Given the polarized nature of politics in this decade, it takes a certain amount of fearlessness to publicly switch teams– or even admit to a past reawakening. While certainly not alone in doing so, former Carter campaign staffer Rep. Michele Bachmann and former conservative gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington present a striking contrast in how to let the base down easy with news that you are or may have been playing on the wrong team. Simply put, it’s a lot easier to do when switch parties doesn’t necessarily mean switching beliefs systems– and yes, one is possible without the other.
Huffington has faced fierce criticism for her conversion to left-wing politics that Rep. Bachmann, while certainly fending off a barrage of criticism of her own, never had to deal with. Much of this, of course, has to do with the fact that Rep. Bachmann switched teams very early on in life, and aside from some work for the Carter campaign in college, while Huffington experienced this conversion very late in life, and at a very convenient time– during the darkest of the Bush years, when a market had opened for liberal dissent and vocal calls for big government. But it also have to do with the nature of the change in ideology and the climate in which it happened.
That Huffington was once a conservative before metamorphosing into the liberal web proprietor we know today is no secret; she had lent prior support for Newt Gingrich and professed belief in small government. Here’s how a Salon column from 2003 described her evolution:
Of course, Huffington’s current political incarnation — anti-SUV polemicist, diarist of corporate greed — is an unlikely development for a woman who came to American political prominence as the wife of oil magnate Michael Huffington… She was widely viewed as the brains behind [his] campaign, and when it failed, she went on to work with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then she began a slow, surprising evolution leftward — talking up the rumors of Warren Beatty’s presidential run, championing the candidacy of Republican insurgent John McCain, hosting the distinctly activist Shadow Conventions during the boring Democratic and Republican presidential-nominating gatherings in 2000, and finally, organizing the Detroit Project, which raised money and produced the controversial anti-SUV ads.
As the proprietor of the Huffington Post and author of several political tomes, it is difficult to recall her as anything but what she is today, but for those who saw her rise as a right-wing talking head, her current reinvention is difficult to reconcile. Take, for instance, an interview she did with Judge Andrew Napolitano on Freedom Watch, where the libertarian host asked point blank of her new position, “How can anyone take you seriously?”
Rep. Bachmann, in contrast, seems to take her days as a college liberal are mostly taken in jest, as she told a Michigan Republican gathering this year. “I’m a Minnesotan who had ‘DFL’ – that’s what we call Democrats in our state — stamped on my birth certificate,” she noted. This only changed when she read Gore Vidal‘s Burr, when “as a reasonable, decent, fair-minded person who happened to be a Democrat, I thought, ‘You know what? What he’s writing about, this mocking of people that I revere, and the country that I love?'” Unlike Huffington, one can see vestiges of the present Rep. Bachmann in her description of what she was like as a “liberal.”
What’s more, those on the right that condemn Huffington don’t do so simply because she abandoned their cause, but because she did so after having established herself with it. Experiencing a political conversion later in life and doing so in the political spotlight is nearly unforgivable in this highly polarized, futuristic world of 24/7 cable news and internet politistalking– a world, ironically, that Huffington had a great hand in constructing. It is not too different a phenomenon from what cost former Republican-turned-Democratic Senator Arlen Specter his seat in Congress. There is a point of no return in a public career from which one simply cannot survive as a respected political figure.
In Bachmann’s case, the switch was neither public nor as ideological as a change of label. She notes above that she was a Democrat by default. It is telling that she was a Democrat under Ford– given the insidious nature of the Watergate scandal, it would be wiser to distrust of the few remaining Republicans in the Ford era than of those looking for an alternative to seemingly endless corruption. And then there’s the eureka moment she thanks Gore Vidal for providing her. Nothing we know about Rep. Bachmann today would be incongruous with the idea that a book mocking the Founding Fathers would be offensive enough to her to prompt a political conversion.
For Huffington, it was the inconsistency of her beliefs that drove her to switch. She has admitted in interviews that her conversion was prompted by an increased trust in government. “I actually believed that the private sector would be able to address a lot of the issues that I believed were very important,” she told John Stossel in a 2008 interview. As much as Rep. Bachmann rails against the far-left extremism she sees in the Obama administration, there is no evidence she would not support a conservative Democrat who shared her beliefs on the size of government, because those haven’t changed.
The templates to follow for such conversions vary greatly, depending on the time and place in which each were enlightened, but to take the two at face value and claim that Huffington gets much more flak for having come from the right is to ignore a large set of factors that contributed to the lighthearted nature of young liberal Michele Bachmann turning into one of the more beloved and feared conservatives figures of our time and made the reverse phenomenon in Huffington far more controversial.
Update: A Huffington Post spokesman sent us the following statement:
I’m emailing you to correct inaccuracies in your story. Arianna Huffington did not for Governor of California as a conservative. She ran as an Independent. Furthermore, you claim that is was the “inconsistency of her beliefs” that caused her to change her politics. The truth is less dramatic: she has always been progressive on social issues — pro-choice, pro-gun control and, pro gay rights — even when she was a Republican. However, whereas she once believed the private sector would address America’s social problems, she realized first-hand that that wasn’t going to happen without government action.
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