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
changers can’t seem to put it away that easily... after 9-11 the day after- a white dove died in my kitchen- a message from the other side- I knew the world would never be the same- I went on a forum to see how my fellow Americans had reacted to 9-11- and I met conservative voices-I made fun of GWB and one poster asked me "why do you hate him more than Osama Bin Laden? I was going to call my book of changes "Letters form Nikki- a Cry from Cyberspace or How I Learned to Love G Bush" --I did research on Islam-and history- I spoke to Fakestinians and Muslims - I heard the hate- then I saw the reasons behind it- I was shocked and saddened to see Jews blamed for 9-11 and not the Muslims who did it- and so I became more "Jewish" more Zionist to defend and protect my own- and I saw the heart of Islam is blacker than the stone they kiss- I could not deny or look away from that horror show, and I knew GWB was right to describe the current political opposition to USA, as the AXIS OF EVIL- he was prophetic not a fool- I am not sure I am a conservative or GOP but I can never again vote for a Democrat- that our people, even some of my own family chose OBlamer once was bad, but twice? broke my heart
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
I find it interesting that a lot of these points can apply not just to political switches, but to political awakening in general. I experienced something similar--a questioning of the established factors, a curiosity about the full story, and a general disgust at the behavior of a Democrat--when I was ten years old. The Lewinsky scandal had just broken, and the paper reprinted sections of the Starr report, which Mom wouldn't let me read. When I bugged my parents with questions about the story, they finally told me that the President had been fooling around with a woman he wasn't married to.

At the time, I was only vaguely aware of politics. My parents listened to Rush, but I didn't really pay attention; I was too busy with fourth grade. But the idea that the President of the United States would do something so cheap and dishonest just creeped me out. By the time I was twelve, and the Florida recount hit, I was resolved to never vote for a Democrat. And to this day, I haven't.
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
I am 44 and recently switched from Progressive Pantheist to Conservative Christian.

My awakening came in a secluded, wooded man cab,.

It was a combination of listening to NPR.Borg and rockin out to Country Music...getting away from the reinforcements and propaganda inherent in the Liberal enclaves that are the cities and trendy small towns of this once great nation.

For me, it came down to an equation....LG4TE+LGBT+BDSM=PTSD.

Don't underestimate how depraved The Left is. A bunch of weirdos if you ask me.
2 years ago
2 years ago Link To Comment
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