Why I Have To Repent

I recently heard Tom DeLay, the not-so-Tiny Dancer and former bug killer-turned-GOP “hammer,” say that he had been a conservative all of his life. (By the way, watching excerpts of the Hammer dance with half-nekkid partners, while simultaneously recalling his old family-values sermons, is, well, a nice confirmation of my divorce from conservatism.)

Assuming he’s not just waltzing around the truth, DeLay’s admission is not a positive feature of his or anyone’s personality. How can it be that you were “always” this or that? Wouldn’t exposure to the world modify your views several times over?

Anyway, his comment made me reflect on my own experience, moving from rock-hard conservatism to an “unapologetic skeptic of conservative thinking.” One thing that vexes me is the criticism I receive from people who simply refuse to believe that I was once a “real” conservative, or that I “understood” conservatism. They can’t believe that someone who once was a “true believer” would ever turn his back on the infallible doctrines of conservative thought.

Well, I did. And here’s proof, in the form of samples of writings from my Paleo period. The quotes are lengthy—book length, in fact—so as to establish my once-conservative bona fides. So, if you are not interested in where I came from, I will understand, but then don’t ever question my “erstwhile conservative” credentials:

The first essay I ever wrote that received any attention was one written my senior year in high school. My Composition teacher, Sandra Eshelbrenner—who unknown to me at the time was a liberal, but thought she saw something redeemable in my writing—encouraged me to continue putting words together, after I wrote a rather racist piece titled, “Down With Whites?” The essay, written late in 1975, began:

I can see in the not-so-distant future that the life we know will be full of sorrow and pain. This will come not as a result of some terroristic assault from overseas, but from our uneasy black “brothers” here at home. The black race is on the road to complete dominance over everybody in the United States, and the federal government, and many of the people it stands for, are pushing them toward that goal.

The essay ended with this:

I am not a bigot, nor am I an egotist. I’m not saying we should ship all blacks back to Africa; however, there are some that I would gladly buy a ticket for on that voyage. I truly believe blacks deserve equal rights, but not at innocent whites’ expense. As it is now, they are getting better than equal rights, and if we don’t do something in a hurry, the black race is not going to be willing to settle for anything less than “number one.” This will inevitably leave us “the back seats of life.”

My first published essay was written in 1976 (I was 17) and titled, “The Sex Habit—A Teenager’s Paradise.” It was published in the Fort Scott Tribune on March 18 and included this ending:

Sex is a beautiful blessing on us by God, and I’m quite sure He did not mean for it to become the most commercialized and abused practice in the world. It is not just the teenagers who are abusing sex, but it is they who hold all the answers to the problems of tomorrow, and it is they who will have to change the trend of the “sexual revolution,” if sex is to remain beautiful and sacred.

In 1983, I wrote a defense of Christian education for my church. It included this:

One could accurately say, based on the Bible, education without the acknowledgement of God is equally without an acknowledgement of reality because God is the Ultimate Reality. So, to separate education from God is to separate it from reality, thus leading it to a frustrating search for the Truth. This is the situation we find today in not only our public school system but generally in society.

In October of 1985, I wrote a lengthy letter to the Fort Scott Tribune criticizing the paper’s advocacy of “ballots by mail”:

Fortunately for a democracy, indifference and indolence are cohorts, and those who do not bother to inform themselves usually do not bother to vote. Encouraging elections-by-mail increases the possibility of uninformed, or if you please, ignorant, voters influencing the outcome of an election. And as a factor in elections, ignorance should be kept to a minimum.

In the July 4, 1986, edition of Bill Buckley’s National Review, my submission to Nika Hazelton’s “Delectations” contest, in which entrants were asked to “describe their personal conception of heaven and hell on this earth,” was selected as the winner. My entry was:

Heaven on earth: Life without liberals. Hell on earth: Life without liberals. (With whom would I argue?)

For my trouble I received an autographed copy of Buckley’s High Jinx, in which the Father of Conservatism inscribed, “For R. D. Graham—With…congratulations on your great victory—and with warm regards from the author—William F. Buckley”

In the Fall of 1986, I debated a college teacher on the then-dominant issue of apartheid in South Africa. I defended the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement,” which essentially was a “go slow” approach to urging an end to white-minority rule there. Liberals were demanding severe economic sanctions to topple the recalcitrant government. In my opening, I said:

No one can predict the future of South Africa with any certainty. But it seems that engaging in economic warfare against South Africa could lead to an increase in violence and eventually to the death of thousands—perhaps millions—of people, both white and black, in a long, bloody civil war. Peaceful transition would take time and much patience; but, unfortunately, I fear the engines of moral indignation in the Western world will not idle long enough to allow such transition to occur.

I was an avid pro-lifer, and in April of 1987, I gave a speech that included this ending:

Finally, fight for the rights of those who cannot yet fight for themselves; fight for the unborn. For you, too, once shared their vulnerability, their dependence on a kind, caring mother to give them birth. You, too, at one time were merely a single cell, endlessly dividing and multiplying, all the while following a distinctly human set of instructions. And never forget that once you, too, were a potential victim of abortion, saved only by your mother’s recognition that the new life within her was more than a mass of tissue, more than an appendage to be cut off at her convenience. Your mother knew that the new life within her was, indeed, human life, who deserved, at the very least, the right to be born.

