Left, Right And The Need For Certainty

I have a theory.

Way back when, when I was in college, a distant cousin of mine earned the opprobrium of the rest of our large, extended family by joining the university’s Young Socialist organization and participating in protests that received significant negative media coverage and prompted politically motivated and ultimately dismissed criminal charges. Interestingly, at the time, and despite the fact that I was one of the clan’s most politically conservative members, I was a lonely voice defending his exercise of his constitutional rights…

Fast forward some thirty plus years, and that cousin had morphed into an equally enthusiastic–and dogmatic– right-winger. He’d become a rightwing caricature. (I haven’t seen him in years, so don’t know whether he went “all the way” and embraced Trump and MAGA.)

I thought about that cousin’s ideological transformation when I read Michelle Goldberg’s recent review of Naomi Klein’s book “Doppleganger.” Klein traced the similar political turn of Naomi Wolf, with whom Klein has often been confused. Wolf, for those who are unfamiliar with her, was a once-liberal feminist icon who turned into an anti-vax Steve Bannon sidekick.

Klein and Wolf, both brown-haired middle-aged Jewish women writers, are often mistaken for each other. That became a growing problem for Klein as her reputation was tainted by Wolf’s escalating lunacy. Trapped at home by the pandemic, Klein became increasingly obsessed by Wolf’s transformation into a heroine of Covid truthers.

That obsession, in turn, guides Klein into an examination of what she calls “the Mirror World,” the vertigo-inducing inversion of reality common to contemporary far-right movements. Think, for example, of Vladimir Putin claiming that he’s liberating Ukraine from fascism or Donald Trump howling that his multiple prosecutions are a racist plot to subvert a presidential election. When I spoke to Klein recently, she described how jarring it was to watch protests against Covid measures appropriating left-wing language — common slogans were “I can’t breathe” and “My body, my choice” — making them “this weird doppelganger of the movements that I had been a part of and supported.”

Klein’s book explores this “upside-down” world, attributing the exchange of beliefs largely held by those on the political left to an equally firm adherence to those on the right, to

a half-joking formula to explain onetime leftists or liberals who migrate to the authoritarian right: “Narcissism(Grandiosity) + Social media addiction + Midlife crisis ÷ Public shaming = Right wing meltdown.”

I have a somewhat different take on these transitions, undoubtedly influenced by my observation of the U-turn taken by my cousin. If there are any psychiatrists or other mental health professionals reading this, I’d welcome your reaction to my theory.

Here’s my analysis.

We live–as we all recognize–in a time of rapid social change. Those changes challenge the various verities with which most of us were raised, and with which we have become comfortable. Every day, it seems, we encounter evidence questioning–or worse, disproving– things that we have believed to be fact. We are absolutely marinating in ambiguity–we live in a world that is increasingly painted in shades of gray, and in which we enounter proliferating evidence that what we knew wasn’t really so.

Some people can cope with that growing lack of certainty. Others cannot. It has nothing to do–again, in my humble opinion–with intellect or its lack.

Think about the number of highly intelligent, prominent people who began as Conservatives and now are Liberals–and those who have migrated in the other direction. (I’ll exclude politicians–like Ronald Reagan–whose transitions might be attributed to political advantage.) Lefties who, like my cousin, became right-wingers include people like Irving Kristol, Jean Kirkpatric and David Horowitz…

None of these people are dummies. But if I was a wagering woman, I would bet that all of them share a profound need for certainty and a corresponding terror of ambivalence and ambiguity– a deep need for a world that can be understood in shades of black and white, right and wrong, correct and erroneous.

When emerging realities fundamentally challenge beliefs held by people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity, those peoople are much more likely to substitute a different, equally firm belief system than they are to accept the complications and confusions that accompany uncertainty. The content of the ideology is ultimately less important than its function, which is to provide a predictable, permanent foundation for encountering and interpreting the world around them.

Sometimes, as Klein notes, that “exchange” of belief systems is prompted by negative events. In Wolf’s case, it was evidently negative publicity over inaccuracies in a book.

Whatever the trigger, a deep-seated need for orthodoxy–for a firm belief system to cling to– explains a lot….


  1. A public defender friend of mine once said that a number of his clients left prison and joined fundamentalist churches because they sought that black-and-white version to keep themselves from returning to prison. As a social worker, I think he was onto something, as you are in this writing.

