A Tour of the American Left

A Tour of the American Left

Before Ronald Reagan turned to the right, he was a New Deal liberal (Wikimedia Commons)

Recent years have brought us quite a few excellent histories of the American right and how it became the force we know today. Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (Simon & Schuster, 2016) at first glance might seem to be another one of those; after all, it features several figures central to that narrative, from longtime Commentary editor and prominent neoconservative Norman Podhoretz to President Ronald Reagan.

What it turns out to be, though, is something else—a tour of the American left, seen through the eyes of six men who left it behind and turned to the right: Whittaker Chambers, communist spy turned star witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee against his former friend; James Burnham, confidante of Trotsky turned Cold Warrior; Reagan; Podhoretz; New Leftist and friend of the Black Panthers turned right-wing provocateur David Horowitz; and Trotskyist writer turned Iraq War hawk Christopher Hitchens. Their various conversion stories add up to a critical history of the left, from the 1930s Communist Party to post-September 11 debates over the Iraq War. Instead of dismissing these controversial figures, Oppenheimer asks us to take them seriously, to analyze their disputes with the various lefts they were part of, and through them, to grapple with questions of loyalty, masculinity, identity, spirituality, and just where it is our political values come from.

Sarah Jaffe:   When I got this book, I expected it to focus on the right. I was surprised that most of the book actually focuses on these people’s time on the left.

Daniel Oppenheimer: One of the alternate titles for the book was Leaving the Left. I grew up on the left. My grandparents on my mother’s side were Communists. My father has been politically active his whole life. I am still on the left, but I have wrestled a lot over the years with the culture. I’m more interested in what it is like to be on the left and the underlying psychology, than I am in the right.

Jaffe:  How did you decide which people to include?

Oppenheimer: Some of them were really obvious. Christopher Hitchens has been a big figure in my imagination. That is true of these Jewish intellectuals, Norman Podhoretz and David Horowitz, too. They are people who I kind of identified with.

Including Ronald Reagan was probably a little calculating. People are fascinated by him and also he is the odd man out. He is the only politician in a roster of writers and intellectuals. He was never really a lefty, but he was a New Deal liberal.

Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham fascinated me in different ways. Chambers is interesting because we are so removed from the environment in which he was a hot-button figure. He is this romantic, tragic character. You look at the pictures of him and he has this sad, soulful face. The way Burnham’s brain worked was interesting to me.

Jaffe:  You have been working on this book for several years. How have things changed since you started in terms of the politics of the left and the right?

Oppenheimer: If you had asked me that two years ago I would not have had an interesting answer. But now, it seems like we are in this moment—maybe it isn’t premature to call it a left-wing resurgence. The left seems to be influencing the public debate in ways that it hasn’t in a long time. That hasn’t played out at a concrete policy level yet, but it is influencing the discourse.

The contest between Bernie and Hillary has divided leftists and liberals in a way that is really evocative of some of the periods I write about in the book, of the thirties, the sixties and seventies. In a lot of ways it is a comparable dynamic to what produced some of these apostates from the left.

Jaffe:  Presumably, anybody who is going to read your book knows who Ronald Reagan is. But, we really don’t do a very good job in this country of talking about history. There are probably a lot of people who don’t know who Whittaker Chambers is. How do you convince those people that they should care about these people and why they are relevant to today?

Oppenheimer: Chambers had such a dramatic life and he was a spy, so it was easy to make him interesting. He had very public confrontations with Alger Hiss. Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official, was accused of being a Communist spy; Chambers testified against him. It was the trial of the century.

I thought Burnham was a fascinating character. He was part of this small Trotskyist world, which seemed kind of romantic and absurd. There is not a lot written about him, so I gave him a long chapter.

Activists who were or are deep in the weeds in Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter might read the Burnham chapter and think, “Yes, I totally see how these small little groups where people totally orient their lives around them will produce these odd inside cultures where people are getting incredibly fierce about stuff that seems incredibly abstruse to anybody outside.”

Jaffe:  One of the things that you talk about in the book is how personal people’s political choices are. When those insular arguments and occasional circular firing squads happen, we all want to act as though we are making these arguments because we are very rational. And actually so much of this, when you look back at people’s biographies, is very personal and motivated by specific things that happened to them. Did you find more of that than you expected or was that something you set out to prove from the beginning?

