Why I Left:

Can an Ex-Republican Turn from Right-Wing to Right-On?


Part One of a two-part series

“Attention Journalists: We are not interested in any more ‘Hippie Bus’ articles. If you are interested in the beautiful places we go and our unique service; fine. If you are only out to write a condescending, ‘tee-hee, look at the naked ’60s hippies’ story, you will be disappointed, as very few of our passengers fit into this or any other category.”

— from the Green Tortoise Adventure Travel brochure

The above admonition would be red meat for any conservative pundit seeking to write such an article — but that was not my intention when I rode from New York to San Francisco last summer on the famously funky Green Tortoise bus line. I was indeed a conservative pundit, of sorts: I had worked on the notorious Dartmouth Review, written for William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, and worked as a campus campaign coordinator for Jack Kemp in the 1988 primary. My job at the time was running the publicity and media operations for the American Council on Science and Health — a free-enterprise think-tank funded in part by conservative groups like the John M. Olin Foundation and whose president, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, is known as the “anti-Nader” for her defense of synthetic chemicals in food.

But this trip was personal, not political. Friends familiar with my views said, “It doesn’t sound like you”: taking a cross-country trip on a bus line created in the mid-1970s for people with little money, lots of time, and a willingness to sleep on a bus with 30 or 40 people for days on end. But I had received Tortoise catalogues for several years and had long wondered whether a solitary, conservative person like me would fit in with such a group.

After some consideration, I decided to leave my politics, my work, my electric shaver, and much of my identity at home for two weeks. Little did I know that the trip, which I had expected to experience only as a curious and amused spectator, would end up changing my entire outlook on life, and that the “counterculture” whose funeral elegy I had hoped to pronounce would raise up and claim its most unlikely convert.

Awakening on the Interstate?

What happened on the Green Tortoise trip? To begin with, I was not “brainwashed” by anyone; while I had been prepared to avoid any political arguments for the sake of a peaceful journey, in fact there was nary a political discussion on the trip — a realization which itself made me see how unimportant politics are to most people’s lives. Nor have I become a “leftist,” in that I now support massive government programs, or admire any liberal (or radical) officeholder.

Rather, I realized a number of profound ways in which the life I led was not a life at all. I saw my obsession with politics as one example of this, and my conservative ideology as one cause: that is, I saw the utter futility of believing that political action, at least on the national level, actually makes any significant difference in the lives of average Americans, and I saw that I was using my passion about politics as an excuse for not being passionate about my own personal life.

No doubt this revelation was brought about in part by so many false hopes shattered: seeing the “Reagan Revolution” succeed mainly at the rhetorical level, even its optimism rejected in the 1990s by the youth who had once been its greatest supporters; seeing the “Republican Revolution” of 1995 promise even more and be abandoned even sooner by its own architects; and by mid-summer 1996, facing the grisly prospect of claiming that Bob Dole was an agent of change.

But in giving me a new perspective on politics in general, the Tortoise trip also forced me to take an honest look at my conservative political views: how they affected my personal life, what motivated me and others to hold them, and what it would mean for society if they were ever fully implemented. But in order to explain how I changed, I’ll have to explain how I began.

Portrait of the Author as a Young Right-Winger

My political views, I found, had profoundly stunted my personal and social growth for many years. Raised by parents who were liberal Democrats at the polls but conservatives in lifestyle, I was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” By the age of 13 I had developed the conservative’s derision towards anything “countercultural,” “deviant,” or even “cosmopolitan.” This led me to fear and shut myself off from a wide variety of influences and people with whom I might have had a great deal in common: While attending Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I was just blocks from the East Village artistic scene at its peak, yet I was totally oblivious to it. At Stuyvesant I tried to fit in with people who were more “mainstream,” but those I found had little interest in intellectual matters, or in people, like me, who did. And although I did eventually encounter genuine conservative intellectuals, I have found few who view ideas and politics as anything more than a cynical game for self-advancement and remuneration.

My first encounter with this came when I enrolled at Dartmouth — very much choosing to do so because of the presence of the Dartmouth Review. At the paper’s freshman orientation, we were greeted with large posters proclaiming “It’s Your Future” and listing the successful careers Dinesh D’Souza and others had achieved within a few years out of school. Immediately I plunged into the fray: In my first article I went to the college rabbi for personal spiritual advice, and used the material to write a piece attacking him as a “leftist.”

