The American conservative movement has been forged by specially gifted intellectuals and communicators.
From Barry Goldwater to Thomas Sowell, to Rush Limbaugh, particular thinkers have emerged as once-in-a-generation leaders advancing the principles of limited government, federalism, constitutional originalism, religious liberty, and free market capitalism in their own unique styles.
However, not every influential conservative began on the Right.
Here are four conservative leaders who started their journeys on the Left, before becoming conservative converts later in life.
The Supreme Court’s most consistently conservative Justice began his journey as a “Black Panther type.”
Clarence Thomas — an appointee of George H. W. Bush — frequently participated in left-leaning campus activism as an undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross, where he was a member of the Black Student Union. One political scientist described him as a “pretty dedicated black militant” and “devotee of Malcolm X.”
One Yale professor told NPR,”In law school, he was a Black Panther type, a black power extremist of a certain sort.”
Thomas, who grew up in poverty in Georgia, reportedly encountered racism from white northerners as he attended law school at Yale University. However, Thomas’ mindset toward his white classmates began to change when a fellow law student named John Bolton — who would later become National Security Advisor, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and a lifelong friend — returned his lost wallet in 1972.
His shift to the right continued in 1975 after he received a copy of a newly-published book entitled “Race and Economics.” Thomas Sowell — who was rising as a highly influential conservative intellectual — articulated Thomas’ growing disagreement with the Left’s worldview.
Nobel Prize laureate and groundbreaking conservative economist Milton Friedman began his career advocating for massive government spending programs.
After earning his Master’s degree, Friedman and his wife worked as economists in FDR’s administration. As explained by the Future of Freedom Foundation, the University of Chicago graduate staunchly supported the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and other programs that drastically increased the size and scale of the federal government.
Though he opposed New Deal programs that controlled wages and prices, Friedman eventually declared that the entirety of the New Deal agenda was poorly founded.
“I was very young and unsophisticated, inexperienced, and I can’t swear to you that what I’m saying now is actually what I believed then,” he explained in one interview. “I must confess that probably I was thinking at that time more about my own interests and position than I was about these broader issues. So I think this is somewhat retrospective thinking rather than thinking at the time.”
Friedman released a book in 1963 explaining that the New Deal was “the wrong cure for the wrong disease.” He spent the remainder of his career advocating for careful, predictable expansion of the money supply — “monetarism” — as the ideal approach to enabling long-term economic growth.
Decades later, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reflected on Friedman’s change of mind: “You’re right, we did [the Depression]. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”
Conservative economist and commentator Walter Williams began his academic career as a self-described “radical.”
“I was more sympathetic to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King because Malcolm X was more of a radical who was willing to confront discrimination in ways that I thought it should be confronted, including perhaps the use of violence,” the longtime George Mason University professor told The Wall Street Journal in 2011.
“But I really just wanted to be left alone. I thought some laws, like minimum wage laws, helped poor people and poor black people and protected workers from exploitation,” he continued. “I thought they were a good thing until I was pressed by professors to look at the evidence.”
After interacting with the work of economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Friedman himself, Williams began to advocate for free enterprise as a moral and efficient economic system. As he explained in a PragerU video, “The free market calls for voluntary actions between individuals. There’s no coercion. In a free market, if I want something from you, I have to do something for you.”
The “Great Communicator” once pushed for left-leaning policies.
In his own words, Ronald Reagan — who would become Governor of California and the 40th President of the United States — began his political activism as a “near hopeless hemophiliac liberal.” According to the Heritage Foundation, Reagan voted four times for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and supported the Americans for Democratic Actions after the war.
Nevertheless, Reagan developed an aversion to communism during his tenure as head of the Screen Actors Guild. Fellow actor Sterling Hayden once stated that the advance of communism in Hollywood was halted by “a one-man battalion of opposition named Ronald Reagan.”
As a spokesman for General Electric, Reagan drew from books like Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and publications like National Review to draft speeches.
“Eventually what happened to me was, because I did my own speeches and did the research for them, I just woke up to the realization one day that I had been going out and helping to elect the people who had been causing the things I had been criticizing,” he later recounted. “So it wasn’t any case of some mentor coming in and talking me out of it. I did it in my own speeches.”
Reagan was a full-fledged conservative by the time he delivered his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of the Goldwater campaign in 1964.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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