Oppenheimer: I think the latter. Whether you are talking about neuroscience, psychoanalysis, or religious perspectives on human nature, none of them treat the human mind as though it is a mostly rational thing. It is actually stunning how much we pretend that we are rational.

If you even think about how angry and upset and passionate people get about things that have very little to do, at least in an overt way, with their day-to-day lives, the distance is actually extraordinary. If you are talking about reproductive choice for women or workers unionizing for better wages and more protection, that is politics in a very visceral and direct way. Other issues we talk about are distant and yet we get angry about them as if that is an utterly rational thing to do, which it is not. It might be a natural thing to do, but I don’t think it is rational.

Why do some conservatives who live in areas with minimal numbers of undocumented workers care so much, for instance, about how many undocumented workers there are? Why do they feel as though Obama negotiating a deal with Iran is a profound blow to their own sense of security when the truth is that it will likely have almost no effect on their actual lives? Why do liberals and leftists get so worked up about climate change, and deforestation in the Amazon, when neither is likely to impact their lifestyles in deep ways? Why do upper-middle-class Bernie Sanders supporters care so much about a $15 an hour minimum wage that is way below what they make? Why do white people in Massachusetts care whether Texas diminishes the evils of slavery in its social studies texts?

My point isn’t that these issues are trivial. It’s that our political and moral processes are often far more complicated and irrational than we are willing to admit. By the time our words and arguments come out of our mouths, they’ve probably traveled a truly Rube Goldberg-esque path to get there. We’re not always arguing about what we think we’re arguing about.

Jaffe:  Some of this ends up being very gendered. To admit that you have feelings and personal experiences that led you to the politics that you have, a lot of people will sort of just write you out of the debate entirely if you admit to those things, something that happens a lot to women.

Oppenheimer: It is totally gendered and I probably haven’t had that experience of being dismissed for talking about my own personal involvement. But there is an implicit critique that can be found in the book—at one point I was thinking of calling it Six Serious Men.

Jaffe:  That would have been a wonderful title.

Oppenheimer: It would have worked as a critique of this assumption that there’s a disembodied or unemotional, analytical self, which felt very masculine to me. Burnham thought emotions didn’t matter. Of course, what happens when you deny that emotions matter is that they probably influence your politics even more. Burnham wrote these hyper-cerebral pieces that just didn’t make sense on their own terms. Very early during the Depression, he wrote this absurdly critical piece that went after quantum physicists for not being good at explaining their theories, and for pontificating too much on matters of culture and politics. It seemed clear to me that Burnham’s real anxiety was about the Depression, and his own uncertainty about how to think and write and philosophize about it. But he was so disconnected from his emotions that he couldn’t see what he was really concerned about.

His younger brother David wrote a novel that was very much based on the actual Burnham family. It revolved around the death of a family patriarch, a character modeled on their real father. In it, the James Burnham character is so disconnected from his emotions, that he ends up denying the uses of grief, and getting frustrated with everyone else in the family for being sad and inefficient and irrational. And of course he also ends up screwing it up with a woman he loves because of these tendencies.

From my perspective, the best we can do is be aware of how personal politics is and how emotional and unconscious.

Jaffe:  This seems to put the lie to certain kinds of debates about identity politics. Whittaker Chambers’s politics were shaped by his identity, his life, his position, and these writers in a certain place and time were shaped by their experiences as Jewish men in New York. All of these politics are identity politics.

Oppenheimer: Identity politics, for me, is just politics. All politics are personal in that sense. One of the things I’ve noticed is that when we don’t own up to the personal and the unconscious, it really distorts our thinking.

On the left, we frame everything with the language of social justice and equality and altruism. We see in this language, at least in our small circles, the emotional power that you can wield with words. But if we can’t find a way to talk about that, then I think it is going to distort our politics.

That is part of why I wrote so much about the left. I hope that somehow it will be part of a process of introspection that will make us more effective.

Jaffe:  One of the things that I also noticed about all of these Serious Men is that a lot of them did seem to be grappling with masculinity and narratives around masculinity, with what it meant to be a man and to be successful. All of those things seem very prevalent in these narratives.

Oppenheimer: All these men were performing masculinity in different ways and wrestling with masculinity. At the heart of Chambers’s story is his father’s mostly closeted homo- or bi-sexuality, and how that distorted his childhood, and then his own closeted sexuality, and how that became entwined with his politics.

