Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys
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Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys

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by Mary Eberstadt

Political vicissitudes aside, with or without a conservative administration, whether or not America is engaged in war, or regardless of who next holds the majority either in Congress or the Court, the United States as a whole (as the infamous red and blue map made unforgettably clear) has boldly, unabashedly moved Right. But the question remains: Why?


Political vicissitudes aside, with or without a conservative administration, whether or not America is engaged in war, or regardless of who next holds the majority either in Congress or the Court, the United States as a whole (as the infamous red and blue map made unforgettably clear) has boldly, unabashedly moved Right. But the question remains: Why? How did a movement that appeared so sidelined and embattled only a generation ago emerge as such a strong, influential, and enduring united front?

In Why I Turned Right, eminent and rising conservatives — at odds themselves on a number of issues from religion, family, sex, to stem cell research, abortion, and war — answer the question. And they answer it not through polemic, reactionary preaching, or rage, but in the most practical and sensible way possible: via the sharp, critical, and unfiltered voices and canny observations of uniquely positioned authors, editors, humorists, and political refugees inadvertently born of the sexual revolution and the PC movement, who ultimately landed on the conservative side of America's red-blue divide — in some cases, much to their own surprise.

A fascinating intellectual journey, this "family of opinions," as contributor Peter Berkowitz terms it, represents the extraordinarily varied paths that have led these authors from the championed liberalism of their youth to eventually fuel the world of conservative think tanks, magazines, blogs, and book publishing.

Whether you are for the Right or against, guarded supporter or puzzled progressive, Why I Turned Right proves an entertaining, enlightening, and edifying read for anyone with an open mind — both the red and the blue, and everyone in between.

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Why I Turned Right

Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys

Threshold Editions

ISBN: 9781416528555


by Mary Eberstadt

This book is a unique attempt to answer a question that continues to confound many observers both American and otherwise: Why conservatism? It does so not through shrill polemic or high-decibel rage, but rather in the most practical and informative way possible: via the unfiltered voices of a dozen leading authors and editors of the contemporary right, including some of the best-known and most influential in the country. Peter Berkowitz, David Brooks, Joseph Bottum, Danielle Crittenden, Dinesh D'Souza, Stanley Kurtz, Tod Lindberg, Rich Lowry, Heather Mac Donald, P. J. O'Rourke, Sally Satel, and Richard Starr all tell their stories here. They explain how they came to reside on the conservative side of America's red-blue divide -- in some cases, to their own surprise.

The utility of such a volume in this particular political moment is evident. For one thing, following 9/11, two terms of George W. Bush, Democratic victories in fall 2006, and controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mood on the right itself is one of introspection and soul-searching. For another, and despite significant disenchantment among some, the overall conservative realignment of the United States is still one of the biggest political stories of the past quarter century. It remains so with or without Bush in the White House, whether or not the American militarycontinues its mission in Iraq, and regardless of who holds the next majority in Congress or on the Supreme Court. The November 2006 elections -- in which Democrats roundly prevailed by promising for the first time since Bill Clinton to govern from the center, and a handful of right-leaning Democratic candidates defeated Republicans unaccustomed to attack from that wing -- clinch the point about our political sea change. Whatever the particular fortunes of the Republican Party one year, two years, or five years hence, the United States as a whole has plainly moved right.

Yet even though many more Americans are now likely to self-identify as "conservative" rather than "liberal," the reasons for that transformation remain questions of enduring public wonder and scrutiny -- not least from Cambridge to San Francisco and everywhere blue in between. How did a movement that appeared sidelined and embattled only a generation ago come to exert such influence that even the Democratic Party now tacks starboard? What accounts for the unprecedented growth and reach of right-leaning think tanks, magazines, television, and radio? What, in short, has been happening out there such that so many Americans are now comfortable with the conservative label, or, conversely, so averse to contemporary liberalism?