  2. What is certain is this lengthy article on why the black community along with everyone else is getting hammered.
    Our current government is getting more revenue and spending mote money according to investment gurus which bodes poorly for investors trying to retire.


    6.1% annualized inflation over three years! Thats certainly the worst in 40 years

  3. Having worked inside Indianapolis City Government from 1972 under Mayor Lugar, through the 16 progressive years of Mayor Hudnut and into the 2 years, 3 months and 11 days under Goldsmith; I watched the rapid internal destruction of working government and the lies fed to the public which upheld the Republican control of this city. Fast forward to 2016 and the appointment of Donald Trump to the presidency which has led to the full “outing” of the criminal underbelly of the federal and many of the states using the name “Republican” which is using the boilerplate of mafia control by destruction and violence.

    “When emerging realities fundamentally challenge beliefs held by people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity, those peoople are much more likely to substitute a different, equally firm belief system than they are to accept the complications and confusions that accompany uncertainty.”

    I believe it is that “uncertainty” that is what has the generations of staunch Republicans continuing to vote Republican, believing the party will return to the sane level of leadership they have always trusted and followed. Do the voters realize the loss of Mitt Romney is a loss of that return or do they view his announcement as him deserting them or are they glad to see him not return because they do not understand his loss is their loss…and ours?

    “Left, Right And the Need For Certainty!” The infighting within the Left and the Right is endangering any Certainty of salvation of democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution of the United States of America.

  4. For that portion of the population that does not need all of that “certainty”, Tom Hanks summed it up best in his film Forest Gump. “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”

  5. In line with what DebG shared, I have witnessed MANY troubled people join 12 step groups (AA and others) and become rigid fundamentalist within the group. EVERYTHING they believe and repeat MUST come out of that ONE BOOK. It is a simple clear route and I guess they need the structure. But goodness… read another book.

  6. “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer (1951) described the same psychological quirk — believers doubling down on discredited “certainties” and/or pivoting to opposite “certainties”. His explanation was similar — the need for certainty. (Eg, I recall 2 examples: William Miller’s “End of the Worlders” doubling down more strongly after his first predicted date failed; some pre-war German communists pivoting to Nazism and post-war Nazis embracing communism,

  7. Interesting.

    Are there any ideas available for how those of us who don’t need ‘certainties’ can sway or change the minds of the extremists to more rational thinking?

  8. With regard to Nancy’s question, it is not likely that those who need certainty will be receptive to rational thinking, because rational thinking involves questioning, and that is something they do not seem to be capable of.

  9. If your belief system consists of shallow underpinnings, moving from left to right could be as easy as resentment.

    I know a leftist who got sideways with a group of feminine activists. It wasn’t overnight, but he started embracing far-right beliefs shortly thereafter. He wasn’t conscious of his transformation.

    Fear of the uncertain could certainly trigger such a transformation. Clinging to religion, then associating with Republicans because of the “conservative angle.”

    I know one woman who struggled with an abortion she had early in life. She found solace in religion and then became a Trumpist-republican.

    As for the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a textbook on change by living one day at a time. It also recommends a personal higher power, so it’s very liberal. I know the operator of our local mission doesn’t like sending men to AA because it’s “too liberal.” His words.

    I’ve witnessed many transformations within twelve-step programs because they are about changing the person. Addiction isn’t about the drug or drink — it’s about the person’s way of thinking and acting. Each spiritual experience brings about new thoughts and beliefs.

  10. This need for certainty by affluent Caucasian shut-ins is the raison d’ trete of electing the inept Biden & Harris administration.

    Keep the comfortable comfortable whilst the remaining drown in the cesspool of this administration’s own making.

  11. I went to college looking for certainty by being surely right at least about something and also because the guidence counselor pointed out that I was unique among my 100 student class, then the center of my universe. I thought maybe she was just parroting my parents (and what do adults know anyway).

    I found there my god of certainty, science, where everything was based on documented measured universal reality. Exams tested absolute certain knowledge based on the exact percentage of answers that precisely matched my notes from lectures. That was much more certain than any of my Herkimer experience had been including much forcible bibical training which embarrassed me because it showed a learning disability evidenced by my lack of faith after. I thought that faith was correct in Herkimer and my father was secretly out of step too.

