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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Cohen, a former Bush Administration official who says that his life in many ways mirrors that of President Obama. At around the time when Barack Obama was a half-black kid being raised by his white single mother in Polynesia (Hawaii), Cohen was a half-Polynesian kid being raised by his white single mother in a black neighborhood (in Washington, D.C.). Cohen’s politics used to be almost identical to Obama’s, but now they are mirror opposites. Cohen’s journey from left to right is documented in his new book, Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals. Cohen claims that he became a conservative without abandoning the ideals and concerns that he held as a liberal.
FP: David Cohen, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Let’s begin with you telling us how it is exactly that you became a conservative without abandoning your liberal ideals. How can it be that conservative policies can be the best way to achieve liberal ideals?
Cohen: When I was a liberal, I wanted America to live up to its billing as the Land of Opportunity, with no one being held back because of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. I believed that America’s diversity was its strength. I was concerned about poverty; I wanted poor people to have a genuine shot at realizing the American Dream. The key to that, I thought, was making sure that poor children across America had access to a good education. My concerns weren’t limited to America; I wanted people everywhere to be free from oppression and to have the same opportunities that I wished for my fellow Americans.
Now that I’m a conservative, guess what? I still have those very same ideals and concerns. Back then, I thought that those ideals and concerns made me a liberal. There was never any doubt in my mind that I should support the liberal agenda. I had never really been exposed to conservatives growing up, and what I thought I knew about them—from friends and family, from the media, from popular culture—I didn’t like.
Reagan was the first president that I was old enough to vote for, but I never remotely considered voting for him. He started to plant seeds in my head, though, that wouldn’t sprout until later. I remember when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” My fellow liberals were outraged. But it got me starting to wonder why all of their outrage was directed at Reagan and none at the Soviet Union. I started to think that in this one-sided outrage, my fellow liberals were not being sufficiently supportive of the victims of Soviet oppression—and hence were essentially tolerating for others what they would never tolerate for themselves. Was that consistent with my liberal ideals?
I started to become a little more open to Reagan’s ideas on foreign policy, but not on domestic policy. It wasn’t until Jack Kemp became HUD Secretary during the Bush Administration that I started to become familiar with conservative ideas on fighting poverty. I had never considered that liberal policies might actually be harming the people they were intended to help. When I read up on Kemp’s ideas, it was a real eye-opener. I started to consider that liberal policies might be condescending to the poor—and particularly minorities who were poor. I started to see how well-intentioned liberal policies might be promoting dependence, undermining self-belief, and incentivizing destructive behavior. I came to believe that conservative ideas to fight poverty showed a greater belief in human potential, showed a greater respect for the dignity of the poor, and were more likely to encourage the behaviors required to escape poverty.
Once I was able to get past the stereotypes I grew up with—that conservatives were greedy, racist warmongers intent on getting rich by oppressing others—I was able to consider their ideas with an open mind. And I eventually concluded that conservatives had much better ideas to achieve the things that I had always cared about, and still care about.
FP: There are two Dave Cohens, right? Tell us about Liberal Dave and ConservaDave and their relationship with one another.
Cohen: Liberal Dave and ConservaDave are the two protagonists in my book. Liberal Dave is the person I was, and ConservaDave is the person I eventually became. I treat them both as live characters in my book. Even though Liberal Dave technically has not existed for many years—or perhaps I keep him locked up in the attic of my brain—I trot him out in the book to react to current events like Tea Party protests and the passage of Obamacare. I even have a chapter where Liberal Dave and ConservaDave are sitting in a pizzeria having a wide-ranging debate. They discuss everything from capitalism, socialism, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Steve Jobs, income disparity, taxing the rich, you name it. I think that the way that ConservaDave explains things to Liberal Dave is a great way for conservatives to explain their ideas to liberals in a way that might actually get through.
