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.

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.”