When a young Hillary Rodham headed out for Wellesley College in fall 1965, she proudly described herself as a "Goldwater girl." But by the time she was graduated, her politics had been radicalized: She organized anti-war sit-ins on campus, campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, and considered herself a liberal Democrat.
Hillary's rebellion against the conservative beliefs of her parents was typical. Growing up in the relatively tranquil 1950s, many baby boomers asserted their independence by veering left. Indeed, it has become a cliche that younger generations invariably become liberal in defiance of their parents' conservatism.
But that isn't always the case. Like Alex P. Keaton in the television show "Family Ties," some young people move to the right to rebel against their parents' liberalism. Some of today's conservatives turnedthat way because they grew up during the 1960s and '70s amidst egregious excesses of liberalism. Others became right-wingers after a religious awakening. For many Generation Xers now reaching adulthood, separating from the 'rents also involves dumping Mom and Dad's smug baby-boomer liberalism.
Take Noah Silverman for example. A 26-year-old legislative assistantto Senator Bob Smith (R-N.H.), Silverman grew up in Ithaca, New York, a small college town that until recently had an avowed socialist asits mayor. During the 1960s, his parents were enamored of New Left politics. "My parents' philosophy was formed by people like [the radical social critic] Herbert Marcuse," says Silverman. "They are verbal and opinionated. When I was growing up, I was shaped by their political views because it was like the air your breathe - it was pervasive and influential."
Silverman followed his parents' footsteps. He attended an "alternative" school that eschewed grades and dedicated each Friday to non-academic activities. For his bar mitzvah gift, he took a political pilgrimage to Marxist Nicaragua. Two years later, he sojourned to Nicaraguaagain, but by then his disillusionment with leftist politics had begun to emerge. "It was a hot-house environment of bizarre political causes," he recalls. "In my tour group, there were 'Sandalistas' - sandal-wearing American Sandinista sympathizers - who would launch into earnest debate every time a conflict arose between one woman in our group and our Nicaraguan tour guide. They'd argue if we should back herbecause she was a woman, or back him because he was an oppressed Third World man and she was a Caucasian bourgeois American. That was thebeginning of my reassessment. I asked myself if I wanted to be that far out and subscribe to such oddball ideas."
By the time he enrolled at Amherst College, Silverman had gradually moved right and considered himself a moderate. He held steadfastly tomoral relativism, however - until he took a course on politics with noted conservative professor Hadley Arkes during his freshman year. The course challenged, and ultimately eroded, his faith in the idea that there are no absolutes. "Before, I was reflexively pro-choice because that's what you were supposed to be, and only a tacky person would discuss what's destroyed in an abortion," he explains. "But I realized that there are some moral truths that have the force of a mathematical truth."
Silverman's aversion to liberalism was reinforced during graduate school at Johns Hopkins, when his fellow students insisted on racial and sexual quotas in faculty hiring. It wasn't until 1994, though, thathe finally declared himself a conservative Republican. As Clinton's national health care plan collapsed, Silverman read an article by David Frum in Commentary entitled, "It's Big Government, Stupid." He realized that "big government programs are changing the character of America." Opposing them is "not just about saving money or defeating Democratic initiatives. It's about trying to salvage the American character." He decided to become a foot soldier in the Republican revolution and began working for Senator Smith.
David Frum, author of the article that influenced Silverman, also comes from a liberal background. His parents were prominent Canadians: His father is a successful developer, and his mother - dubbed "Canada's Barbara Walters" - hosted a widely watched news program. And though his parents lived conservative lives, they were unflinchingly liberal in their politics.
Yet their liberal views never rubbed off on the young Frum. In fact,he had already begun edging right at the tender age of 14, when he read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's searing anti-Communist work The Gulag Archipelago. Yet Frum only developed a coherent conservative outlook when he went to Yale in 1978 and had the noted Cold Warrior Eugene Rostow as his faculty advisor. "A lot of people in Canada try to explain my politics by saying that I was reacting against where I came from, but that's not true," he says,"I was reacting against the times."