During the last several years, any number of high-profile attempts to answer those questions have circulated from all political directions. Homegrown progressives have gone puzzling over their fellow citizens (Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, Jim Wallis's God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It), Englishmen have gone puzzling over Yanks (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation), rank-breakers of all kinds have gone puzzling over everything from fellow conservatives to their former selves (Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads, Bruce Bartlett, Impostor). We have even seen one soi-disant latter-day Tocqueville (Bernard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo) traverse the country and sally through its social classes from high to low, in part to divine the same political mystery. And still the question for many people -- especially, though not only, liberals -- remains: How can so many supposedly rational fellow citizens out there believe all that backward reactionary stuff?

That is exactly what our contributors, all leading lights in one way or another in the intellectual firmament of the current right, wish to explain here.

That such a book might make for interesting reading was a thought kindled in me some months back during a conversation with P. J. O'Rourke about the striking number of political conversion stories we each knew. We had in mind not the eminent converts of the preceding generation, many of whom had moved from youthful socialism through the liberalism of their time and on into neoconservatism -- Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and the rest -- but rather, the so-far-untold tales from those who came next. These "younger" writers like us, now roughly in middle age, had attended college in the postliberationist 1970s and 1980s, when liberal-left thinking was not the dominant game on campus, but in many places the only one. What had happened, we wondered, to push this new generation away from the "default" position embraced by so many of our campus peers?

This book is the result of pursuing that question, which I was particularly curious to see through for two reasons -- first, because the fact that I had also "traveled" in some political sense gave me a natural interest in it; second, because my past and present associations as editor or author at various journals and magazines (The Public Interest, The National Interest, the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, First Things) had given me some inkling already of how many more such stories might be out there.

Like me, the authors of the pages ahead know the right not only from the outside in, but also from the inside out. All represent in one form or another the venues through which many ideas are made and disseminated -- journals including National Review, City Journal, Commentary, and those others named above; think tanks, including the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Manhattan Institute; "alternative" media like Fox News, nationalreview.com, and many other blogs and sites followed by conservatives. Thus, these contributors represent in miniature the generation now peopling the right-leaning think tanks and airwaves and internet and book and magazine publishing -- in a word, some of the human nuts and bolts of what Hillary Clinton once disparaged as the "vast right-wing conspiracy."

Of course "conservatism" in America is no monolith, and these pages reflect that reality, too. Their criterion for what is right is simply the obvious one: It's what those on the other side call you whenever you put your head up and they feel like taking a shot. As Irving Kristol observed two decades ago in Reflections of a Neoconservative:

The key ideological terms of modern political debate have all been either invented or popularized by the Left -- "liberal," "conservative," and "reactionary," "socialist" and "capitalist," "Left" and "Right" themselves -- so that it is extremely difficult for those on the non-Left to come up with an adequate self-definition....The sensible course, therefore, is to take your label, claim it as your own, and run with it.

And so we will do here. The practical fact is that if you are (for example) a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and write for the likes of Policy Review or any other journal that is not the New Yorker or the Nation, and publish anything at all, ever, that locates you to the right of, say, Michael Moore, then the New York Times will call you a "conservative" -- an "ultraconservative" if you really annoy them -- no matter what fine-tuned harrumphing variations with hyphens you yourself might prefer. "They" see "us" as a united front, and so for purposes of simplicity will we see ourselves here.

Naturally, reality on inspection could show otherwise. About any number of specific ideas -- the war in Iraq, immigration, gay marriage, stem cell research -- many conservatives, including those ahead, disagree. The perpetual tug of war between libertarianism and social conservatism, for example, runs firmly (if tacitly) between the lines of these pages, as could the tension between "democratism" and "realism" in foreign policy had these same authors been asked to debate the war in Iraq. Even so, one common denominator holds: These are not the only writers of their generation who could pen an essay explaining how they left the "default" position of left/liberalism behind to become something else. For every essay in these pages, any number by other authors with related con-version stories could have taken its place. That's how widespread the flight right has been. And that, in a way, is precisely the point of this book.

So what did happen to make the right the intellectual and political residence of these particular writers? Though their nuances and experiences differ, the tales told here do play variations on distinct themes.

