Daniel Oppen­heimer is the author of Exit Right: The Peo­ple Who Left the Left and Reshaped the Amer­i­can Cen­tu­ry. He will be blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The book I’ve just pub­lished, Exit Right, is about promi­nent Amer­i­cans who’ve gone from the left to the right of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. There are a few moments in the book, most­ly in the intro­duc­tion and post­script, when I poke my head up as an I,” but it’s very much not about me.

That said, if I’m being hon­est, it’s entire­ly about me. It’s the prod­uct of my own strug­gles with the beliefs I inher­it­ed, and with the polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty I grew up in. My mater­nal grand­par­ents were mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, Philadel­phia branch. My par­ents are left­ists. Their friends, when I was grow­ing up, were left­ists too, some of them prob­a­bly even com­mu­nists in some sense — though by the time I came along it nev­er would have come up. 

It wasn’t a dra­mat­i­cal­ly left-wing child­hood. We didn’t live in an enclave of com­mu­nists in Queens, as David Horowitz and his fam­i­ly did. We lived in Spring­field, Mass­a­chu­setts, a city so gener­ic that its name is used to denote gener­ic city-ness, and grow­ing up there was about as excit­ing as that sounds. 

Since I left my par­ents’ home for col­lege I haven’t lived a high­ly dra­mat­ic left-wing adult­hood. But what my life has been, from almost the begin­ning, has been a con­ver­sa­tion about left-wing pol­i­tics, very often an argu­ment — with my par­ents, sib­lings, friends, class­mates, co-work­ers, my wife, and, some­day, soon my kids. I gave my grand­fa­ther a hard time about Stal­in. I got into it in col­lege with my fel­low pro-labor activists about the mer­its of McDonald’s cheese­burg­ers (long sto­ry). I sus­pect I may have once blown it with a girl I was dat­ing because I felt the need to com­pli­cate her views on affir­ma­tive action. I’m not usu­al­ly that guy, but I’m that guy often enough to know that something’s going on. 

Exit Right is about its sub­jects — Whit­tak­er Cham­bers, James Burn­ham, Ronald Rea­gan, Nor­man Pod­horetz, David Horowitz, and Christo­pher Hitchens — and I did my best to empathize with them and under­stand how they expe­ri­enced the world. But it’s also per­son­al. I used their sto­ries to tus­sle with my father, pos­si­bly with my grand­fa­ther. Def­i­nite­ly with Christo­pher Hitchens, who was the sec­ond great intel­lec­tu­al crush of my life, and whose break from the left at first enthralled me, then infu­ri­at­ed me, then sad­dened me. 

I’m also strug­gling with­in myself. For as long as I can remem­ber, I’ve been caught between a desire to be part of a cause — to live up to the ideals and myths of my child­hood — and a dis­com­fort with what that might entail, with the let­ting go of detach­ment and skep­ti­cism, not to men­tion a fear that maybe if I real­ly let go I’d end up on the oth­er side alto­geth­er. I have to won­der if I’ve engaged in so many con­ver­sa­tions and argu­ments over the years in the hopes that one of these days I’ll find my way through to beliefs that feel so root­ed and test­ed that I can at last com­mit to one polit­i­cal per­sua­sion — though whether that might fall to the right or the left I don’t know. And also, of course, because by this point it’s what I know how to do.

I’m sure­ly drawn to writ­ing about these men who’ve gone all the way from the left to the right, who’ve refused to rise above, because theirs is the path I haven’t tak­en. I’ve been the detached intel­lec­tu­al, the one who takes his doubts about the left so far but no fur­ther. And while I’m not leav­ing that path, I’m not com­fort­able on it either. There is no point so high that we can remain polit­i­cal but escape the most unnerv­ing risk of polit­i­cal life, which isn’t los­ing the fight but choos­ing the wrong side of it in the first place. 

Daniel Oppen­heimer is a writer and film­mak­er whose arti­cles and videos have been fea­tured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Mag­a­zine, and Salon​.com.

Relat­ed Content:

Daniel Oppen­heimer is a writer and film­mak­er whose arti­cles and videos have been fea­tured in The 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. Oppen­heimer was born in New York City and cur­rent­ly lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and children.

The Sub­merged I”

My Own Mas­ter of My Own Dreams

An Author’s First Book Is Always Their Second