Well here’s an awkward one – a volume of essays including one not only by the esteemed editor of National Review, but also one by my wife. So let’s get the essential preliminaries out of the way: Danielle Crittenden’s essay, “Pacifists, Pacifiers, and Snakeskin Miniskirts,” is the finest example of English prose of our time, with Richard Lowry’s, “I Was a Teenage Conservative,” a close (but not too close!) runner-up.
Seriously: In Why I Turned Right , editor & lead contributor Mary Eberstadt has done a fine job of gathering and editing some very interesting personal reminiscences by some of the leading conservative writers of our time: Peter Berkowitz, Joseph Bottum, David Brooks, Dinesh D’Souza, Stanley Kurtz, Tod Lindberg, Heather Mac Donald, P.J. O’Rourke, Sally Satel, and Richard Starr, in addition to Danielle & Rich. The value of the book, though, adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Over the past decades, there have been quite a large number of these right-wing conversion stories, starting I suppose with Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, progressing through Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Breaking Ranks, Bertram Wolfe’s A Life in Two Centuries (a brilliant and hilarious memoir by a tragically under-appreciated writer), David Horowitz’s Radical Son – and the list goes on. David Brooks, one of the essayists gathered here, edited a similar collection Backward and Upward a decade ago.
The great question all these books address is: Why? Why would a cultured, educated, thoughtful person migrate from the progressive Left to the reactionary Right? Why would anyone, to adapt the words of Whittaker Chambers, move from the winning to the losing side?
Of course, a lot of history has passed in the half century since Chambers posed his question. The Left ceased to be the winning side – and ceased to seem so progressive. When William Buckley graduated from Yale in 1950, and wrote his God and Man at Yale memori, there was something odd and even quirky about a cultivated and cultured person taking his stance on the right hand side of the political spectrum. His decision almost called out for explanation.
As time passed, however, the Buckleyite trajectory ceased to be so odd, ceased to call for quite so much explanation. The “how could you??” question that prompted David Horowitz’s book faded away. People in the intellectual world might still not like it that some large minority of their number had shifted rightward, but they ceased to be astonished by it.
Indeed, by the time I got to university, it often seemed that it was the decision not to shift rightward that called for explanation. By 1980, conservatives might remain a minority among the highly educated – but an increasingly self-confident (maybe too self-confident) minority. And by 1985, it is doubtful whether conservatives remained a minority at all. The pollsters tell us that the cohort that turned 20 between 1985 and 1990 is the most conservative cohort in the American electorate.
And this I suppose is why Why I Turned Right filled me, above all, with a feeling of nostalgia. Will anybody feel called on to publish such a book in, say, 2032? Are brainy and brave young people still being drawn to the political right? I hope so. Certainly the craven and cringing attitude that has prevailed on much of the left to Islamist terrorism would (you would think) repel thinking and patriotic young people.
Yet I cannot help feeling that despite the suicidal weakness of much of the left in the face of a threat to liberties we should all cherish, today’s center-right is failing to inspire and attract the best and brightest American 20-somethings. The Bush presidency may deserve some of the blame: At home, this is a presidency that has from the first been a tactical rather than a principled presidency, founded upon ideas designed to recruit a political coalition rather than withstand tough intellectual scrutiny.
But there are deeper forces at work too. I am trying to grapple with some of them in the book I have been struggling over for the past two years – one reason that the book is so late! – but I am not sure I have succeeded or will succeed. All I know for sure is this: Why I Turned Right is an important memento of my Reagan-vintage generation. I doubt that we shall see anything like it again anytime soon.