For some, the answer begins in foreign policy -- or rather, in the excruciating national humiliation that they associate with the years 1976-80. "Jimmy Carter made me the conservative I am today, as I suspect he did many members of my generation." So summarizes Richard Starr, managing editor of the Weekly Standard, and so undoubtedly would many fellow travelers agree. Further specifying "a visceral reaction against the moral chaos and defeatism of the 1970s," Starr makes vivid this perhaps overlooked point about the reaction against the liberalism of that time: Something about a twenty-year-old, especially, does not love being told to suck it up and turn down the heat and blame yourself or America first -- and to put up with the hostage crisis because any proposed alternative to defeatism is bound to be worse.

In short, Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, as is widely held, may indeed have been unthinkable without Jimmy Carter, but Carter's influence in one perverse sense may have yet to be measured in full. For in the outcry against what he and his policies stood for, the American Spectator and any number of polemical imitators on campuses were born -- sharp, critical, and often shockingly funny vessels of the right that would go on to mock and deflate the worst of contemporary liberalism, and to influence and animate conservatism and create new converts, long after Carter and even Reagan himself had exited the scene.

A second factor making intermittent appearances in these journeys is the political fallout of plain old human experience -- including experience of some of the human wreckage brought on by the sexual revolution. Several years ago, in his novel A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe offered up a twentysomething character named Conrad Helmsley. The product of hippie parents and an adult world running pell-mell away from every convention, Conrad finds himself longing for exactly what the grown-ups have all so willfully abandoned: "He was not even eleven when he first began to entertain the subversive notion that 'bourgeois' might in fact be something he just might want to be when he grew up."

Order, convention, family life, religion, respectability, solidity: For some contributors, just seeing the postliberation scene up close and too personal was enough to cause them to think that Conrad Helmsley might be right -- including and perhaps especially those whose own stories owe more to St. Augustine, say, than to Cotton Mather.

Explains P. J. O'Rourke:

I was swept out to Marxist sea by a flood of sex.

I was trying to impress cute beatnik girls. Then, one day, I found myself washed up on the shore of jobs and responsibilities, and I was a Republican again....

Think of me as Michael Oakeshott without the brain.

The flip side of quotidian domestic experience is also cited by several writers: that is, the political effect of becoming a parent. "I became a conservative at 11:59 P.M. on December 4, 1997, the way many people become conservatives," reports O'Rourke again, now from the other side of the fence. "My wife gave birth." "As the parent of an eleven-year-old daughter," Dinesh D'Souza shares, "I am more socially conservative now than I ever have been. In fact, of late I've been thinking that I might need a gun." Further tying political evolution rightward not only to children but also to marriage, Danielle Crittenden writes, "We [modern humans] continue to maintain the illusion that we are entirely self-sufficient creatures whose destiny is fully in our own hands. That illusion doesn't hold up so well when you meet the man whose destiny you wish to share -- and shatters entirely when you become responsible for the destinies of new people whom you have given life."

Another factor cited in several essays is the sheer transformative power of conservative ideas -- past and present. "[Allan] Bloom framed the issues," writes former ACLU-style liberal Stanley Kurtz, "and in the process changed my life. The Closing of the American Mind gave voice to a thousand fugitive thoughts and feelings I'd only half-acknowledged for years." Similarly, Peter Berkowitz: "[Leo] Strauss's reconciliation of the critique of liberalism with the defense of liberal democracy left a lasting impression on me." Several writers share a streak of autodidactism made stronger by exposure via conservative journalism to persuasive, hitherto unknown texts. As Rich Lowry describes the process in his particular case:

I was led from references in National Review to certain books, which led in turn to more books. There were the basics, Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative, Buckley's Up from Liberalism, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. But these were just an entrée. James Burnham's accessible polemic Suicide of the West -- a broad-gauged attack on liberalism, especially its foreign policy -- led me to his The Managerial Elite, a sophisticated work of sociology, and then on to The Machiavellians, a work of philosophy. Before I knew it, I was lounging away summer afternoons on the roof of my parents' back porch trying to follow Burnham's explications of the thought of Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto.

