Moving With the Times

It's often a sign of progress when people change their minds. But it can also be unsettling, even eerie.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party in the Bronx on June 26. Scott Heins / Getty

In the wake of the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s been a dramatic shift in mainstream liberal opinion — in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens — toward Bernie Sanders–style positions. People who were lambasting that kind of politics in 2016 are now embracing it — without remarking upon the change, without explaining it, leaving the impression that this is what they believed all along.

As you can imagine, this causes no end of consternation in certain precincts of the Left. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their change in position, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And for some less legitimate, if understandable, reasons: people are pissed at the way Sanders-style politics was attacked in 2016; they feel that they were unfairly maligned; they want folks to own up to it.

That’s understandable from a human point of view, but it’s not really the way you build a coalition or a movement. Every mass movement is built on converts, and if the first thing a convert hears when they show up at the shul is “Apologize. Apologize. Pull out his eyes.” (mixing my cultural touchstones here, I realize) — well, you can see where this is going. Or not going. If the Left is going to grow, everyone should be welcome to join, without having to hand over a bill of lading upon their arrival.

But I’m not bringing this up now either to settle scores or to enforce some kind of norm of the welcome mat. I’m actually just super interested in this phenomenon, in this kind of change at both the human and the political level. By “this kind of change” I don’t meant the deep transformations that some political people undergo over the course of a lifetime: the proverbial Whittaker Chambers–style migration from left to right, for example, that we saw throughout the twentieth century. That’s a deep, one-time change that you don’t easily go back on. I mean more these micro-shifts that happen under the pressure of events, the subtle coercions of new opinion, the ever-finer movements we all make to keep up with the flow, so as not to be left behind.

I just finished reading the letters of Thomas Mann, who’s an exemplary figure in this regard. Leading up to World War I, he was a fairly standard old-school conservative militarist/nationalist. That continued until the end of the war. After the war, he became a dedicated liberal defender of Weimar. Once the Nazis took over, his liberalism morphed into a humanist antifascism. By the end of the war, that antifascism had come to include overt sympathy with communism and the Soviet Union (he even praised Mission to Moscow on aesthetic grounds!). That continued into the late 1940s, when he supported Henry Wallace for president and was outspoken in his opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

But then, around 1950 or so, you begin to see, ever so slightly and subtly, Mann’s opinions starting to change once again. He never comes out in defense of McCarthyism, but you begin to feel a chill and distance toward the Left. His criticisms of the repression in the US begin to modulate and moderate. Till finally, in a 1953 letter to Agnes Meyer, his close friend and matriarch of the Washington Post, confesses that he has decided not to publicly oppose McCarthyism in the New York Times. He reports to her that when he was asked — ”probably by someone on the ‘left’” — what he thinks about the censorship and restrictions on freedom in the US, this was his reply: “American democracy felt threatened and, in the struggle for freedom, considered that there had to be a certain limitation on freedom, a certain disciplining of individual thought, a certain conformism. This was understandable.” Though he adds some sort of anodyne qualification at the end of that.

It just about broke my heart. That “left” in scare quotes (previously Mann had seen himself as a part of the Left), the clichés about freedom and the Cold War, the betrayal of all that he had said and done in the preceding decades — and most important, the seeming inability to see that he was betraying anything at all.

Who was the real Thomas Mann? The German militarist, the Weimar liberal, the humanist antifascist, the Popular Fronter, the Cold War liberal? Who knows? All of them, none of them? I think in the end, his most authentic moment was probably during the 1920s and early 1930s, when he made the migration from German nationalist to humanist antifascist. That was the one true shift that he could endure and narrate. But everything after that? It was just the way the game was being played. And he was a player. Not a self-conscious, strategic player. More un-self-conscious, moving with the times. Less player than played. As the climate of opinion changed during the war, he changed with it. And then at the onset of the Cold War, he changed again. But always without seeming to realize what he was doing. Watching how his positions changed — within a very short period of time — without him even seeing it, without him even remembering what he had said, a mere three years prior, was eerie and unsettling. And heart-breaking, as I said.

During the McCarthy years, Hannah Arendt wrote in a letter to Karl Jaspers how terrified she was of the repression. It wasn’t just the facts of the coercion she saw everywhere. It was how quickly it happened, how the mood of the moment had gone so suddenly from a generous and capacious liberalism to a cramped anticommunism. “Can you see,” she wrote, “how far the disintegration has gone and with what breathtaking speed it has occurred? And up to now hardly any resistance. Everything melts away like butter in the sun.” Victor Klemperer notices and narrates a similar shift among his friends and colleagues in his diaries of Nazi Germany.

We’ll never know what combination of incentives and forces and genuine beliefs are at play in one person’s shifting positions. And like I said, I welcome the change that is happening today. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was sometimes unsettled by it. Particularly when it’s unacknowledged.

Intellectuals like to think of themselves as above this kind of thing, but I think we’re especially prone to it. We live in the world of ideas, with an emphasis on that word “world.” The world is not what goes on in our heads; it’s what’s happening out there, between heads. Intellectuals want to be in that space of the in-between (that space was something Arendt talked about a lot). They want to be in the swim. That can make them chameleons of the first order.

Intellectuals are probably not that different from anyone else in this regard, but they do like to take and defend positions as if they were emanations of pure reason. Or the products of an unblinkered empiricism. The proverbial “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Which always gets attributed to Keynes but was in all likelihood said by Paul Samuelson.

I confess I’m always suspicious of these “when the facts change” types. In part because the most pressing fact that seems to change people’s opinions is…other people’s opinions.

Among intellectuals, that doesn’t always lend itself to an honest narration of change. Just the opposite: it can become an ever-shifting, ever-more-baffling, and often unacknowledged, litany of changes.

Not sure what there is to be said about that. Just noting how universal, if sometimes eerie, it is.