I continued to write, and became an editor, at times seeking greater moderation in the tone of the paper’s articles. In time I became frustrated at the paper’s penchant for using itself not as a serious means to discuss issues, but as a vehicle to bring publicity to itself, the most notorious example occurring in 1986 when students from the Review took sledgehammers to the “shanties” set up on the campus Green to advocate divestment from South Africa — an act of guerrilla theater that destroyed any opportunity for us ever to hold the moral high ground.

The following year, when I applied to be editor-in-chief of the paper, I was rejected in favor of a staffer a grade younger; D’Souza told me that while I was clearly the most intelligent candidate, the point of the Review was not to be a vehicle for expressing ideas, or even to gain the greatest public support through persuasion, but rather to mobilize the small hard-core of students and alumni who naturally shared its views, through tactics of shock and ad hominem attacks.

Despite this setback — and despite being unable to find a job after graduation in the conservative policy arena as I had expected — I did not question the tenets of the conservative faith, in which I truly believed. I believed taxes were killing the American spirit, though on my meager salary I paid very little. I believed government needed to be reduced, despite seeing no real effort by any conservative politician to reduce it. I believed, too, that Communism was an all-pervasive, near-omnipotent monster fiendishly plotting to destroy our society, but that if we stayed strong we would someday ultimately vanquish it — though probably not until after several generations — and I believed it almost until the day the Berlin Wall fell.

But most of all I believed in the evil of what I called the “counterculture,” or “the legacy of the ’60s.” What did I mean by this? It was not always clear, because like most other young people, I had adopted a large part of this legacy. I believed in gender equality and assumed that when I married, my wife would have a career. I believed there were times when it was valid for children to question their parents, or students to question teachers (the Review was obviously a legacy of this). I did not see premarital sex as immoral per se, though I condemned “promiscuity” in the mass media and in popular music — my greatest regret, honestly, was that I did not have enough opportunity to practice it. I was not particularly religious and thought very little about the fact that I did not attend services regularly. I listened to contemporary rock and some music from the ’60s, not considering this incongruous with my political views — indeed, some of my recent favorites were such “politically correct” bands as Black 47 and 10,000 Maniacs, a contradiction I noted but never explained. I dressed in a manner that would have been considered inappropriately casual before the ’60s (remember, as late as the early ’70s students were being sent home from public schools in New York for wearing blue jeans).

I knew all this — and yet I still sincerely believed not only that the 1960s were an evil force that had turned American society into an angst-ridden wasteland, but that these changes were enforced by some type of intellectual fiat promulgated by the mass media and popular culture, absent which America would revert to its happy, bucolic identity of the 1950s.

Who’s the Freak?
Choosy Americans Choose Counterculture

That myth would be shattered aboard the Green Tortoise, not because I was converted politically by my fellow travelers — as I say, we never talked politics — but because of what I saw in them and other Americans along the way. As we traveled through small-town America, I realized how indistinguishable the riders of this “hippie bus” were from the local inhabitants, and by implication the extent to which the “counterculture” was now indistinguishable from the mainstream.

During a brief stop for ice cream and snacks at a rainy truck stop in Ohio (or was it Indiana?), it struck me: Our group, clad mainly in shorts, T-shirts, and sandals, looked no different from the other customers, or indeed from the local workers behind the counter. Abruptly I realized the magnitude of the change that has occurred since 30 years ago: Certainly had a group such as ours (40 people of mixed gender, unkempt and wearing relatively little, piling off a bus on which they’d all been sleeping together) pulled into any small Midwestern town before the 1960s, they would have encountered incredulity — if not an arrest warrant.

Furthermore, I saw that contrary to what conservatives were claiming, the social and intellectual movements that made this change possible had not — and could not — have been forced on Americans by some “cultural elite,” but rather had been accepted by the majority of Americans by free choice. I realized that whatever their excesses or mistakes, these movements marked a major step forward in promoting honesty in relationships — between men and women, between parents and children, between authority figures and those they lead, and in one’s relationship with oneself.

Indeed, I realized that the conservative’s dream of truly repealing the legacy of the ’60s — as Bob Dole would implicitly call for just days after I made this trip –would go so against the popular will as to require government coercion on a scale unseen in our history.

Check Out: Part Two — “What Was I Thinking?

Adam Lieberman is writing a political novel and a memoir about growing up as a young conservative.