There is also the practical fact that some authors served apprenticeships at flagship journals including The Public Interest, American Spectator, The National Interest, and other publications of sufficiently high quality that their back issues are still livelier reading than most of what is published -- let alone blogged or posted -- today. Tod Lindberg, whose own editorial career has spanned numerous periodicals of the right, summarizes the excitement: "It's something entirely different to discover the world of the 'little' magazine, in which brilliant people bandied about ideas with robust incisiveness and great wit. This was news to me -- very good news."

If it is true, as many observers have remarked or complained depending on disposition, that conservatism has trumped liberalism in generating ideas these last few decades, the success of the right's nonconspiratorial apprentice system of the 1980s especially -- R. Emmett Tyrell's American Spectator in Indiana, Irving Kristol's tiny one-room Public Interest office in Manhattan, William F. Buckley's rather larger and also young and boisterous National Review quarters -- might be one overlooked reason why.

Similarly, and perhaps most dramatically, one other underacknowledged answer to "Why conservatism?" suggests itself repeatedly in the essays of Why I Turned Right: academia, or more properly the staggeringly uniform and unforgiving creed of ideological correctness against which almost every one of these writers sooner or later set his face.

In retrospect, that very kind of academy may turn out to be the real cradle of conservatism as we know it -- in a purely negative sense, that is. For one thing, and as psychiatrist Sally Satel's essay in particular makes clear, at least some baby boom/gen X writers turned right who might otherwise have stayed in the political middle -- because in elite academia from the late 1960s on, there was often no middle to be found. Just how monolithic those places were some twenty years ago -- or at least the chic precincts to which eager young generalists might be drawn -- can be seen in the pile-on of top-this academic anecdotes.

Heather Mac Donald's account of what deconstruction was perpetrating upon students at Yale during those years offers perhaps the most in-depth case study. With the literary treasures of Western civilization under attack by a host of European-inspired academic insurgents, she writes, "The university had abdicated its educational responsibility, leaving students to their worst instincts....Students rarely heard counterarguments to deconstruction's juvenile nihilism or learned why they would be better off sweating over Latin syntax and Gibbon than Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva." And Yale was far from alone in tenuring absurdity and ostracizing the sane. Elsewhere, Mac Donald summarizes:

Cringing administrators replaced the Western culture requirement with something suitably multicultural, and the criterion of excellence in the selection of academic material was forever abolished. Every other university, faced with copycat protests by barely literate teenagers, sacrificed its precious cargo of masterpieces with equally cowardly alacrity.

At Dartmouth, relates Dinesh D'Souza in one of the kinds of anecdotes that made the ground-breaking contrarian Dartmouth Review a cause célèbre, there was, among other problems:

....the radicalism of the feminist professors on campus. These women made statements to the effect that all males were potential rapists. One professor said she could barely walk around the Dartmouth campus because the tall tower of Baker Library upset her so deeply. To her, the tall buildings at Dartmouth were "phallic symbols." Apparently this woman's definition of a phallic symbol was anything that was longer than it was wide.

That kind of feminism so closely associated with the liberalism of the time -- that "spinsterish fear of the male sex drive," in Danielle Crittenden's phrase -- was naturally off-putting to some men, but not only to them. As Crittenden also writes of the then-dominant "difference feminists," "It's thanks to them that companies were forced to pay out millions of dollars in legal settlements because somebody made the wrong kind of joke over the water cooler. And it's thanks to them that so many young, confident women were put off by their wince-making brand of feminism." Like the political correctness to which it was aligned, extreme feminism appears to have had a jujitsu effect -- summoning by the sheer size and force of its wrongheadedness the very political reaction it sought to prevent.

