Today when you think of conservative politics one man in particular usually comes to mind: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Ask any Republicans hoping to be the next president – seems like they drop his name in every other soundbite.
But long before Reagan was the face of conservatism, the young actor was speaking on behalf of liberals:
“This is Ronald Reagan, speaking to you from Hollywood. You know me as a motion picture actor, but tonight I’m just a concerned citizen. Pretty concerned about the national election next month and more than a little impatient with those promises the Republicans made before they got control of Congress a couple of years ago.”
When did this transition happen and, more importantly, why?
Daniel Oppenheimer attempts to explain the transition of Reagan and other prominent politicians in his new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.
Oppenheimer, whose own politics are left-leaning, says he was interested in tracking how people moved from the left to the right, as a possible service to the left.
“I think we probably inflict some harm on our side, that we don’t need to, by not being as introspective about our flaws and our orthodoxies as we could be,” he says.
Oppenheimer’s maternal grandparents were Communists. He says he grew up in that community, but he wrestled with the politics of it.
“I remember grilling my grandfather once about what he thought about Stalin’s crimes. He didn’t really want to answer that,” Oppenheimer says. “I wrestled with some of the orthodoxies of the left that didn’t make sense to me.
“I kind of had the good fortune to have parents who were very passionate politically, but not dogmatic, and didn’t give us the sense that if we didn’t believe exactly what we believed that we would be excommunicated.”
In part, Oppenheimer says the book was a way to explore disagreement, not denunciation, within a party. It’s also a way to explore what conservatism meant then and what it means now.
“It is particularly tough now,” Oppenheimer says about the right today. “We’re looking at this guy Donald Trump, who wasn’t a Republican very recently. I think he’s been a Democrat two or three times, he’s been a Republican two or three times. So what does it mean to be conservative? I think it means different things.”
He says Reagan, one of the politicians Oppenheimer explores in his book, thought it meant a few things.
“To Reagan it meant being suspicious of the expansion and overreach of the government,” Oppenheimer says. “I think for Reagan it very specifically meant lower taxes, a strong defense and standing up to the Soviet Union.”
On Reagan’s liberal-leanings:
“Politically, philosophically, he was a New Deal liberal until after the war and then a few things happened. One is, he sort of became more and more explicitly anti-communist and that became a more and more partisan-affiliated thing to be after the war.”
On Reagan’s transformation:
“After his movie career petered out in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he went to work for General Electric. … He was kind of the public face of GE. They did not expect him to advocate for their politics, which were actually deeply, deeply conservative and anti-labor and anti-New Deal. But he kind of absorbed it as he went.”
On Norman Podhoretz, the 1950s and ’60s public intellectual:
“He sort of came to the public attention as an editor at commentary magazine which is a magazine that’s still around kind of a journal of ideas and arts with a Jewish inflection. … He was kind of part of all the big conversations that were going on amongst intellectuals in the ’60s about race, about class, about the Vietnam War. He actually was one of the people who gave an initial push to some of the ideas of the ‘new left’ in the ’60s when he was on the left. He sort of was excited by it.”
On Podhoretz’s shift to the right:
“He wrote a book called Making It, which was kind of a memoir. It was about his own ambition and his own desire for success. … The book got totally trashed. Not just did it get trashed, it got trashed by a lot of his friends, and it just devastated him. It knocked him into a tailspin that he didn’t come out of for years. During that time, he went through a really fundamental re-evaluation of a lot of his positions … something had gone corrupt on the left in America and that had a lot to do with why they disliked his book.”
On formerly Communist writer and editor Whittaker Chambers:
“At the very end of the ’30s he sort of began … to question some of the things that he believed about Communism, but also particularly about the Soviet Union, and what kind of society it was. It was a crisis of faith. He had had this devout faith in Communism as a way to save the world. What ended up filling its place was Christian faith. And that was kind of the beginning of it for him, before he formulated what his next politics would be.”