Heading left: The stories of people who have moved from the political right to the left.

I asked in half a dozen left-wing sub-reddits for the stories of people who had moved from the right to the left and received well over one hundred responses, here is my synthesis on themes and patterns which emerged in the sample.

Brief notes on method

I don’t normally do qualitative research, I’m a quantitative sort. However I wanted to explore the ways in which political ideas change in a way which gave people the opportunity to tell their story. The self selected nature of the sample, and the unstructured nature of the responses we asked for, means that we cannot really draw inferences about proportions in the population.

As an added insurance for anonymity I’ve avoided quoting or singling out specific respondents here.


Generally speaking the stories came in a spectrum between two types, those which centred on leaving one’s parents homes, and those that that centred on other factors. There were plenty of intermediate types (e.g.- ‘my politics changed partially when I left home, but further events were needed to move me to the left proper.’.)

Agents of change

Most stories, with the exception of some cursory one sentence responses, mentioned multiple factors of change woven together in ways which were unique to different respondents. Some of the most common factors were:

Material difficulties or inequalities: Material factors taking many forms including encountering perceived injustice in the workplace, difficulty with financial circumstances etc. was a factor mentioned by many.

Encountering oppressed groups: Many also mentioned meeting people from previously demonised groups including LGBT people (especially trans people), people of colour, poor people etc.

Persuasive left-wing interlocutors: Many responses mentioned the role of encounters with left-wing interlocutors. Sometimes these were people known and encountered ‘in real life’ and sometimes these were authors, you-tubers etc.- e.g. Chomsky, Ehrenreich, Marx, Lindsey Ellis, Contrapoints.

Discovering left-wing youtubers: This is a subcategory of the above, but was a common enough response that it’s worth singling out.

Seeing the extent of material differences: A sizeable number of respondents reported that becoming aware of the magnitude of differences in wealth and income through first hand experience- e.g. moving to an area which has many wealthy and many poor people intermingled, or realising just how much certain people made after taking up a high end sales job- had a big effect on them.

Disgust with the right: Another common response. Whether the establishment right, or organs such as the right-wing You-Tuber network. Reasons for disgust included open racism, looseness with facts or reasoning and aggressiveness or cruelty,

Discovering one’s gender identity or sexual orientation: Perhaps unsurprisingly a reasonably (though not overwhelmingly) common answer.

Bernie Sander’s 2016 campaign for president: Quite a number of respondents gave this answer.

A shift in religious orientation: Much more common than I would have anticipated. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean a shift away from religion although it can be that, at least MANY respondents recorded that becoming more serious about religion moved them to the left.

Independent research: Many respondents identified independent, self driven research as important.

A winding road, not a straight jump

Generally speaking transformation was step-wise, and often travelled in many routes. We hear a lot about the right-libertarian to alt-right pipeline, but it seems there is also an important pipeline from conservative, to libertarian to left-wing. Other respondents went a different way, moving from conservative, to economically left-wing but socially right-wing, to fully left-wing. Still others travelled from the right, to establishment centrism, to the left. No respondent that I can recall described a sudden ‘road to Damascus’ moment (with only one possible exception).

I generally dislike thinking in terms of a ‘political compass’ with a social and economic axis, but a number of respondents did describe their experiences in terms of it, and it seems that transformation on one axis often eventually leads to transformation on the other.

And what has this come to teach us?

To my mind, the respondents answers reinforce the importance of honest, healthy, and where possible kind engagement. Simply existing in a way which challenges preconceptions is a very useful strategy. Many respondents talked about the importance of non-hostile interactions with left-wingers and/or oppressed groups.

Meeting even one person from the other side who is coherent, controlled and incisive can shake a lot of dogmas.

Of course, no one can be expected to be kind to those who are not being kind to them. Doing your best to engage constructively needs to be balanced with the situation and your own needs

Another big lesson here is that it’s important to meet people where they are and to accept even partial and imperfect changes in ideas, or changes in some ideas but not others, as victories. Very rarely are there complete jumps to the left all at once.

In the past I’ve argued for the value of trying to make differences in material circumstances salient, to show the magnitude of inequalities in a variety of ways- quantitative, narrative based, visual and so on- as an effective strategy for spreading left-wing concerns. To my mind, this research tended to support the value of this approach. Pictures, graphs, factoids- all worth a shot.

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