In the Fall of 1987, the U.S. Senate considered the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork was essentially Antonin Scalia on steroids, and he once wrote, “We are increasingly governed not by law or elected representatives but by an unelected, unrepresentative, unaccountable committee of lawyers applying no will but their own.” I gave another speech, defending Bork, which included:

…the opposition to Bork’s nomination has come primarily from extreme liberals, who originally attacked Judge Bork for being an ideologue with rigid, doctrinaire views, which they said he wanted to impose on everyone else…Now, as a result of his testimony before the judiciary committee, in which he explained the evolution of his judicial philosophy with great skill, some of these same extremists are accusing him of changing his mind too often! But then intellectual consistency has never been a prevalent characteristic of the liberal mind.

In 1991 I submitted an essay to Buckley’s National Review (rejected, of course). The essay was in the form of a cynical letter to “my compassionate-conservative brother” and included this:

Those clever liberals rhetoricians have made it sound as though the very lives of the poor were hanging by the thin thread of government intervention, so one can hardly blame some of the poor for their messianic view of government. But I see no practical way out of this mess, either. No politician I know of would ever consider making the poor pay at least some income tax, even on the good grounds of creating good citizens, elevating the poor from mere tenants to landlords responsible for maintenance of the Republic. So, I am afraid things will continue as they are, and you, dear brother, must accept it as I have…

I admit that I sometimes sound callous toward those who cannot help themselves. But I have come a long way, largely because of you. I do understand that there are those who either can’t fend for themselves because of certain disabilities, or who simply refuse to yield to convention and choose to live outside of the community. And I agree with you that the former are burdens we should gladly bear, either publicly or privately, and the latter should be left to themselves so long as they bring no harm to others. When I speak coldly about the poor, I speak mainly of those who have exchanged their dignity, their democratic inheritance, and their respectability for a few food stamps and a few dollars earned by the sweat of someone else’s brow. I’m afraid this is where we part in our analysis. You see these people as “victims” of bad government, led to believe they were “entitled” to benefits derived from the labor of others. I see them as “co-conspirators” in the dissolution of traditional society and good citizenship.

On November 6, 1991, I responded to Thomas Wheeler, who had submitted to the Joplin Globe a critique of local letter-writer Paul Butler’s claim that America was a Christian nation. About Mr. Wheeler, I wrote:

Perhaps his obvious hostility to conservative Christians prevents him from understanding that their desire for America to be a Christian nation doesn’t mean they want Jimmy Swaggart to rewrite the Constitution.

While I have heard many conservative Christians express their hope that America return to its Christian roots, I have yet to hear even the most ardent “flag-waving Christian storm trooper” demand the overthrow of our present government in favor of a Christian government, whatever that is.

What they do demand is an end to the growing hostility from our nation’s institutions…toward religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Whether Mr. Wheeler admits it or not, America at one time was a Christian nation…While it remains true today that most Americans are Christians, our educational system, our political system, and even the arts have become increasingly intolerant—even disdainful—of any Christian influence or expression…

On December 1, 1991, in a response to Rick Reniker, who had lamented in the Joplin Globe the death of his friend from AIDS, I wrote:

Does Mr. Reniker really mean that the victims of AIDS are in fact “victims of a complacent government and a judgmental society?” […]

For the last several years we have been educated ad nauseam about the dangers of HIV. Our society is saturated with information about AIDS and its deadly assault on certain segments of our population. The condom is fast becoming a sort of national symbol. And recently we have all heard how everybody is at risk, which implies everybody is equally at risk.

Not so. Magic Johnson did not get infected with HIV because he was ignorant of the dangers of the AIDS “health crisis”…It was his ignoring the facts, not his ignorance of the facts that made him a victim.

As for Mr. Reniker’s…approval of the “Condoms control AIDS” billboards displayed in Joplin, one can only wonder how many such signs Magic Johnson has seen on the highways and byways of “progressive” Los Angeles or any of the many large cities he visited while wenching and playing basketball for the Lakers…

In the same letter to the newspaper, I responded to Deanne Ashley, who had expressed resentment for “original sin ideology”:

[Ms. Ashley] says that “Just Say No” tactics are ineffective in urging children to discipline themselves regarding their sexual desires…Ultimately, all that parents can do for their children is point them in the right direction and tell them that there are lines they should not cross, rules they should not break; that the indiscriminate indulgence of their sexual appetites may result in their being victimized, not by a complacent and judgmental society, but by a strange little virus that awaits them in the dark.

In 1992, I gave a speech to Phi Theta Kappa, a two-year college Honor Society, in which I said:

…have you noticed that the condom is fast becoming a kind of “national symbol,” like the flag? I have this fear—a totally reasonable fear, I think—that pretty soon the things will be hanging from every flag-pole in America—sort of like prophylactic wind socks. And that even now a modern day Betsy Ross, no doubt a member of the National Organization for Women, is hard at work fashioning a “star-spangled condom,” while some gay-rights activist is writing our new national anthem all about the joys of “safe sex.” And quietly some New Age scribe is revising the Bible to read “a condom covers a multitude of sins.” Such are the fears of a conservative today. But come to think of it, the condom would make a great flag for modern liberalism, for it symbolizes freedom without worry of messy consequences and the illusion that you are “safe” from your transgressions…

Now, I suppose that what I want you to understand is that embedded in the past, buried in what I have been referring to as “tradition,” is the accumulated wisdom of the world’s greatest thinkers about the subject of values, of what was for them and what I think ought to be for you, the important things, the first things, the things that separate us from the animals. For it cannot be contradicted that you will live your life by a set of values, traditional or otherwise. I argue that traditional values are the only “safe” ones; for as Allan Bloom says, value relativism “takes one into very dark regions of the soul and very dangerous political experiments.”