If the Vietnam War shaped an entire generation during the 1960s, thenational malaise of the late '70s convinced many young people that liberalism was in its death throes. "The sudden surge in Soviet adventurism, and the apparent collapse in American will to resist it in thelatter part of the Carter years, had a huge impact on me," says Frum. "Also, the international economy was breaking down. Every Western country soon learned that they couldn't continue the path they were on. Either they had to turn left to a totally planned economy, or they had to turn sharply away from that. Virtually every industrial country turned away."
Frum's tale of rebellion against a moribund liberalism is common. Brothers Dan and Tevi Troy grew up in New York City, where their parents were Democratic Jewish public school teachers. "In New York City," says Tevi, "Jews wouldn't think about voting anything other than Democratic." Today, both Troy brothers are conservative activists. Tevi, 29, works at the House Republican Policy Committee, while his older brother Dan - who clerked for Judge Robert Bork and served in the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments - is an associate scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"My mother often asks me why I became a Republican," says Dan. "Well, I grew up in New York City in the 1970s, and if there ever were an example of government that didn't work, it was New York City. It was the highest-taxed jurisdiction in the country, yet it was going broke, the streets weren't plowed, crime was rampant, subways were unsafe,and the garbage was never picked up. When you grow up with signs of government failure all around you, why in the world would you believethat the government will solve our problems?"
The Troys' parents continue to be perplexed by their offspring. Whenthe two brothers lived together in Virginia, Dan remembers their mother visiting: "My mom, who attended Yiddish socialist camps as a child, walked into our place and said, 'My two sons - Republicans - living together in the cradle of the Confederacy. Oy vey! Where have I gone wrong!'"
Many young people discover themselves to be conservative during their college years. Sometimes, a particular mentor influences their outlook. Seth Leibsohn, a third-year law school student at Northeastern University, grew up in a Democratic family in Phoenix. His mother and father raised money for liberal political candidates and participatedin the civil rights movement. Not surprisingly, Seth considered himself a liberal and decided to attend Pitzer College partly because thesmall liberal arts school was known for its leftism.
During his sophomore year, Leibsohn attended a lecture by Harry Jaffa, who taught at Claremont McKenna, a nearby sister school. Led by a left-leaning professor, campus gay groups protested by leaving en masse during Jaffa's lecture. Leibsohn penned a column on this event forthe college newspaper: "I took an ACLUish position. I basically condemned Jaffa" for criticizing the gay agenda, "but I also wrote that he has a right to speak and that the gay groups shouldn't have coweredfrom open discussion."
Jaffa read Leibsohn's column and challenged him to a debate. Although Leibsohn did not take up Jaffa's offer, he went to the professor's office to introduce himself. When they met, he was overwhelmed by Jaffa's intellectual prowess. Before long, the two became close personalfriends, and Jaffa convinced him to stay at Claremont for a master'sdegree on Abraham Lincoln's political philosophy. "Before Jaffa, I never had an intelligent perspective on conservatism," explains Leibsohn. "He is an absolutely brilliant man, and he convinced me to becomeconservative."
Like Leibsohn, Adam Dubitsky is a young conservative on the move: Hefounded his own political consulting business a couple of years ago,after working with right-wing bigwigs like Pete DuPont, Arianna Huffington, and the NRA. Dubitsky has also started his own PAC to promoteSocial Security privatization. Yet Dubitsky was born in the cradle of modern liberalism, New York City, and his father works at ABC News.The people the family socialized with "got most of their informationfrom the New York Times or NPR, and they had no exposure to mainstream America," Dubitsky explains. "For example, you ask one of our liberal family friends what causes crime and you hear 'poverty' and 'guns.' The rest of the country responds 'bad values' and 'poor upbringing.'"
Dubitsky's political epiphany came during college when his sociologyprofessor attacked the family as oppressive to women and children. "You were not supposed to question the ideas, or else you were morallyinferior," he notes. "For many people like me, when you're in high school or college, you just can't put the words together to defend conservatism because you haven't been exposed to enough of it. But so much of what is said around you just doesn't seem right."
