Author David Cohen explains why conservative policies are the best way to achieve liberal ideals.
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.
On immigration, I argue that building a barrier across our southern border—an idea many liberals find offensive—will actually help us prevent the horrible abuses that many illegal immigrants suffer in our society. On environmentalism, I talk about the tradeoffs that almost always exist between environmentalism and economic growth. If we refuse to acknowledge those tradeoffs or pretend they don’t exist, we will harm the people who are struggling the most in our economy. And on the War on Terror, I warn of the dangers of letting political correctness confuse ourselves about who we’re fighting and why. We need to acknowledge that we’re fighting a worldview that any self-respecting liberal should find disgusting, and we must be wholly unapologetic about fighting it.
In each case, I try to argue from the perspective of those the liberals champion: the poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed. Liberals are more focused on who they’re for and conservatives are more focused on what they’re for. I try to show that what conservatives are for is the best way to serve and protect who liberal are for.
FP: You argue that that the War on Terror creates a conflict between liberal feminism and liberal multiculturalism. Can you talk a bit about that?
Cohen: I use the example of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the very brave Somali-born feminist who has fought for the rights of women in the Islamic world. Her fight for women’s rights should make her a hero on the left. But she has not been embraced by the left, because they think she is too judgmental about the Third World culture that she was born into. It is as if the sin of being judgmental—especially about a non-Western culture which is automatically conferred nobility by the left—trumps the sin of brutally oppressing women. The left needs to learn that in order to protect victims of the worst oppression around the world, we have to overcome our hang-up about being judgmental against non-Western cultures.
FP: Why do you devote such a large part of your foreign policy chapter to Israel?
Cohen: The War on Terror is often portrayed as a clash between the Islamic world and the West, and the Israel-Palestine issue is often portrayed as the central issue in that clash. That’s completely wrong on both counts. Islamists are not just fighting the West; they’re fighting non-Muslim communities wherever they live in close proximity to them—in India, in Nigeria, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Sudan, in Thailand, in the Philippines, in Timor Leste, and so many other places. Radical Muslims are fighting not only Christians and Jews, but Hindus, Sikhs, and animists; not only whites, but blacks, browns and Asians. Israel-Palestine has nothing to do with any of that.
But I also wanted to focus on why the left should support Israel’s right to exist, and how the right to exist entails the right to defend itself. I focus on how the Jewish minorities in Islamic Middle Eastern countries were among the most oppressed people on earth. When people like Helen Thomas tell Jews to “go home,” would she condemn these Jews to oppression and death in Middle Eastern countries they suffered in for centuries? Israel is a tiny sanctuary for these Jews in the region that they have called home since ancient times. Just as over seven million Hindus and Sikhs were displaced so that Muslims could have their own state within colonial India, a much smaller number of Palestinians and Jews were displaced so that both could have their own state in colonial Palestine. Leftists who do not question the existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh—or of Jordan, for that matter, which was created by partitioning off the bulk of colonial Palestine for a non-Palestinian monarch—are applying a double standard when they question the existence of Israel. Leftists caricature Israel as a symbol of oppression, when the truth is that Israel is a symbol of resistance to oppression. As such, liberals should support Israel and its right to defend itself.
FP: The last chapter of the book is entitled “A Hopeful, Youthful, Idealistic and Optimistic Conservatism.” What does that mean?
Cohen: Words like “hopeful,” “youthful,” “idealistic” and “optimistic” go against the liberal stereotype of conservatism, but the stereotype isn’t accurate. In the book, I outline why conservative policies reflect a belief in human potential, a belief that society will prosper if we empower people rather than government. Conservative policies trust people to make their own choices. Liberals—and I say this with affection—can be more prone to be control freaks, operating out of fear that things will go horribly wrong unless government usurps responsibility from us at every step. When I really thought through the differences between conservatism and liberalism, and the assumptions about human nature and potential that underlie each, I came to the conclusion that conservatism was indeed more hopeful, youthful, idealistic and optimistic. Conservatives can have compassion for people just as liberals can, but conservative policies show more respect for and belief in the people we have compassion for.
In the book, I acknowledge that people can be conservatives or liberals for different reasons. Some conservatives actually fit the stereotype that liberals have of them—just as some liberals fit the stereotype that conservatives have of them. But the conservatism that I outline in the book is the most common brand of conservatism, and it is aptly described by the title to my last chapter.
FP: What does this book do that has not been done before?
Cohen: Well, what has been done before—many times, by writers much more accomplished than I am—is the description of a personal journey from liberalism to conservatism. When I describe my own journey in the first three chapters of the book, though, I have a very specific purpose in mind. I try to get back inside Liberal Dave’s head, both to give lifelong conservatives insights into how liberals think and to get liberals to recognize Liberal Dave’s thought patterns in themselves. If I can get my liberal readers to recognize Liberal Dave in themselves—and I facilitate this by not trashing Liberal Dave—then they might stay with Liberal Dave on his journey as he discovers unsettling contradictions about his belief system. And they might stay with Liberal Dave as he overcomes his resistance to taking conservative thought seriously. And who knows, they might stay with Liberal Dave on his entire journey to ConservaDave. But even if they don’t get that far, I think it’s very helpful to explain conservative policies in terms that liberals can relate to. It will hopefully get them to better respect where conservatives are coming from, even if they don’t ultimately come to agree with them.
FP: What do you hope your book will help achieve?
Cohen: I’d love to see this book start a national conversation on the differences between conservatism and liberalism—and what they have in common. If we can get past the demonization and the stereotypes, we might actually be able to find some common ground. I suggest in my book that it would be a useful exercise for everyone—be they liberal or conservative—to go through the exercise that I went through. Challenge your assumptions, question your beliefs. Genuinely try to see where the other guy is coming from. After having done that, you may end up at exactly the same point in the ideological spectrum as where you started. Or, like me, you may end up on the other end of the spectrum. Either way, you’ll be a better, more informed citizen for having gone through the exercise.
I think it’s particularly important for young people to go through this exercise. I’d love to see this book taught in college!
FP: David Cohen, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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