And that is where I believe we are today. We are individually and collectively exploring Mr. Bloom’s “dark regions of the soul.” And the only light available to us is the light provided by our fathers, by our ancestors—by our tradition. For I think all of us will be touched in some way by that darkness. And we will respond with the wisdom of the ages or else be consumed with an unfathomable despair. Our tradition—not just mine, but yours, too—speaks to that despair. But in our time it speaks very faintly.

And so now you can see, I hope, the whole point of my little talk. Plato tells us that “the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already.” So it is in your hands to get acquainted with your past. It is in your hands to learn the truths the great masters of Western Civilization can teach you. Their voices may be faint amidst the clamor of a culture in hot pursuit of its own lusts. But they are shouting from the shelves of your nearest library. Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Milton, Bunyan, Burke, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, and so on. They are all there—in what scholars call the classics, the “old books.” These old books, as C.S. Lewis put it, “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

I wrote a letter on November 20, 1992, to Republican Bruce Herschensohn, who had lost a bid for the U.S. Senate to Barbara Boxer, which included this:

Although detailed news from California politics is hard to come by here in the hinterlands of Missouri, I was not surprised to learn of Ms. Boxer’s despicable tactic at the end. As a representative of a once-noble political philosophy, namely liberalism, she has shown the central flaw of that philosophy, resulting from its internal logic: moral bankruptcy.

Your campaign was an inspiration to us conservatives. Some of us had been wondering if there were any truly principled conservatives around who were willing to stick to their guns and actually propound real conservatism, as opposed to the diluted variety espoused by some of its more dubious adherents. You articulated and championed our philosophy courageously, and I want to personally thank you and tell you how much you inspired me.

Mr. Herschensohn sent me a nice hand-written letter, dated December 6, that still hangs on my office wall:

My deepest thanks to you for that inspiring letter of yours. It is a letter I will save—and re-read as I have already re-read. Again—my appreciation to you for a great beam of light.

On January 31, 1993, I responded to a column by Joe Patrick Bean, then a regular columnist in the Joplin Globe, in which Bean criticized, much as I do now, the “hard right” turn of the Republican Party and blamed its defeat in the 1992 election on “hard-right kidnappers”:

…Like most liberal pundits, he trashes conservatism and blames those awful right-wingers for the fall of George Bush…Perhaps Bean has been too busy writing his columns to consult his history books regarding the last three presidential elections, but I will save him the trouble: The 1980, 1984 and the 1988 Republican Party platforms were virtually identical to the 1992 platform. Conservatism was dominant in those platforms and people knew where the Republican Party stood on the social issues. It wasn’t a secret. And Ronald Reagan and George Bush won about a zillion electoral votes in those elections, two of which were real landslides and not merely the product of a sympathetic press who in a frenzy of hyperbole turned Bill Clinton’s puny victory margin into a “landslide.”

The dynamics of the 1992 election were considerably different from before, what with a sluggish economy and George Bush’s loss of credibility by agreeing with the Democrats and their “sensible, pragmatic, mainstream” Republican cohorts who wanted to raise our taxes in order to fix once and for all our deficit problem. As the deficit grows ever higher, so much for the pragmatists. It wasn’t conservatism the voters rejected; it was the “pragmatic” George Bush.

But worse than Bean’s analysis of the Republican Party’s defeat is his prescription for its future success: “But if the GOP is to survive…it must move back toward the center.” This is merely the echo of a now familiar refrain habitually chanted by the freshly dethroned establishment, country-club Republicans, whose only distinction from the Democrats is that most of the Democrats have more money.

These so-called moderate Republicans…want nothing more than to stay in power. They are part of what has become a one-party system animating our contemporary politics: Democrats and moderate Republicans teaming up to keep government big and intrusive and to keep themselves in control of it. Silencing conservatives guarantees them a monopoly on power.

What Bean doesn’t understand is that the only thing separating the Republican Party from its Democratic counterpart is the presence of the conservatives and their convictions. Remove them and you have nothing but Republican me-tooism. If, as Bean says, the “sensible, pragmatic, mainstream” Republicans are the backbone of the party, the conservatives are its head. And the head must define and lead.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Emily Moore wrote a letter to the Globe in which she claimed that right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh had contributed to the bombing. On May 8, 1995, the paper published my response to her “hysterical letter,” which included this:

These pathetic and desperate attempts to blame conservatives for the actions of misguided or evil people are an indication of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary liberalism.

On May 25, 1996, I wrote to the Globe to criticize Gene Garman’s “largely incoherent contribution” regarding Christian fundamentalism. I said:

…people like Mr. Garman, pretending to be open-minded, are very closed-minded to the real claims of Christianity. He quotes Jefferson to the effect that the wonderfully gifted intellectuals, who can see through all the “foolishness” of people who believe in the historic claims of the church, will “liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

By inserting references to “addiction” and “suicide bombers” and “extremists,” he tried to hide his real target; but by using Jefferson’s deistic quote, Mr. Garman showed that his real problem is not just with fundamentalists, but with anyone who happens to believe in a personal God who cares about his creation.

