When the apple falls right of the tree

Why some people abandon their family’s left-wing politics and move to the right

Right wing kids Art: Matthew Fisher

Assessing political sentiments across entire generations is understandably difficult. Despite this, conventional wisdom says, on the whole, we end up further left than our parents. Yet there are some young people who buck the trend. I spoke to three conservatives with left-wing parents: a moderate Liberal, a Trump supporter, and a Burkean conservative.

“I’m a mod-Lib, so centrist but economically more conservative, but in terms of social issues, I would say I’m relatively progressive,” says Jennifer*, a USyd student studying Commerce and Law.

Jennifer’s parents were two of the 42,000 Chinese students granted permanent visas by Hawke’s Labor government following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

“China was a communist country — everyone had a similar amount of food to live with or had equal social welfare — so my parents are quite passionate about giving welfare to the disadvantaged.”

Jennifer considers her own politics to be more forward-focused than those of her parents. “They were born when communism came in full force, and I [don’t] think people had large aspirations for the future,” she says. “It was more a ‘live today to tell the tale’ kind of mindset.”

Jennifer’s difficulties with bureaucracy and “red-tape” while organising events for Youth Council pushed her towards favouring smaller government and arriving at university did little to change her mind.

She was approached by both the Young Liberals and Young Labor, but says “institutional battles within the left” turned her towards the right — despite admitting that there were people in the Young Libs who “didn’t really know much about politics”  and simply sought “networking benefits”.

Edward*, a law and criminology student at ANU who contracts for the Immigration Department, similarly points to the left to explain his step to the right.  “Prominent left-wing individuals that categorise a whole group in the right as alt-right white supremacists — that alienates a lot of people. It definitely alienated me.” He quickly continues, “As for gay marriage and things like that, I’ve never had a problem.”

Edward says he was significantly more left-wing in high school. “I was heavily pro-Obama. I still like the guy. If Trump didn’t happen, or the campaign wasn’t messy, I probably still would have been quite left-leaning because my parents were left-leaning and that was the way I always was.”

Edward recalls coming across a camera crew filming a protest on his way to class. “The news crew asked me a question and a bunch of the Socialist Alternative slapped a newspaper in my face and said I wouldn’t know because I’m a ‘rich, white bloke’. They didn’t even know a single thing about me.”

Tom* is at USyd, also studying law. However, he differs from Jennifer and Edward in several respects.

“No one likes a woe-is-me story, but I was a classic working class kid,” he says. “My parents were 21 when they had me, dad was a drug addict, single mum raised me. I would see my dad maybe once every couple of months, but I remember we bonded because my dad was so left-wing.”

When Tom turned 13, his dad gave him a copy of Das Capital. “When you’re a kid, there’s no other perspective, I was in my bubble.” 

Tom’s mum, meanwhile, is part of the Labor Party faithful. “She’s always voted Labor, she’ll vote Labor til she dies, but she doesn’t believe Bill Shorten knows what it’s like to be poor.”

In high school, Tom’s nickname was Trotsky because of his devotion to Marx and Russian history. “When you’re young it’s easier to hate than love. Marx told me that I could fix it all by just hating the bourgeoisie.”

When Tom arrived at St Paul’s College on a scholarship, his socialist beliefs resisted the sandstone assault until he began reading philosopher Edmund Burke, often called the father of conservatism. At the same time, he was disillusioned by what he saw as the dominant voice of the campus left; one that didn’t advocate for the working class.

“Studying law was another big thing. My dad used to say ‘you know why the law used to be in Latin? So our class could never understand it.’”  But amongst the law tomes, Tom says his perspective about the common law rapidly changed. “It looks at the values, traditions and practices of the ordinary person.”

A final factor in Tom’s politics was his family’s persistent happiness in spite of their poverty. “My step-father works in a concrete pit in the boiling sun six days a week. He never breathes a word of complaint. Yet I go to an air-conditioned office with these guys who are charging $800 an hour for their work and they just don’t shut up.”

For Tom, Marxism alone couldn’t explain his family’s content. “I think one reason is that they hold values important: family, love, affections, cultural institutions, tradition. What bonds tie us together? Conservatives want to protect those at all costs.”

But Tom is sure to add that reform is still necessary, that market solutions can’t fix everything, and that “neoliberalism is a dangerous idea”.

Indeed, each students’ embrace of right-wing ideas is punctuated by caveats and exceptions. This may be because they’ve spent considerable time developing a stance separate from their parents’. Alternatively, it may simply be that their positions are difficult to maintain.

*Names have been changed