Liberal Dave and ConservaDave get along, just like I get along with my dear friends who have not joined me on my journey from left to right. A lot of times when people switch sides in either direction, they look back in anger. I don’t look back in anger, which is maybe why the tone of my book is one that liberals will not find threatening. Since I’m not yelling at liberals or lecturing them, they might drop the defense mechanisms and actually engage with me and consider my ideas. Keeping Liberal Dave alive is my way of reminding myself not to feel superior to people I disagree with. I used to be that guy, so it allows me to have a generosity of spirit to those who are still that guy. It also helps me remember how I used to think when I was that guy, and what arguments eventually got through to me to help guide me rightward. This is what my book is really about: how to explain conservatism to Liberal Dave in a way that will make him see the light.
FP: Is this book targeting any group in particular? Who do you think might most benefit from your book?
Cohen: Pardon me for being self-serving, but I think that everyone will benefit from my book. For conservatives, the book illustrates how to communicate our ideas not in ways that we would respond to, but rather in ways that others would respond to. Most conservative pundits are good at pressing the buttons that turn conservatives on, but they might be turning off people who don’t yet think like conservatives. In my book, I try to preach to the not-yet-converted rather than to the converted. Also, I try to celebrate the inherent idealism of conservatism—something that you wouldn’t know existed if you just listened to the mainstream media and the popular culture.
For independents, this is a great guide to what I think are the most important issues of our time. I think that independents will by and large be very receptive to the arguments I put forward in the book. And I think that many liberals will be receptive as well—after all, I’m using arguments that would have resonated with me when I was a liberal. I open the book with an explanation of how Liberal Dave came to be Liberal Dave. I do this for a reason: to show people how I developed my initial intolerance for conservatives and conservatism. I hope that when liberals read the story of Liberal Dave, they might recognize similar thought patterns in themselves. Perhaps this will make them realize, as I eventually came to realize, that the disdain that I had for conservatives wasn’t fair. I had to overcome this before I could be open to listening to conservative points of view. I hope to take liberal readers through this same process. This will prepare them for the rest of the book, and hopefully make them better appreciate my arguments as to why conservative policies are the best way to achieve liberal ideals.
I’m not so naïve as to think that my book will result in a mass conversion from liberalism to conservatism. But if it starts a conversation, I’d be very happy. So many prominent people have made the journey from left to right—David Horowitz and Peter Collier, of course, but also David Mamet, Dennis Miller, Gary Sinise, Roger Simon, Ron Silver, and millions of people who aren’t famous. My journey isn’t exactly unheard of. I know that many liberals can be open to what I’m suggesting in my book, and my book is designed to communicate with them in a way that will make sense to them.
FP: Ok let us get a bit more specific. How does the “Left-Hearted, Right-Minded” philosophy apply to various issues, for instance: government spending, economics, education, health care, immigration, environmentalism, the War on Terror? Give us a few examples.
Cohen: I could write an entire book on this question. Oh, and of course I did write an entire book on this question, which is why you’re interviewing me. But in a nutshell: On government spending, I talk about how the debt crisis will harm the most vulnerable in society, especially in future generations. Fiscal profligacy in the name of compassion is, in fact, heartlessly uncompassionate to our children and grandchildren. I talk about how capitalism has been the most effective anti-poverty program in history, and explain the folly of government politicos and bureaucrats thinking that they can improve upon capitalism through their micromanagement. I talk about how a guy struggling to feed his family would much rather have a job than the satisfaction of knowing that some rich bastard he’s never met will get his taxes raised.
I talk about how education is supposed to be the great equalizer, giving poor children the tools to overcome the disadvantages of their birth. Instead, it’s become the great stratifier, with failing schools locking those disadvantages into place. I talk about how school choice can help liberate poor families by giving them the power that rich parents have always had—the power to be consumers, with the ability to take their business elsewhere. I talk about how more consumer choice, rather than more government control, is also what poor people—and the rest of us—need to make our health care system work for us.
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