If you have read this far, now you know why I call this a “blog of repentance.”

Leave a comment


  1. Anson Burlingame

     /  October 2, 2009


    I read and I smiled. If space were available I would love to pick any given topic and see a “then” column and a “now” column.

    Unfortunately my writing career is very new so I do not have the “history” of my politics on paper. I can assure you however, that my “then” and “now” columns would have some real conflict, just not as stark as yours.

    Most (Ok, some) people when the age become somewhat more tolerant of opposing views and even, over time, “soften” there own positions.

    You it seems to me have gone from “hard” to “hard” in many cases. If wrote about the idiocy of the extremes of both sides rather than now just picking on the “right” we would be “kissing cousins” in our blogs in many cases.

    But that would not be any fun and I for sure will never “kiss” a guy in a poka dot thong or whatever you told me you wore.

    As my wife tells me all the time, “Lighten up, Anson”


    PS Your ability to write was and remains remarkably good, even excellent, imho.


  2. Duane

     /  October 2, 2009


    Thanks for the compliment. While my thong-wearing days are now behind me (sorry), my days of “picking” on the right wing are not. I have many miles to go before I sleep, and much penance to complete.

    My views have “softened,” in the sense that I don’t hold any of them as strongly as I held my former ones. They are all more malleable, more subject to change based on the evidence. That’s the one thing that has changed. I believed in conservatism much like I believed in evangelicalism, and it was a difficult passage from then to now. The one thing that I always had, though, even as a conservative, was a belief (often buried very deeply) that the evidence should speak for itself, and that there aren’t many ideas exempt from falsification. Because I held my conservatism almost religiously, it took a long time to let go of it. I’m fairly confident I won’t make the same mistake this time.

    One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is this: If I hold a certain view, I will defend it vigorously, until such time as someone convinces me it is wrong. I was that way as a conservative, and I remain so. As Bastiat said, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” (I still can’t help quoting former comrades.) I believe that, and I also think that if you judge something to be true, you ought to be willing and able to defend that judgment. But you also should be willing to admit your beliefs could be wrong, that things you think are true might in fact be false. That, in the end, is how I got from there to here.

    And, by the way, your wife is a very good influence on you, as I have noticed lately that you have started to mellow just a bit.



  3. Joe Patrick Bean

     /  December 16, 2009

    Interesting transformation that at least somewhat mirrors my own earlier one. I painted signs for Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Missouri Republican Convention, to which my mother was a delegate, as well as a Republican county vice chair, and I voted for him in 1980 and 1984. That was, however, the last time I voted for a Republican presidential candidate as the hard right took over — and ultimately took down — the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.


    • Duane Graham

       /  December 17, 2009

      If you read my “Why I Have To Repent,” then you know that I owe you, especially, an apology. Your columns were a constant source of irritation to me as a conservative, something for which you should be extremely proud.

      It’s nice to know that at least you can understand how one can move away from doctrinaire conservatism, which in many ways has become a personality disorder for those who hold to it, into some semblance of political sanity.

      Thanks for your comment.


  4. ansonburlingame

     /  December 18, 2009

    Duane and Joe,

    “doctrinaire conservatism, which in many ways has become a personality disorder for those who hold to it, into some semblance of political sanity.”

    Here we go again with name calling. I would suggest that DOCTRINAIRE liberalism falls into the same category, depending on how you define doctrinaire. Both are stuck in the muck of dogma and are inflexible in the extreme.

    “I have never voted for a Republican since the hard right took over” sounds like someone saying “I will never vote for a Democrat while the hard left controls the party”. That doesn’t make you a saint or me with a personality disorder. We both may well be wrong but not mentally ill.

    I laid down the gauntlet for liberals such as you two in my blog “Who Is Correct”. Try providing a non-name calling rebuttal and I will read carefully. Start with your views on SPENDING and keep it there and we might have an interesting exchange.



    • Duane Graham

       /  December 18, 2009


      Of course there is something called doctrinaire liberalism, also partially qualifying for inclusion in the DSM as a personality disorder (at least in my own annotated version). Because there is a seeming symmetry in the distribution of human behavior, there are left-wing teabaggers, too. They just don’t dress like Thomas Jefferson, a Deist, or quote Thomas Paine, an anti-Bible thumper, all the while invoking the name of Christ at local tea parties.

      Lefties ususally stick to a different kind of cross-dressing.



  5. Tony Wills

     /  March 23, 2010

    Mr. Graham, where do I start? You not only have radically changed your views through the years, but now have even changed your name by which you write. I always saw you more as a libertarian than a “true conservative”, but who am I to argue with “such a great mind ” as yours. I still count you as a friend and love to tweek you into our “informal” impromtu debates but I can only walk away wondering “what happened to my friend”? Not that being a Republican is my religion (because I have my disagreements with them also), and not that I consider “political conservatism” as equal to my spiritually, I always think of how great a witness for “all that is right” you could be if you could just emerge out of the dark cloud of “blindness ” in which I now see you. You are in my prayers and on my “friends list” till we draw our last breath.