    I did find those things that I was searching for, but also an unexpected surprise showed up in everyone else of those times and that particular place, the religion of racism believed with evangelical certainty and fervor. I still became somewhat average anyway instead of an out of step geek in high school. I got grades that surprised me and the first time joy of approval from my then 600 mile distant parents (further away than I ever thought I would travel alone but accomapnied by folks I met on the road when I hitchhiked) but also an equal ferver among my new friends as well.

    Suprisingly to me, I ran into my future wife at home to which I, until then, reluctantly returned to only in the summer to make $1.50 an hour, the weathest I ever dreamed of being because of my low personal expense until I met her. She confirmed what I had been taught, invest selfishly in what most interested me.

    I guessed that I happened to be born in the wrong house and place, Herkimer, NY.

    However racism never made sense to me, like religion never did.

  12. According to one perspective life is all process, movement, change, and this terrifies fat too many people. This retired social worker/psychotherapist agrees with your (Sheila’s) view. I also agree with pascal’s comment. According to a recent column by Bobby Azarian, a cognitive neuroscientist, it takes more work to think things through than to just accept them, so that a black and white view is our default operation. This can work in either polar direction, i would guess, far left, or far right.
    Republicans have been characterized as generally more anxiety prone than Democrats, and thus this all fits together. Certainty obviates anxiety.

  13. Ian, if you think the Biden/Hrris administration is “inept” you are simply buying into the right-wing propaganda.

  14. When the “certainty” one believes in/lives by is “whatever I want it to be” we have pure chaos. Such is the current culture, its language, mores, ethics. This further breeds the “micro-certainties” of political and social tribes. IGIO.

  15. It’s unfortunate that we homo sapiens (or homo saps, as my old World Politics professor insisted on calling us) need certainty in a world of change because, as I often write, change is certain and is itself subject to change, as now, what with political upheaval and looming AI-caused uncertainties both now and forthcoming. Such need could spring from an innate Darwinian need to survive in an unknown environment, an adaptation which is available in a known and secure world of cause and effect but absent in world of change where the nature of change as a measuring stick of ambiguity and our reaction to it is itself changing.

    I don’t know whether the foregoing sheds any light on what Sheila has set forth today or even that the changes we are witnessing and our reaction to them can be measured by conventional means, which I leave to neurologists and psychologists, who for starters can perhaps explore how and why some alcoholics become leaders in AA along with exploration of how and why (as Sheila has noted today) left-wingers gravitate to become right-wingers – and vice versa.

  16. The need for certainty may be a driver, but when it comes to the appeal of Trump I think rank and file Republicans are looking for a dictator to save them from what they perceive as tyranny. That is some real weapons-grade cognitive dissonance, is what that is, right up there with killing for peace.

  17. I highly recommend the old Bob Dylan classic “The Times They Are Achangin’.”. It’s one of my all time favorites. Change is the only real constant, so embrace it. If you do, you’ll have a happier life.

  18. I think the need to see the world as black and white/right and wrong must be hard wired into a lot of human beings. I also think a lot of things in our culture hammer on this idea, where everything is a competition and there has to be a winner and there’s a looser. Think from how at a young age all of our sports hammer home that life is a competition and there are only winners and losers.

    If you can find a group of like minded individuals that “own the libs” then your’e the WINNER! If you can zing out that facebook meme that proves your point, then you’re the WINNER! The satisfaction of getting reinforcement (likes) adds to that dopamine rush. 99% of the time things aren’t so black and white as that meme and posting something like “It Depends”, isn’t going to make you that winner.

    So yeah, I think there a lot of people out there that have the hardwired need for certainty and and to be part of what feels like a winning crowd.

  19. It’s the authoritarian personality type. Conservatives are wired to avoid chaos. Liberals are wired to embrace it. Thus diversity, art, tolerance, etc. vs. central authority, security, stability. The GOP is now just a machine to exploit the uneducated authoritarian mind. The liberal turned conservative is someone who took comfort in the illusion of left wing ideological structure but then found that liberalism is inherently unstructured. Some earthquake occurred and they ran to what appeared to be the stronger building. Never mind that in an earthquake the stronger building falls harder. They are not educated enough to understand that or so driven by their emotional need for stability that they ignore reality to avoid the pain of ambiguity.

