For many years—most of my politically cognizant life, in fact—I felt secure in my politics. Truth and justice, I believed, leaned leftward. If you were some version of a decent human being, you cared about those less fortunate than you, which meant that you supported a whole host of measures designed to even the playing field a little. Sometimes, these measures had unintended consequences (see under: Stalin, Josef), but that wasn’t reason enough to despair of the long march to equality. Besides, there was hardly an alternative: On the other end of the political transom lurked despicable creeps, right-wing orcs who either cared for nothing but their own petty financial interests or, worse, pined for benighted isms that preached prejudice and hate. We were on the right side of history. We were the people. We were the ones giving peace a chance. And, no matter the present, we were always the future.
This belief carried me through high school, and a brief stint in a socialist youth movement. It accelerated me in college, sending me anywhere from joint marches with Palestinians to a two-week hunger strike in Jerusalem trying (and failing) to lower tuition for underprivileged students. It pulled me to New York, to Columbia University, to more left-wing politics and activism and raging against Republicans whose agenda, especially in the 2000s, seemed like nothing more than greed and war.
And it wasn’t just an ideology, some abstract set of convictions that were accessible only through cracking open dusty old books. It was the animating spirit of life itself: The dinner parties I attended on the Upper West Side required dismissive comments on President Bush just as much as they did a bit of wine to make the evening bright, and there was no faster or surer way to signal to a new acquaintance that you were a kindred spirit than praising the latest Times editorial. It wasn’t performative, exactly. At least, it felt real enough, the reverent rites of a good group of people protecting itself against the bad guys.
I embraced my people, and my people embraced me. They gave me everything I had always imagined I wanted: a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university; a professorship at NYU, complete with a roomy office overlooking Washington Square Park; book deals; columns in smart little publications; invitations to the sort of soirees where you could find yourself seated next to Salman Rushdie or Susan Sontag or any number of the men and women you grew up reading and admiring. The list goes on. Life was good. I was grateful.
And then came The Turn. If you’ve lived through it yourself, you know that The Turn doesn’t happen overnight, that it isn’t easily distilled into one dramatic breakdown moment, that it happens hazily and over time—first a twitch, then a few more, stretching into a gnawing discomfort and then, eventually, a sense of panic.
You may be among the increasing numbers of people going through The Turn right now. Having lived through the turmoil of the last half decade—through the years of MAGA and antifa and rampant identity politics and, most dramatically, the global turmoil caused by COVID-19—more and more of us feel absolutely and irreparably politically homeless. Instinctively, we looked to the Democratic Party, the only home we and our parents and their parents before them had ever known or seriously considered. But what we saw there—and in the newspapers we used to read, and in the schools whose admission letters once made us so proud—was terrifying. However we tried to explain what was happening on “the left,” it was hard to convince ourselves that it was right, or that it was something we still truly believed in. That is what The Turn is about.
You might be living through The Turn if you ever found yourself feeling like free speech should stay free even if it offended some group or individual but now can’t admit it at dinner with friends because you are afraid of being thought a bigot. You are living through The Turn if you have questions about public health policies—including the effects of lockdowns and school closures on the poor and most vulnerable in our society—but can’t ask them out loud because you know you’ll be labeled an anti-vaxxer. You are living through The Turn if you think that burning down towns and looting stores isn’t the best way to promote social justice, but feel you can’t say so because you know you’ll be called a white supremacist. You are living through The Turn if you seethed watching a terrorist organization attack the world’s only Jewish state, but seethed silently because your colleagues were all on Twitter and Facebook sharing celebrity memes about ending Israeli apartheid while having little interest in American kids dying on the streets because of failed policies. If you’ve felt yourself unable to speak your mind, if you have a queasy feeling that your friends might disown you if you shared your most intimately held concerns, if you are feeling a bit breathless and a bit hopeless and entirely unsure what on earth is going on, I am sorry to inform you that The Turn is upon you.
The Turn hit me just a beat before it did you, so I know just how awful it feels. It’s been years now, but I still remember the time a dear friend and mentor took me to lunch and warned me, sternly and without any of the warmth you’d extend to someone you truly loved, to watch what I said about Israel. I still remember how confusing and painful it felt to know that my beliefs—beliefs, mind you, that, until very recently, were so obvious and banal and widely held on the left that they were hardly considered beliefs at all—now labeled me an outcast. The Turn brings with it the sort of pain most of us don’t feel as adults; you’d have to go all the way back to junior high, maybe, to recall a stabbing sensation quite as deep and confounding as watching your friends all turn on you and decide that you’re not worthy of their affection any more. It’s the kind of primal rejection that is devastating precisely because it forces you to rethink everything, not only your convictions about the world but also your idea of yourself, your values, and your priorities. We all want to be embraced. We all want the men and women we consider most swell to approve of us and confirm that we, too, are good and great. We all want the love and the laurels; The Turn takes both away.
But, having been there before, I have one important thing to tell you: If the left is going to make it “right wing” to simply be decent, then it’s OK to be right.
Why? Because, after 225 long and fruitful years of this terminology, “right” and “left” are now empty categories, meaning little more than “the blue team” and “the green team” in your summer camp’s color war. You don’t get to be “against the rich” if the richest people in the country fund your party in order to preserve their government-sponsored monopolies. You are not “a supporter of free speech” if you oppose free speech for people who disagree with you. You are not “for the people” if you pit most of them against each other based on the color of their skin, or force them out of their jobs because of personal choices related to their bodies. You are not “serious about economic inequality” when you happily order from Amazon without caring much for the devastating impact your purchases have on the small businesses that increasingly are either subjugated by Jeff Bezos’ behemoth or crushed by it altogether. You are not “for science” if you refuse to consider hypotheses that don’t conform to your political convictions and then try to ban critical thought and inquiry from the internet. You are not an “anti-racist” if you label—and sort!—people by race. You are not “against conformism” when you scare people out of voicing dissenting opinions.
When “the left” becomes the party of wealthy elites and state security agencies who preach racial division, state censorship, contempt for ordinary citizens and for the U.S. Constitution, and telling people what to do and think at every turn, then that’s the side you are on, if you are “on the left”—those are the policies and beliefs you stand for and have to defend. It doesn’t matter what good people “on the left” believed and did 60 or 70 years ago. Those people are dead now, mostly. They don’t define “the left” anymore than Abraham Lincoln defines the modern-day Republican Party or Jimi Hendrix defines Nickelback.
So look at the list of things supported by the left and ask yourself: Is that me? If the answer is yes, great. You’ve found a home. If the answer is no, don’t let yourself be defined by an empty word. Get out. And once you’re out, don’t let anyone else define you, either. Not being a left-wing racist or police state fan doesn’t make you a white supremacist or a Trump worshipper, either. Only small children, machines, and religious fanatics think in binaries.
Which isn’t to diminish the anger, hurt, and confusion you’re feeling just now. But it’s worth understanding that your story has a happy ending. The freedom you feel on the other side is so real it’s physical, like emerging from a long stretch underwater and taking that first deep breath in the cool afternoon air. None of it makes the lost friends or the lost career opportunities any less painful; but there’s no more potent source of renewable energy than liberty, and your capacity to reinvent—yourself, your group, your life—is greater than you realize.
So welcome to the right side, friend, and join us in laughing at all the idiotic name-calling that is applied, with increasing hysteria, to try and stop more and more normal Americans from joining our ranks. Fascists? Conspiracy theorists? Anti-science racist TERFs? Whatever. We have a better word to describe ourselves: free.