    • Duane Graham

       /  March 23, 2010


      Nice to hear from you…I think. I have to quibble with your claim that, for you, “political conservatism” and “spirituality” are not equal endeavors. Like with most conservatives, it is very hard to differentiate between your devotion to free-market theology and your devotion to Christian theology, the former being a misplaced faith in a narrow, inconsistent, and error-ridden economic philosophy, the latter a misplaced faith in a narrow, inconsistent, and error-ridden interpretation of the Bible.

      However, my blindness notwithstanding, I appreciate your prayers and continued friendship, and look forward to our next debate, which I will promptly and decisively win as usual.



  6. Happy to have found your blog, and I’ve read some of the above with interest, and I may have something in common with you. I admit I may not have read carefully enough, but I’m not clear on where and when you changed, and to what exactly?

    Your past writing clearly establish your one time conservatism, but I didn’t think I saw where the conversion started.

    I maybe in a similar state of mind. I think I still support the idea of limited government, and I am a conservative in that sense. However I have a lot of trouble with the conservative movement today.

    My discomfort is mainly over the Iraq war. I supported it after 9/11, though with concern of its results. I felt then that a major response to 9/11 was in order and as an attempt to transform the Middle-East to be less of source of such horrors (get the WMDs and make Iraq a model democracy) it was a gamble worth taking. But today I see that gamble as having had a disastrous result.

    Iraq today is I think still on the edge of civil war, mired in violence, and with little or no chance of being a model democracy. No WMD existed or apparently have for many years in Iraq. In light of this do many conservatives take responsibility for this disaster or appear to have a more modest view of what American military power can accomplish? No.

    Discussion of Iraq is mostly about the surge and it success in reducing the level of violence from unbearable to intolerable. In 2008, Republican candidates except for Ron Paul seemed to falling over themselves to show who could be more jingoistic, and today I fear a Palin administration might quickly get us into war in Iran, and maybe elsewhere-even though we are already overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    In any case for the first time in 2008 I voted for a Democratic candidate for President. Now I think I tend to want to validate my foreign policy based vote by supporting some of his other initiative such health care.

    I am concerned about the cost of of some of President’s Obama policies, but more along the line of how can we make them work or pay for them. I certainly don’t “hope he fails!”

    I think the Bush administration has put this country in too perilous a situation for another failed Presidency, especially for partisan purposes. I think any sensible person, even conservatives should realize that, but I don’t think many do.

    Really I think I’m still a conservative, but somewhat disaffected rather than erstwhile. That said I agree with a lot of your posts and will keep reading.


  7. To be more concise with my query.

    1. Do you now consider yourself a “liberal”?

    2. How do you define conservative and liberal?


    • Duane Graham

       /  July 5, 2010


      Thanks for the comments, which I found quite refreshing.

      First, some day I hope to write a piece about how a former Limbaugh-dittohead conservative transformed into The Erstwhile Conservative. It’s kind of complicated, some of it having to do with an unholy association of politics and evangelical Christianity. But some of it also had to do with my job as a union representative, in which I ran into problems with government agencies that had been populated by conservatives during Bush II, who did not give a dook about the people I represented. This began in earnest my journey away from conservatism.

      Second, I can relate somewhat to your Iraq problem, which accelerated the final phase of my transformation. It became apparent to me that the Republican Party’s embrace of the War On Terror (aided, initially and sadly, but understandably, by Democrats) was dangerous, and it also became clear to me that the social conservatives, including evangelical Christians, had essentially taken over the party and were being skillfully used by Karl Rove to keep Republicans in power forever. This frigtened me greatly, since I knew what those folks believed, particularly about the “end times.”

      I voted for my first Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, and that liberation opened up my eyes to all of the sins of conservatism, which forms the basis of my need to “repent.” I, too, in some ways see myself as a conservative, in the sense that I want to preserve what liberalism has bequeathed us: a decent society, where no one has to go without food or shelter, or fear that old age will bring poverty and premature death. The reflexive, reactionary conservatism of today would, I believe, make Edmund Burke repent, too.

      To answer your questions:

      1. Yes, I am definitely, and proudly, a liberal. I believe that most of the time Democrats fail to defend the principles of liberalism and allow conservatives like Rush Limbaugh (I was a 10- to 15-hour-a-week listener for 20 years) and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck to define us.

      2. My brief (and contemporary) definitions of liberalism and conservatism, provided on the fly:

      Liberalism: The idea that government is essential to maintaining a good society, not just in terms of protecting our liberties and maintaining our national defense and domestic security, but in terms of managing our capitalist economy, capitalism being an engine for good, as long as it is regulated to protect the interests of all the people. (Note: I distinguish liberalism from extreme leftist thought, which tends to believe in historic socialism as the optimum economic system.)

      This is an important point: liberals believe in real liberty and justice, the kind that can be enjoyed by all people, not just the wealthy and powerful. Therefore, liberals believe there are such things as structural inequality and injustice, including economic injustice, and that collectively we should work to correct the structures that lead to such inequality and injustice and consequently to a diminished liberty. Liberals also believe that collectively we are capable of making progress toward a more just society, that mankind’s knowledge, including moral knowledge, is greater today than in the past, that we can achieve greater equality of opportunity for all and that all can someday enjoy the blessings of liberty and pursue happiness without structural restraints.

      Warning: This is not a doctrine of equality of outcome, only a doctrine of true equality of opportunity.