In fact, so ideologically overboard was the overall American academic scene during the years in which most contributors passed through that one author, formerly apolitical science student Sally Satel, reports political awakening on account of something happening elsewhere:

There was one more formative event for me that had nothing whatever to do with me personally: the 1993 water buffalo case at the University of Pennsylvania. At the center of the incident was a hardworking freshman who was disturbed at night by rowdy African-American students outside his dorm room. He yelled at them to "shut up, you water buffalo" -- the student was Jewish and "water buffalo" was likely a loose translation of the word "fool" or "cow" in Hebrew or Yiddish. But many interpreted this unusual phrase as a racist slur of some sort. A politically correct conflagration ensued replete with toxic race politics, a show trial for the offending freshman, and enforcement of an Orwellian speech code that prohibited any behavior "that has the purpose or effect of...creat[ing] an intimidating...environment," according to university regulations.

Nor did matters necessarily look up if one were faculty rather than student. From Harvard, professor Peter Berkowitz reports:

I recall attending a faculty gathering shortly after I arrived in Cambridge in which [Harvey] Mansfield casually -- though with mischievous intent -- remarked that it was strange that liberals could not bring themselves to admit that the Cold War was a war and that the United States had won it. As if to confirm his point, the jaws of Mansfield's colleagues collectively crashed to the ground. And, as if on cue, they cast in his direction a collective dirty look, a mixture of fear and disgust, that I had seen before: in law school when I would ask about the holding of the case or the text of the Constitution as opposed to the desirable policy outcome we were debating; and in graduate school among faculty and students when I mentioned [Leo] Strauss.

To what do those common threads of disbelief and revulsion and subsequent political transformation amount? Simply this: The left/liberal monopoly on campus has had an unintended blowback indeed. It has inadvertently created some of the very political refugees whose work now fuels the world of conservative think tanks, journals, and ideas more broadly.

There is, finally, another factor mentioned by some contributors that is related to what drew them to the right, which is the relationship between contemporary conservatism and religious belief. Of course not all conservatives are religious, and not all religious people are conservative (as some on the left who want to harness that religiosity to Democrats are now spending a fair amount of time and money insisting). Yet as several essays in Why I Turned Right remind whether tacitly or otherwise, there is in fact something natural about that "fit" between the two.

There is, for one, the connection between conservatism's sense of human limitation and the similar understanding of religion. After all, the same "epistemological humility" cited by David Brooks as a pillar of his political views can be cast more widely than just the next appropriations bill. Or as P. J. O'Rourke makes the point rhetorically in discussing the largely unrecognized corollary arrogance of disbelief, "If I was so small that my comprehension was meaningless, what did that make my incomprehension?" Whether or not the case against God requires fewer prem-ises than the case for atheism, it certainly requires more chutzpah -- a kind of chutzpah of which many conservatives as such have learned to be suspicious.

A second reason for that fit is that religion requires something else which all nonlibertarian conservatism holds dear; it is, as Rich Lowry says, "the ultimate filial piety."

And of course a third reason for that "fit" -- as poet and First Things editor Joseph Bottum explains -- was and is abortion, and how the two political parties differ in viewing that subject. For though not all conservatives (including the contributors to this book) are pro-life, many are, and they are passionately so; and what is more important, between the silencing of pro-life governor Robert Casey in 1992 and the surprise election in November 2006 of his son, who also departs from the party line on abortion, the spectacle of a prolife Democrat was something like a celebrity sighting -- an event rarely occurring in the natural order, and typically to the embarrassment of the subject.

Moreover, for some contributors and also for many other conservative Americans, abortion on demand is not only wrong in itself but also linked to other dissolutions they identify with the left. "I also began to sense a deeper flight from responsibility in the boomers," writes Richard Starr. "Their precious 'right to choose,' for instance, more and more struck me as a right not to be weighed down by any obligation to another human being. It was as if life were a big game of Monopoly and abortion was their 'get out of jail free' card." It seems safe to say that just as some of today's conservatives appear to have been created because there was nowhere else to go intellectually, so will those who feel most powerfully about the "life" issue continue to tack right until the ideological near-monopoly on the left about abortion is broken once and for all.

