Right to left

“If you are not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”

Winston Churchill never actually made this quip, but the kernel of truth it supposedly contains has taken root as a truism of political thought. Leftist idealism is for the naïve young dreamer, the conventional wisdom goes, and the vicissitudes of adulthood instil a responsible conservatism.

Well so much for the conventional wisdom. There may have been a time when it held true, but not today. For one of the more notable features of political debate over the past decade or so has been the steady migration of pundits and intellectuals from right to left.Perhaps the most prominent example is blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan. Formerly a hawkish Thatcherite, his conservatism reached its apogee after 9/11, an event he interpreted as the harbinger of a “coming conflict … as momentous and grave as the last major conflicts against Nazism and Communism”. In the days and weeks after, he penned numerous screeds denouncing the “decadent left in its enclaves on the coast”, who “may well mount a fifth column”.

Today, if that fifth column exists, he is part of it. One of the sternest critics of the neoconservative agenda, he now believes the Iraq war was a disaster, and is utterly contemptuous of the Republican Party. Out too has gone his support for supply-side economics, denounced as “rightist theology” and “Zombie Reaganomics”. So in two of the main spheres of political debate – foreign policy and economics – he has made a dramatic journey from positions largely held on the right to positions largely held on the left.

Even now Sullivan identifies as a conservative, still heavily influenced by his hero the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and so he might deny that he has moved left. ‘It’s not me that’s changed, it’s everyone else’ is a common, but rarely accurate, explanation given by apparent converts. Sullivan could no doubt offer a convincing philosophical case that his conservatism has remained consistent, but the practical policies he supports would be anathema to most existing conservatism. In any case, his dislike of actually existing conservatives is visceral enough that many on the left would happily claim him.

As they would Francis Fukuyama, another right to left convert. A political scientist and former Reagan Administration official, Fukuyama is the man behind the famous “End of History” thesis which predicted that “Western liberal democracy” would be the final form of human government, and that capitalism had triumphed over all its rivals. This thesis was enthusiastically taken up by the neoconservative movement with which Fukuyama identified, until a Damascene moment in 2004. Sitting in a large audience listening to the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer deliver a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, Fukuyama was astonished to hear his ideological allies treat the Iraq war as “a virtually unqualified success”. His journey left began thereafter.

He recounts this story in the preface to America at the Crossroads, a book described by the uber-hawkish Krauthammer as Fukuyama’s “post neo-con coming out”. Fukuyama later denounced neoconservatism as “Leninist” in its desire to bend history to its will, and soon after he endorsed Obama for President, asserting that it was “hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush”.

Nowadays, in between writing his multi-volumed tract The Origins of the Political Order, he generally contributes to political debate from a left wing perspective. He maintains that economic inequality is a key social problem and argues for liberal (in the American sense) means of ameliorating it. He laments that there is no “Tea Party on the left” to combat the excesses of capitalism that he now sees as a threat to democracy. From neocon to Occupy is quite a journey.

Sullivan and Fukyama are only two examples; I could elaborate on many more. Arianna Huffington, Ferdinand Mount, John Gray, Jeffrey Sachs, Glenn Loury, Peter Beinart, David Brock, Bruce Bartlett, and Martin Wolf have all made journeys to the left of their former selves.

One could even add David Frum and Charles Moore, both of whom continue to strongly identify as conservatives, but have made robust critiques of the right. In Frum’s case, robust enough to be excommunicated from the American Enterprise Institute for such heresies as criticising Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. He is now a regarded as a pariah in many conservative circles. Moore’s flirtation with the left has been more timid, but he did write a piece for the Telegraph in 2011 in which he conjectured that ‘the left might actually be right’. And since then his timidity has not held him back from voicing the odd criticism of free market capitalism as it is currently operates.

Frum and Moore still have some way to go, but perhaps, in time, the vicissitudes of life will shake them out of their naïve conservatism, so that they too become responsible leftists.