      Conservatism: This one is hard because the conservatism I first learned (from writers like William F. Buckley, et al.) is in some ways quite a bit different from the conservatism being preached on Fox “News” (Beck, Hannity, etc.) and on talk radio today. That kind of conservatism is a caricature of Burkean thought, which others have explained better than I can in this short space. But here is how I understood my conservatism:

      The idea that government should play a very limited role in our lives, that capitalism is best when it is largely unregulated, that the free market will police itself through a sort of Darwinian reality. Society is organic (developing naturally without being forced) and government is an alien force that does more harm than good in most cases, that government’s primary and proper role is in providing for our national defense (not the kind of interventionist foreign policy embraced by the right-wing today) and domestic security (and not the kind of threats to liberty posed by some aspects of Homeland Security, nearly all of which are supported by conservatives today).

      That most of the important truths were learned long ago, and our modern society should still be organized around those truths, including religious truths. That while some progress is possible, our Founders handed us a system that is largely without blemish, that we change it at our peril, and that any changes cannot be made except through the difficult amendment process. That idea that an evolving interpretation of the Founders’ words could be used to adjust our founding documents to better handle modern realities is anathema to conservatives.

      Granted, these are just broad definitions, all from my experience on both sides of the philosophical divide, but I think you can get the idea of how I understand the two terms.

      Thanks again for the comments.



  8. Haven’t visited for a while Duane but I see things are just as interesting around here as ever!

    Assuming you have no objection, I’ve just added you to my blogroll.


    • Duane Graham

       /  August 3, 2010


      I’m honored. And by the way, your piece on Christiane Amanpour and her debut on This Week was EXACTLY what I would have written. If they are going to continue with the same exact format and not take advantage of her skill set, then they are wasting her talents. But, like you, I’m hoping it’s just a slow start.

      Thanks again,



  9. Great post – glad I ran across this place. I too am a former conservative – and I too posted a long series of “confessions” over at my own blog.

    I guess that makes me a born again liberal – and the born agains are the worst kind….


    • Mr. Dougan,

      Yes, just like reformed smokers.

      I checked out your blog and although I have had only enough time to read the post on Hillary Clinton and the right-wing conspiracy, I was blown away. Thanks for commenting here so I could connect with your blog. There aren’t too many like us around and when I find someone who knows what it’s like to be devoted to one side and then experience a conversion, I am encouraged greatly.

      It’s funny, but I sometimes get attacked by life-long conservatives for being an unthinking left-wing Kool-Aid drinker, as if my past life as a conservative never happened (some of them don’t believe I was ever a true conservative).

      Most of the time such criticism comes from people who were conservatives from birth—who have always been and always will be conseratives—and don’t appreciate the fact that people like you and me have actually proven our willingness to consider other points of view.

      And by the way, where in the heck did you get that blog header? Fantastic!



      • Duane said: It’s funny, but I sometimes get attacked by life-long conservatives for being an unthinking left-wing Kool-Aid drinker, as if my past life as a conservative never happened (some of them don’t believe I was ever a true conservative).

        Duane, I get exactly the same thing – people claiming that I never was a conservative to begin with. Of course, these are the same people who claim that David Frum and Christopher Buckley and Kathleen Parker aren’t real conservatives either.

        What I find really funny is that I am older than most of these people, and I have in my lifetime voted for more GOP Presidential candidates than any of them have. I voted for Ford in 1976 and didn’t vote for a Democrat for President until Kerry and Obama (though I voted for Nader in 2000). Very few of the people criticizing me can match that voting record (not that I am proud of it) yet they think they get to define what a conservative is.

        One other observation. Although my views have certainly shifted to the left, the middle has also shifted right beneath my feet.

        — HP

        P.S. The blog header is adapted from a mural somebody had painted on the side of their barn. My assistant found it somewhere on the net.


  10. Duane:
    Glad to have discovered your blog and will add it to my blogroll. As an aging Democrat that grew out of a Republican family, I made my turn with the election of Jack Kennedy who made me realize that not all the rich were out to get the working class.

    Keep up the good work…


    • Bill,

      Thanks much. I checked out your blog and found it quite informative and amusing. I especially liked your post on “The Intelligence of Dogs.” I spend all day with my miniature Dachshund, Foster’s, and every time I hear or read about the nonsense coming from the right, Foster’s learns new words. His ability to understand $%#$&! and %$#@#! is beyond question, and I’m fairly certain he is getting to know what “go &%$* yourself” means, but I’ve had a terrible time getting him to understand it’s not directed toward him.



  11. I just came across your site, and it’s excellent. With conservatives winning so many people over through anti-intellectualism and hyperbolic rhetoric, it’s always nice to find someone who decided instead to fight back.

    I added a link on my blog—hope you don’t mind.


  12. Duane

    The newest comment here by James popped up in my mailbox and brought me back to this post. I’m so glad, since the first time I didnt’ finish reading the whole thing, which I wanted to since it’s so well written and so well thought out.

    Reading down the thread, I saw the comments from our late friend, Hippie Prof – or Jim as I now know his name was – and was saddened yet again at his loss.

    I’ve taken some notes from this post to quote (fuill attribution and lnks!) in a future post of my own. Such good stuff.


    • Moe,

      Thanks a lot for that. I am guilty of the same thing, as far as not reading through to the end. It’s one of my bad habits, especially in the Internet Age, but I am trying to break it.

