The Rewards and Pitfalls of Ideological Dissent

At any given time, there will be a few people celebrated among partisans on each side in Washington because they have left their own tribe and come to the other side to assure them that their opponents are just as terrible as they imagined. The apostate promises not only a validation of what you believed, but a thrilling insider perspective on the other side's true nature. Becoming one of these dissidents is surely painful, but it also promises both professional opportunity and intellectual satisfaction, as you may well find yourself lauded more often and more loudly than you had been when you were just one of hundreds of operatives or thinkers on your own side.

In the American Conservative, Bruce Bartlett, a longtime conservative who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, worked at numerous conservative think-tanks, and was a member in good standing of the right's intellectual elite until he turned on George W. Bush and began rethinking some of his ideas about economics, recounts his story and tries to explain what it reveals about today's Republicans. Every case like this is a little different; Bartlett actually changed his mind on some substantive matters (like Keynesian economics), while there are others, like David Frum, who got cast out for little more than becoming a crack in the unified message machine. What got Frum expelled from the conservative movement was his assertion that Republicans had botched the health care reform debate by not working with the Obama administration to push reform in a more conservative direction. Instead, he argued, by taking a stance of implacable opposition they turned what could have been a half-victory into a total loss. You might or might not agree, but the idea that making this argument constituted an unforgivable sin that made Frum persona non grata shows just how intolerant of any kind of dissent the right can be.

Nevertheless, Frum seems to have done quite well for himself, particularly as he has embraced the role of the conservative willing to explain the mistakes Republicans are making. Yet that comes with a cost, which is that all the people you used to like now despise you, and all the people now pushing your ideas are those you used to consider your opponents. Bartlett closes his essay this way:

I've paid a heavy price, both personal and financial, for my evolution from comfortably within the Republican Party and conservative movement to a less than comfortable position somewhere on the center-left. Honest to God, I am not a liberal or a Democrat. But these days, they are the only people who will listen to me. When Republicans and conservatives once again start asking my opinion, I will know they are on the road to recovery.

I've tried to imagine what it might be like if I truly came to believe that the Democratic party was wrong on a series of fundamental issues, and as a consequence found myself rejected by liberals and embraced by conservatives. Frankly, the hardest part might be casting off my prejudices about my newfound allies, whom I had previously thought were at a minimum spectacularly wrong about most everything, and at a maximum people with truly horrible values. I know some very nice conservatives whom I just happen to disagree with, but I'm not sure how I'd feel if I found some truly awful person like Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin praising my deep thoughts.

After all, we all like praise, and are inclined to believe that the ones delivering it must be both wise and good-hearted. And here's a little secret: people who are in the business of thinking, talking, and writing about politics and policy really, really like to have their ideas discussed and acclaimed, particularly when it comes from someone you respect. It's hardly the entire purpose of the endeavor, but it is one of the big reasons people like me keep doing it year after year. I'll be honest: when I see that a writer I admire has linked approvingly to something I've written, I can almost feel that blissful squirt of dopamine coursing through my brain.

I suppose if you found yourself only being praised by those you had previously considered to be mostly a collection of knaves and fools, you could ignore the reflexive partisan hacks and just engage with those you found to be more thoughtful. But it wouldn't be easy.

You may also like