  20. Pete. Your phrase “my god of certainty, science…”, jolted me because so many people think that science IS based on certainty when it is actually a process of constant questioning and discovery. In the field of science, there is no certainty, only probabilities. Unfortunately, their misunderstanding is reinforced by the way science is taught to children. So we wind up with a large segment of society (including some science teachers) who see no difference between religious thinking and scientific thinking.
    You can’t teach a child what you, yourself, do not understand and, in my experience, most elementary school science teachers lack the understanding to teach science as a process of learning rather than the absorption of a body of ” facts”. Maybe that has changed in the 20 plus years since I retired, but I doubt it.

  21. “Therefore, everyone who hears these sayings of mine and does them will be like a discreet man who built his house on the rock. And the rain poured down and the floods came and the winds blew and lashed against that house, but it did not cave in, for it had been founded on the rock. Furthermore, everyone hearing these sayings of mine and not doing them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain poured down and the floods came and the winds blew and struck against that house, and it caved in, and its collapse was great.”(Matthew 7: 24 – 27)

    Building a house on bedrock can make it extremely resistant to a structural disaster.

    In the Bizarro world, you have what’s right is wrong, what’s up is down, what’s in is out, and what’s good is bad. Maybe it can be called the vice versa world.

    I think the pretext of the article is pretty accurate, some people need to be aggrandized, and therefore they become self-aggrandized! If they can delve into the bizarro world to accomplish that, they are all in! They’re notariety is increased because now they’ve lept to the other side of the fence. They’ve defected and therefore are heroes! Mostly it’s that cry for attention, with, the possibility of a burgeoning godship, a Messianic wannabe.

    When we decide that they’re really are no laws but the ones we prefer, isn’t that like the inmates running the asylum? Does government ask the criminals what laws they would like to ignore and then get rid of them? Although it does happen sometimes. Rolling back regulations like Glass-Steagall and they wonder why there was a collapse in 2008.

    “The naive person believes every word, But the shrewd one ponders each step.” (Proverbs 14: 15)

    All of this I have seen, and I applied my heart to every work that has been done under the sun, during the time that man has dominated man to his harm. (Ecclesiastes 8:9)

    So then we have to ask, who are the ones in the bizarro world? Who is actually right and who is actually wrong? Does morality actually exist in fifty shades of Gray? Are guidelines meant to be ignored? Is knowledge more important than wisdom? So many questions!

  22. I don’t believe any of us here are looking for certainty; we are aware that nothing is certain but uncertainty just as we know not to expect all Intelligent information from AI but know the chances of garbage in/garbage out are the same with current information sources. Those with options to search further for facts and additional information are our safest choices other than going directly to the source.

    We can now uncross our fingers that Trump’s Georgia election interference trial will happen in time to remove him from his presidential campaign. He and his cohorts remain so far above the law that it is more a certainty that they will never be prosecuted than that we will see a trial before the end of this decade.

  23. My former pastor once gave a sermon about fundamentalism – spiritually and politically – as opposed to a willingness to explore diverse views. (If he had a name for the latter, I’ve forgotten it.)

    Perhaps this is too judgmental, but it seems fundamentalists do not want to be exposed to, let alone analyze or embrace, anything that challenges or differs slightly from their own experience or biases. In a very non-political way, the same has been witnessed when traveling abroad with Americans who take umbrage when foreign restaurants only offer their local foods. I don’t understand folks who travel to see different parts of the world and then are offended on encountering the differences.

    There are now reports of fundamentalist GOP Christians who feel Jesus is too liberal for their tastes. I’m surprised it took this long. But lest we think this is limited to our own country, it has been going on before, during, and certainly ever since Jesus’ time on earth. When Pres. Jimmy Carter who is a southern Baptist Christian lamented the fundamentalists in America to Golda Meir, she sympathized, acknowledging problems with uncompromising fundamentalists in her own country.

    We can always learn new things and from new experiences, if only we’re open to learning.

  24. The three mottos carved into ttlhe pediment of the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece were: “Know thyself,” “Nothing to excess,” & “Certainty breeds insanity.”

  25. Sharon Miller on science – well said – thank you from a scientist

    Since we are bringing up books – I think Sheila is describing the phenomenon that Erich Fromm wrote about in Escape from Freedom – the desire for certainty, regardless of what it is.

    For a more humorous explanation of political change – a snippet of Alan Sherman’s “Harvey and Sheila”

    “Traded their used MG
    For a new XKE.
    Switched to the GOP,
    That’s the way things go.”

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