      As for Jim Dougan, he and I were almost exactly the same age (yes, that’s scary) and it’s amazing we were both former conservatives who became vocal opponents of conservatism. I wish I had known him personally; he seemed like my kind of guy.

      Thanks again,



  13. Whoa. This post blew my mind. I, too, grew up in an Evangelical Christian household. I was with some issues, passionately Conservative. Although, I don’t think I could ever share my former Religious Right-tinged writings and activities out of embarrassment. You are a brave and honest one, sir.


  14. RiyaButler

     /  May 25, 2011

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  15. King Beauregard

     /  August 20, 2011

    To me, the most damning indictment of modern conservatism is the response to the Iraq War. Where is the outrage over how we were lied to? Where is the anger over the unconscionable lack of post-war planning for Iraq? Where can we even see any slight pangs of remorse over the needless deaths?

    Excuses. We hear nothing but excuses about the party and the leaders that brought us to war. Okay guys, if you don’t have any serious problems with the lead-up to the Iraq War or its execution or the period afterwards, then you’re not adults.


  16. Edward Robinson

     /  July 25, 2012

    Duane —
    Many thanks for your thoughtful, articulate work. I just discovered it and am totally addicted to whatever your next entry will be. My story is similar. My first vote was in my high school’s 1968 mock election when I supported George Wallace. I had moderated a bit in 1972 when I cast my first real ballot for Dick Nixon. I was the VP of the University of Richmond chapter of the Committee to Re-elect the President. Nixon was my last Republican. I continue a reasonable leftward march, finding inspiration from the likes of Sanders and Kucinich. These are passionate men, but humble, gracious public servants. Statesmen, in fact. There seems to be a total absence of grace on the right — both in government and from the pulpit.


    • Edward,

      Thanks for the kind words. There aren’t too many like you and me out there, as you know.

      In many ways my journey from ultra-conservatism to a robust liberalism was sort of a returning “home.” My mom and dad were Humphrey Democrats, working class folks who weren’t looking for handouts but were looking for the rewards of hard work and playing by the rules. My mom was often appalled at the in-your-face conservatism I once championed, and I am genuinely ashamed at some of the arguments I made to her in my attempt to get her to abandon the Democratic Party (she remained steadfastly loyal to her Democratic values). That’s partly why I subtitle this blog, “A Blog of Repentance.”

      I too like Kucinich and I am a great admirer of Bernie Sanders, who I agree is a humble and gracious public servant with a transforming passion. And I agree that such humility and graciousness as Sanders possesses is noticeably missing from the political personalities on the right, although I will grant them that they are passionate about their advocacy for the moneyed class in America.

      As for the ironic absence of grace from right-wing pulpits, manned (literally) by folks who are so cocksure that God is on their side and is a cosmic supply-side economist, I’m afraid I have to confess to no small amount of anger at what these people are doing to our country. Sometimes that anger gets the best of me, as I see how they indoctrinate their children into a philosophy that appears to me to run counter to the applied philosophy of Jesus, and as they seek to rid the country of any vestige of independent thought.

      Again, thanks for the encouraging words and I look forward to your ongoing contributions to the discussion here.



  17. King Beauregard

     /  September 11, 2012

    Thought you might like this article:



  18. First, let me congratulate you on your personal journey.

    You wrote a while back, “The reflexive, reactionary conservatism of today would, I believe, make Edmund Burke repent, too.” I have been reading a bit of Burke, and clearly need to read more, but I see nothing of the NeoCon or the PaleoConservative in him. According to what I am reading, he is a true Liberal, indeed a Tax and Invest Liberal. (Tax and spend is the Frank Luntz-style frame for this, or to use a different frame, lie.)

    “Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy. Economy is a distributive virtue, and consists not in saving but selection. Parsimony requires no providence, no sagacity, no powers of combination, no comparison, no judgment.”

    So much for Grover Norquist.

    At the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, Burke wrote:

    “Resolved to die in the last dike of prevarication.”

    This indictment still stands after more than two centuries against the Republican Party of the Robber Barons in the Gilded Age of the 19th century; Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuously consuming Leisure Class, distinguishing themselves by force and fraud; Teddy Roosevelt’s Malefactors of Great Wealth; FDR’s Economic Royalists; and today’s self-described Masters of the Universe. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it:

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

    Three years ago I wrote up Burke’s extremely Liberal positions on the issues of today in Conservatives: Endangered species? at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/09/06/777952/-Conservatives-Endangered-species . One could do the same for F. A. Hayek, author of Why I Am Not a Conservative, and for many other supposed Republican heroes who couldn’t get into the party today.

    I have been looking into conversions by former Conservatives from slaveship captain John Newton, who later wrote Amazing Grace while still a pilgrim in the John Bunyan sense, to wunderkind Jonathan Krohn. The Christian Right is shrinking at something like 1% annually, and the demographics are turning against them more broadly. They say that Texas may be in play in the 2016 election. As a fan of Molly Ivins, whom I greatly miss, I have to say that it couldn’t happen to more deserving politicians.


    • Ed,

      I miss Molly Ivins, too. I’m current going through her book, “Bushwacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America,” which is an amazing read.

      I read your “Endangered Species” piece on Daily Kos and I am impressed, particularly by your comparison of the GOP platform and Burkean thought. Burke’s “Mere parsimony is not economy” sentiment should be posted on the door of every damn Republican in Congress.

