Amid an era of deep political divide — though certainly not the worst in our history, as some like to declare, and with a social media apparatus for the Everyman to expound on various “truths” — comes a timely psychological political profile from Austin-based author Daniel Oppenheimer.
Though the writer, filmmaker and academic explores the dramatic shift in philosophy, from left to right, of six giants of American political history of the 20th century, Exit Right will inspire a self-examination of all political believers.
A political identity is a negotiation “between what it demands and who we are,” Oppenheimer writes.
In Exit Right, Oppenheimer takes on how those personal negotiations fell apart for prominent liberals Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens, whose change in philosophy changed the American 20th century.
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Their stories, which double as a good history of the American left movement, are worth telling “because it’s during their period of political transition, when the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin, that the contingency and complexity of belief become most visible.”
In faith traditions, it’s called “finding one’s religion.” As people grow, the foundations set by family are challenged by personal experience and, in the case of these six, historical events.
Oppenheimer casts no judgment of right and wrong on these political beliefs, but rather focuses on the origins of political belief and the men’s transitions, which caused personal suffering and loss of close friendships and professional opportunities.
For Horowitz, it was the death of a colleague at the hands of his friends in the Black Panther Party. Norman Mailer’s poor review of Podhoretz’s memoir was the catalyst for the latter turning right.
Similarly, what would have come of Reagan had his movie career been more successful?
It’s the captivating game of what-if with Reagan that is well-documented. But few have gotten so deep into the mind and psyche as Oppenheimer in the transformation story of the 40th president.
Reagan brought with him to adulthood the ideals of a classical liberal, ingrained from his father in youth. In the Rooseveltian Age, he was an ardent supporter of the New Deal and the ideal that wealth sure to be generated in the aftermath of the costly war should be distributed equally. He was an advocate of the state meeting the needs of its people and balancing “the interests of management and labor.”
Oppenheimer notes Reagan’s complicated history on race as president, yet in reality, he carried with him a lifetime devotion to color blindness.
After the war, he spoke of America’s triumph over the “venom of fascist bigotry” that had been won by the shared sacrifices of all creeds and colors of Americans.
“The blood that has soaked into the sands of the beaches is all one color,” Reagan said at the time. “America stands unique in the world — a country not founded on race, but on a way and an ideal. Not in spite of, but because of, our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”
Perhaps instead of the politically correct term “diversity,” we should start anew with the “polyglot background.”
It was Reagan’s personal confrontation with communism that ultimately turned him to the right.
In the beginning, he described the movement in Hollywood as liberal friends “who were temporarily off track.”
In a speech delivered by the son of Franklin Roosevelt to the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, James Roosevelt asked the leadership to issue a declaration of “principles that affirmed the American system of free enterprise and democracy and repudiated communism.”
In truth, the address was actually a shakedown set up to see what leadership would do. What happened was that all hell broke loose, Chicago 1968-style.
“Here was a HICCASP that I admired and honored,” Reagan said. “Suddenly, it was broken up into a Kilkenny brawl by a simple statement, which I thought any American would be proud to subscribe to. ... Besides that Jimmy [Roosevelt] needed someone to stand up for him. I took the floor and endorsed what he said. Well, sir, I found myself waist-high in epithets such as ‘fascist’ and ‘capitalist scum’ and ‘enemy of the proletariat’ and ‘witch-hunter’ and ‘red-baiter’ before I could say, ‘Boo.’ ”
Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century
☆☆☆ (out of five)
- By Daniel Oppenheimer
- Simon & Schuster, $28
- Audio: Tantor Media, $29.99; read by veteran narrator John Pruden