The most personal and visceral for me were these guys like Norman Podhoretz and David Horowitz, because there is a whole specific set of tropes about Jewish men and a fear of a lack of masculinity and physical weakness, and overcompensation for that.

Podhoretz had an epic argument with Allen Ginsberg down in the Village in 1958, which to a considerable extent oriented around their competing ideas of what it meant to be a man at that moment of cultural insecurity.

Horowitz was drawn to, and then betrayed by, the particular masculinity of Huey Newton, and what the Panthers represented. Hitchens succumbed to the siren call of all those generations of Hitchens men who set off to war to defend the Empire against the barbarian hordes.

Jaffe:  I think the left has certainly got its problems with its own heroic narratives, but the right has made a very comfortable space for performative masculinity. Even when you are Sarah Palin, you get out there with “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

Oppenheimer: You can be on the left and your ideas about gender and masculinity and feminism can be solid in theory, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you behave—we are just not that good. You don’t just excise sexism because you go to college and you take a course in Feminist Theory and you see the light. You are going to be working out those issues for the rest of your life. But the right just celebrates it. They’re not even wrestling with it.

Jaffe:  These political transformations are obviously conversion narratives. It is interesting how much of a role religion played for many of these people in their moves from left to right.

Oppenheimer: In some cases, conversion is something that happens when people are low and broken and suffering, and sometimes it is when they are reconstituting an identity. There is a space that needs to be filled, there is an openness that might not have been there before. Over the last hundred years, the right has been more hospitable to religious inclinations than the left.

These men had different kinds of religious conversions. Chambers had that almost classic rebirth, where he suddenly was incredibly low and heard something that he interpreted as a voice inside speaking to him and it was really transformative.

Reagan, on the other hand, was a practicing Christian all along, but as he became more conservative it took on a different valence. Then you have people like David Horowitz, who became more interested in his Jewishness as he became more conservative. It was a part of himself that he had walled off.

Jaffe:  We obviously can’t talk about these people and religion without talking about Christopher Hitchens, who seems to have been entirely motivated by his hatred for religion. This was always a bone of contention for him with some of the right.

Oppenheimer: Was he ever part of the right? I don’t know. He and Reagan are the odd men out. Reagan was never part of the left and I wouldn’t say Hitchens was ever quite part of the right, but he certainly left the left.

I had mixed feelings about that part of him. There was something incredibly exhilarating and liberating about reading him. He wrote an awesome book on Mother Teresa. He wrote brilliant things about some of the televangelists like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, some of these people who are contemptible, but get this field of protection because they are men of God. He just didn’t care about that at all. That said, ultimately, he was kind of a Know-Nothing Atheist. He just didn’t seem to understand religion and faith with much sensitivity or subtlety.

Jaffe:  Do you think that a more successful left would have held onto some or all of these men?

Oppenheimer: I think, though he disagrees, it could have held onto Horowitz. I think it could have held onto Podhoretz and Hitchens.

There were a lot of people who were ripped off from the left because of the influence of communism and the Communist Party.

There are people who look at the 1930s and say, “If not for the Communists pushing for revolution, we wouldn’t have had all of these New Deal reforms. They pulled the conversation to the left and their intentions were good.”

Then, there are the people who will say that they destroyed the left in America for a long time. They argue that the Communist Party USA was taking orders from Moscow, and that there was something fundamentally, morally awful about that. Also they argue that the CP distorted all left politics and if not for them, that energy would have been channeled into healthier left-wing movements. I don’t have a great answer to that.

Jaffe:  On the flip side, there’s the question, would we have wanted to hang onto these people?

Oppenheimer: I feel like the left should try to hold onto as many people as we can. Part of a successful politics is creating space for the constructive management of all sorts of personalities. I don’t think you can build an effective political movement entirely out of really whole, psychologically healthy, mature people. There aren’t that many out there.

A good leader, is somebody who channels people’s emotions in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. When you look at the energy and enthusiasm around Obama’s campaign in 2008, it was healthier than what we are seeing Donald Trump bring out in people.


Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com. He has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and is a Director of Strategic Communications at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sarah Jaffe is a fellow at the Nation Institute and an independent journalist. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent’s Belabored podcast, as well as a member of Dissent’s editorial board. She is currently working on a book about social movements since the financial crisis.