      As for Jonathan Krohn (“Lil’ Limbaugh), I saw him on Lawrence O’Donell’s show a while back. And I must say that the conservatives, who exploited him as a teenager, deserve the whipping they will take, as he grows older and wiser.

      Particularly galling was their attacks on him for reading philosophy at an early age. He says he de-converted from conservatism after reading Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Since, as a conservative, particularly a conservative Christian, I was taught to hate Nietzsche, I too have learned to appreciate Nietzsche’s rather uplifting approach to life (although he is a complicated philosopher in all respects).

      Thanks for your comments and the link to your work. Keep up the good fight.



  19. jdhight01

     /  October 1, 2012

    I read this article at 5:30 this morning and remembered thinking to myself, many years ago, how intelliegent, but misguided, that guy is. I believe we engaged in a few discussions on politics and religion, and we never agreed on a thing. Yes, I can attest to the fact that you would have been a great tea partier many years ago. I believe you have repented from the dark side, and you are now one of my favorite bloggers.


    • Thanks, Jim. I am sure we had some discussion on politics and religion, as I could not talk about much else in those days, so animated was I about my conservatism. Thus, that is why this is “A Blog of Repentance.” I just hope that the things I write these days helps counter the things I wrote and said when I was, indeed, on “the dark side.”


  20. Garret Fitzgerald

     /  October 4, 2012

    the thing I don’t understand…you wrote well, you had a logical perspective…but how do you get this locked into the sound and fury of the conservative meme machine? How does a thinking person just buy unthinkingly into an absurd paradox of reality- how can a society exist when its every man for himself?


    • Garret,

      Obviously I did not perceive my conservatism as expressing an “absurd paradox of reality.” I actually believed liberals were in the wrong, and had a particularly wrongheaded view of human nature and how folks can best live together. They were the ones who believed in an absurd paradox of reality.

      For me, it was all tied up with my evangelical Christianity, which I was taught as a kid, lost in my teens, and then rediscovered in my early twenties. My mother (who, by the way, was a Humphrey Democrat) had purchased a set of science encyclopedias when I was about nine or so and reading them helped me see the relationship between evidence and conclusions. But I also had the competing view in my head that religion is a special kind of knowledge, one that relied on faith instead of reason and evidence.

      While I bought into that “faith” idea, I always had in the back of my mind the notion that evidence should matter. It nagged and nagged at me all the time, especially when I studied the Bible, which I did all the time in my conservative days. I would come across a passage or story that made absolutely no sense and I would have these depressing doubts that my faith was ridiculously misplaced. But I kept on for a long time, hoping it would all come together in some kind of revelatory miracle. But it never did, despite almost non-stop reading of my favorite thoughtful Christian writers, the great C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.

      Concurrent with my evangelical revival, I found William F. Buckley and then Joseph Sobran and other conservative thinkers. I can’t tell you how much I admired Buckley. I watched “Firing Line” faithfully, even recording hours and hours of it to watch over and over again (I still have them on VHS). I collected his older books, bought his new ones, and read National Review cover to cover. Buckley was, to me, an impressive man with an impressive intellect. How could such a mind be wrong?

      Eventually, some personal events led me to earnestly question the soundness of my evangelical faith, which in turn slowly led me out of the prison of evidence-less thinking, which led me to question all my beliefs. I didn’t immediately abandon conservatism, though. It took a little longer to shed those beliefs, especially since I so admired Buckley and Sobran and other conservatives. What helped finally was my work in my labor union. I became a shop steward and later president and realized that the people I was representing were being hurt by the politicians I was supporting, especially the people George W. Bush had put in the federal bureaucracy (I was in the federal system) who were actively working against the people I had pledged to help.

      I realized that politics was not just an abstract exercise for me, but had real consequences, ones that I could see. Thus, I also came to see just what you said, that a society cannot exist, at least as a civilized society, with a dog-eat-dog ethic. Unionism served as the basis for me to understand that cooperation can generate power over tyranny, whether it be workplace tyranny or other forms.

      Once the chains were broken, I was for once free to entertain all kinds of ideas, entertain them on their merits and not as part of an ancient faith or a rigid ideology. As I have stated before, I don’t want my present day liberalism to become as rigid as my past conservatism, in terms of an unquestioning loyalty to it. My loyalty these days, as a liberal but not exclusively as a liberal, is to ideas that advance human well-being, a well-being that is informed by science and common sense.



      • Thank you for this.

        As someone who was brought in the Evangelical faith, it must have been rather interesting to see how many conservatives — even allegedly godly ones like Mark Sanford of South Carolina — could back the atheistic devil-take-the-hindmost selfishness of Ayn Rand. (See also here: http://www.mediaite.com/print/mark-sanford-on-ayn-rand-in-newsweek-a-fountainhead-of-huh/ ) Sanford has no problem with the selfishness, it’s her atheism that bothers him.

        (Since I brought up Sanford, I also note that South Carolina’s gentry were the most rabid backers of slavery during 18th and 19th centuries, to the point where they not only were the fomenters of secessionist talk ever since they joined the original union in 1788, but almost didn’t join the union because they and their fellow slaveholders in Georgia didn’t like the efforts to ban slavery. But I digress.)


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  1. My Confession | spinnyliberal
  2. Why He Left The GOP And Why You Should Too « The Erstwhile Conservative: A Blog of Repentance

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