Why Do Some Liberals Become Conservatives?

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.