To peruse these stories as editor is to hear any number of echoes of my own political journey, the same one that first led me to this book. Like most contributors, I headed off for elite education during the years when the very Western canon revered by this adolescent autodidact was being sacked by many in academic authority as purposefully (if perhaps less merrily) as Rome was by the barbarian hordes. Like contributor Heather Mac Donald, I knew enchantment and then disenchantment with the postmodernists in particular, driven sophisticates who apart from their own importance (and perhaps also the compulsive seduction of undergraduates) apparently believed in nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all. Like many contributors, too, I was protected by idiosyncratic factors against at least some of the ideological pathogens making the rounds. Catapaulted into the Ivy League by scholarships, I felt too privileged to join ranks with the permanently aggrieved. And toward radical feminism I proved especially immune. A sister outnumbered by brothers, I knew unshakably that men were more to be pitied than feared.

Most of all, however, like contributor Joseph Bottum and scores of millions of other people, what led once and for all and irretrievably away from the "default" zone of liberalism in my own case was that there was no getting around the fact of legal abortion. "Real conservatism," writes Bottum here, "usually begins when you find in yourself a limit, a place beyond which you will not go, and always for me it comes back to this touchstone." And always for me, too.

Though a lackadaisical apostate at the time, I read Roe v. Wade at the suggestion of Jeremy Rabkin (then one of Cornell's few conservative professors) and found myself thinking, This can't be right. I listened over the years as one hyphenated kind of feminist after another sounded weirdly full-throated cheers for the routine trashing of what was obviously some form of human life -- if not, why are we simultaneously having another national argument over using it for spare parts? -- and just as repeatedly I thought: This can't be right, either. And finally it became clear, one evening while watching a Stalinesque rigged "debate" on the subject in which a modest local Baptist preacher was put up against a Marcusian feminist and incessantly booed and jeered by a mob of hundreds even though he won every point, that my conviction had gone all the way over -- to Whatever else may be true or false, knowable or unknowable, this abortion thing just can't be right.

This can't be right: an intuitionist phrase does not a political philosophy make. But what started for me and, I believe, many other people weighing the real legacy of Roe went on to become something more -- a ground-up rethinking of many other political facts that supposedly enlightened people regarded as similarly self-evident, and that turned out on inspection to be anything but. And so I moved figuratively and literally. The Public Interest became my surrogate graduate school and Irving Kristol, my inadvertent substitute thesis advisor -- as he and other conservative and neoconservative thinkers of his generation have been for so many of the young people they hired, including some of the other writers in this book. There we imbibed what Richard Starr dubs the "parallel curriculum" that has proven to be modern conservatism's strongest asset: the essays and books of transformational thinkers such as Peter Bauer, Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, Whittaker Chambers, Robert Conquest, Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Sidney Hook, Paul Johnson, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Charles Murray, Michael Novak, Norman Podhoretz, Tom Wolfe, and others. To these I would add Hannah Arendt, Christopher Lasch, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Philip Rieff, and other iconoclasts more closely read on the right than on the left from which they hailed.

Just as reading the stories in this book as editor summons such past moments in my own parallel travels, so, too, I suspect, will many readers of Why I Turned Right experience similar moments of resonance. In the end, it is our collective hope that whether they are for the right or against it, enthusiastic supporters or disgusted critics, readers from all points of the spectrum will find items of interest in the pages ahead. After all, as numerous authors report, what drew them in the first place to the likes of Commentary and National Review and the American Spectator and The Public Interest and the alternative rest of the higher journalism was just that -- the writing.

And so we see here, I hope. Against the dour fanaticism and calculated malice of much current commentary, this volume is intended as a modest antidote, and its pages as entertainment and perhaps even illumination for readers both red and blue.

November 2006

Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2007 by Mary Eberstadt


Excerpted from Why I Turned Right by Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Editor Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Contributing Editor to Policy Review, and author of Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. She is former managing editor of the Public Interest and former executive editor of the National Interest.

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