Converts, conversely

by John Quiggin on May 27, 2012

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.