Why Progressives Are Moving to the Right: For a Simpler Story

Busy pre-holiday weekend — making rusks and another batch of lemon bars. So only a single item for today, setting aside yet again the more substantial topics I alluded to yesterday.

Here’s one of those pieces where I react to the headline: they are? OK if so, why?

NY Times, Michelle Goldberg, 15 Dec 2023: What’s Driving Former Progressives to the Right?

She begins:

In a new essay in the progressive magazine In These Times, the writers Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet grapple with the contemporary version of an old phenomenon: erstwhile leftists decamping to the right. There have been plenty of high-profile defectors from the left in recent years, among them the comedian Russell Brand, the environmentalist-turned-conspiracy-theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and the journalist Matt Taibbi, a onetime scourge of Wall Street, who was recently one of the winners of a $100,000 prize from the ultraconservative Young America’s Foundation.

What gives this migration political significance, however, are the ordinary people following them, casting off what they view as a censorious liberalism for a movement that doesn’t ask anyone to “do the work” or “check your privilege.” Joyce and Sharlet write, “We, the authors of this article, each count such losses in our own lives, and maybe you do, too: friends you struggle to hold onto despite their growing allegiance to terrifying ideas, and friends you give up on, and friends who have given up on you and the hope you shared together.”

She gives further examples. And maybe this is a key.

Part of the answer is probably that the culture of the left is simply less welcoming, especially to the politically unsure, than the right. The conservative movement may revel in cruelty toward out-groups — see, for example, the ravening digital mobs that descended on the podcaster Julia Mazur for a TikTok she made about the pleasures of life without children — but the movement is often good at love-bombing potential recruits. “People go where people accept them, or are nice to them, and away from people who are mean to them,” the Marxist Edwin Aponte, one of the founders of the heterodox but socially conservative magazine Compact, told Joyce and Sharlet.

And then gets to the deep issue. Conservatives know what they want: a return to the past. Whereas…

But I think there’s a deeper problem, which stems from a crisis of faith in the possibility of progress. Liberals and leftists have lots of excellent policy ideas but rarely articulate a plausible vision of the future. I sometimes hear leftists talk about “our collective liberation,” but outside a few specific contexts — the ongoing subjugation of the Palestinians comes to mind — I mostly have no idea what they’re talking about.

It’s easy to see what various parts of the left want to dismantle — capitalism, the carceral state, heteropatriarchy, the nuclear family — and much harder to find a realistic conception of what comes next. Some leftists who lose hope in the possibility of thoroughgoing transformation become liberals like me, mostly resigned to working toward incremental improvements to a dysfunctional society. Others, looking beyond the politics of amelioration, seek new ways to shake up the system.

The right has an advantage in appealing to dislocated and atomized people: It doesn’t have to provide a compelling view of the future. All it needs is a romantic conception of the past, to which it can offer the false promise of return. When people are scared and full of despair, “let’s go back to the way things were” is a potent message, especially for those with memories of happier times.

Yes, what is that scary progressive future going to be about? Conservatives don’t want to think about it.

Science fiction, of course, has offered lots of potential ideas, among which the most culturally popular is the Star Trek universe.

The writer here keeps referring to that Joyce/Sharlet essay referred to in the first paragraph. And Goldberg concludes:

One common interpretation of the sort of ideological journeys Joyce and Sharlet wrote about for In These Times is “horseshoe theory,” the idea that at the extremes, left and right bend toward each other. But plenty of the people who’ve followed a rightward trajectory were never particularly radical; Wolf was a fairly standard Democrat, as was Elon Musk, now king of the edgelords.

As Klein argues, a better framework is “diagonalism,” coined by the scholars William Callison and Quinn Slobodian. Diagonalists, they write, tend to “contest conventional monikers of left and right (while generally arcing toward far-right beliefs),” be ambivalent or cynical about electoral politics, and “blend convictions about holism and even spirituality with a dogged discourse of individual liberties.” At the extreme, they write, “diagonal movements share a conviction that all power is conspiracy. Public power cannot be legitimate, many believe, because the process of choosing governments is itself controlled by the powerful and is de facto illegitimate.”

Such conspiratorial politics have rarely if ever led to anything but catastrophe, but that doesn’t lessen their emotional pull. Both Sharlet and Joyce are longtime chroniclers of the right, its ambitions but also its divisions and contradictions. “But in this age of Trump, his presence and his shadow, we’ve witnessed more right-wing factions converging than splitting, putting aside differences and adopting new and ugly dreams,” they write. “They, of course, do not see the dreams as ugly, but beautiful.” To compete with them, the left needs beautiful dreams of its own.


Here are the more substantial links I’ll cover in more details later.

Sean Carroll: Explain it to me like I’m smart.


(Update 18dec: this link no longer works. Argh. This one does: Explain It Like I’m Smart)


Paul Bloom on psychology.



The obituary of Michael Bishop


Review of an astronomy book


Big Think:



OnlySky: why people ‘need’ religion



Ed Yong about long covid (which presumably conservatives don’t believe in either)


LA Times about cancel free culture. Note Piaget and Lukianoff.



NY Times: how trees are returning to the Great Plains, not necessarily a good thing.


And I have even more, but that’s enough for tonight.

This entry was posted in conservatives, Links, Politics, science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.