Most rebel children end up toiling outside of politics. Scott Engelhart is a hard-working stone mason whose powerful frame is topped by shock of red hair. His father was a New York English professor, his mother a George McGovern delegate. He spent time smoking pot as a teenager and absorbed the liberal views of his parents. Today, he builds stone walls, houses, and walkways to the accompaniment of Rush Limbaugh on his portable radio.
Engelhart says his adult political views came to him fairly late, growing out of the responsibilities of life, work, paying taxes, and raising children, as well as a deepening of his faith. Before, my opinions weren't based on facts, or the realities of a situation, he observes. "The Left talks so much about the importance of feelings and self-esteem. I've learned that those oh-so-elusive good feelings are created by personal effort and responsibility - and not government flat,as the Left says."
"My parents are willing to create a gray area for people who've donesomething wrong," notes Engelhart, "while I see wrong and right as finite in areas like murder, lying, and teen pregnancy." When Engelhart's parents, to whom he remains close, learned that Scott and one of his brothers were voting for Ronald Reagan, they were shocked. "For awhile, family political conversations were a little weird. But now we can tease each other about what we each view as the other person's political insanity."
The right-rebel child phenomenon transcends national boundaries. Roger Scruton, a prominent Tory philosopher in Britain and editor of theSalisbury Review, discovered conservatism during his college years. Scruton's father was a Labour Party socialist, but at Cambridge Scruton discovered literature by the likes of T.S. Eliot and soon came to "the conception of England as blessed with a history which I couldn'tor wouldn't want to remake in accordance to an egalitarian agenda."
When Scruton visited Paris in 1968 after his graduation, he was repulsed by the nihilism of the leftist student movement there. "I immediately sympathized with the bourgeois sentiment embodied by DeGaulle, and had a loathing for the revolutionary activity and the whole egalitarian program - which I viewed as throwing away our cultural inheritance," he told TAE. Asked how common he thinks his story is, Scruton quips, "I do believe people become more conservative as they mature. But the problem is that the '60s made sure people don't mature."
Some young people become conservatives the old-fashioned way: They enter the workforce, and fiscal reality tempers their quixotic liberalism. Take Roy Marden for instance. Marden is currently the Manager ofIndustry Affairs at Philip Morris, where he works with think tanks to advocate fiscally conservative policies like lower taxes and less government regulation. His current job stands in marked contrast to his liberal background: He grew up in a staunchly Democratic household where his mother was a public school teacher actively involved in union politics. His liberal views were reinforced when he studied economics at Northwestern University, a bastion of Keynesian liberalism.
After graduation, he worked at an economic consulting firm retained by IBM in its antitrust battle with the Justice Department. "Most people saw IBM as the big gorilla, but once you saw their records from the inside, you knew that they didn't have all this power - other companies were competing fiercely with IBM," Marden explains. "As a result of the government regulatory action, all this money went to the legal establishment for something like 13 years, and it diverted IBM from its high-tech development. This was my first real-world experience on how government intervention can sometimes be harmful to society."
At the same time, Marden began reading classical liberal economic works by Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. "These were books that we never learned in school, and the more I read them, the more they made sense," he says. "Both my practical experience and these bookshelped me gradually become a libertarian conservative."
Adam Goldin is another person who discovered conservatism through his work. This 28-year-old welfare researcher grew up in a traditional Democratic family and followed his parents' political outlook. "Growing up in the 1980s, I always heard that Reagan was a fool, that his administration was corrupt and hurt the poor. And I believed it," he says.
As late as 1992 he was a Democrat and voted for Bill Clinton. But after graduate school, he took a job at the Hudson Institute. "I was afraid that Hudson might be too far to the right of me, but I was always interested in welfare issues," he explains. He became part of the team that designed Governor Tommy Thompson's "Wisconsin Works" welfarereform, which has reduced the state caseload by half [see "Work not Welfare in Wisconsin," Sept./Oct. 1995]. This experience opened his eyes. "I saw how people became indolent because of the welfare system," he says. "We need more accountability for our own actions. Poor choices ought to result in poor consequences."
As a firm supporter of entitlement reform, Goldin frequently clasheswith his baby-boomer mom and dad, who voted for Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader, respectively, in 1996. "Irving Kristol said that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality," notes Goldin. "That's what happened to me. I've come to realize that liberalism is abig disaster."
What happens when your father is not only a liberal, but one of the most prominent liberal political philosophers in the country? Ask Alec Rawls, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Stanford and son of the famous Harvard professor John Rawls. Although the elder Rawls is very circumspect on day-to-day political issues, his magnum opus The Theoryof Justice provides a philosophic justification for the welfare state, and modern liberals have adopted him enthusiastically. Alec, on the other hand, is a free-market maven who excoriates the welfare stateas both unconstitutional and insane.
Alec downplays the political differences between himself and his dad, insisting their conceptions of moral philosophy are at the core quite similar. He concludes, however, that his father's "principles of justice" err in their emphasis on equalizing the human condition. "Most of those who consider themselves my father's followers embrace equality as an ultimate end or value in itself. That is the source of thepolitics of resentment that characterizes the illiberal Left."
"I think my parents had a naive optimism in the 1960s, and thought that just by going after the problems of poverty they would be competently resolved," notes the younger Rawls. "I don't think my father wasaware - as we are all aware now - of what goes wrong when we give government too much power." Alec, who has worked as a carpenter to pay for both his undergraduate and graduate education, holds a more pessimistic view of government. "I love carpentry, but the government doesidiotic things with building codes and licenses. Licenses are a government-sponsored monopoly, and building codes do not let people do what they want to do with their own property," Rawls complains. "We need to use markets and individual choice over regulations, laws, and socialism."
Religion is another reason many conservatives reject their parents' liberalism. Lisa Schiffren has garnered impressive conservative credentials in her short career, working as a speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle (including penning his Murphy Brown speech), as an editorialist for the Detroit News, and as a Pentagon staffer. Now she stays home to raise her two-year-old daughter. "My husband - who's a dyed-in-the-wool conservative - and I live in mortal fear that our children will become liberals," she wisecracks.
But only a decade and a half ago Schiffren disdained traditional morality. Raised in Greenwich Village during the 1960s and '70s by liberal parents, she became involved in feminist politics at an early age.During junior high school, with help from the editors of Ms., Schiffren sued the New York City Board of Education to allow girls to play baseball.
Schiffren underwent a cataclysmic change when she spent a year in Israel after college. There she discovered religion and abandoned her dalliance with feminism. "New York City then was a very libertine place, and everyone I knew was divorced," but she saw that "the sexual revolution led to misery rather than fulfillment, that divorce did not leave families better off and happier."
Like Schiffren, Scott Smith owes his conservatism to a religious awakening. A 27-year-old graduate student in international relations at Columbia, Smith was raised as an atheist by his liberal parents. His father was a doctor with the World Health Organization, and Scott lived in the Third World for much of his childhood. "When you grow up asI did, from country to country, it's natural to he a moral relativist, because it's the first defense mechanism," he says. And he was content to be without any religious moorings. "Even after my father died, I felt proud that I did not have to appeal to a deity to assuage mysorrow."
His atheism began to fail him, however, when he started reading G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. "Once you begin to see the world as notperfectible, you get to be less liberal," Smith explains. A friend ultimately helped him shed his atheism and become a practicing Catholic. They began discussing religion as an intellectual game, and Smith remembers writing in his journal that he would never be persuaded of religion's importance. "But I was dead wrong. My friend appealed to the intellect, using solid, rational arguments. You have to find where[religious doctrines] are wrong, or else accept them, and I couldn'tfind them wrong; so I began to believe," he says. His religious beliefs have influenced his politics. "The Federalist Papers got it rightwhen it said that if men were angels, we wouldn't need a government," he notes, "but if men are more angel-like, we'll need less government."