Before the gap between the tedious shit onscreen and my need to get actual work done before Netroots Nation, I noticed that a handful of candidates—especially Michele Bachmann—were playing the Youstabee card, i.e. I or others used to be Democrats, then we saw the light and changed sides. To hear some of the Republicans talk, upwards of 95% of Republican voters pulled the lever for Carter, Clinton, or even Obama, but now are chagrined and ready for redemption through the destruction of Medicare. I found it interesting, because the Youstabee thing, well, used to be a lot more popular on the right but it's faded in recent years and a lot of people who were play-acting like they had liberal sympathies until some trial by fire put them on the Republican path just gave up on it. Now it's come back with a vengenance; it's clearly the trend with Republican campaign consultants. The people in the audience seemed to be eating it up, too. My favorite part was when Bachmann implied that the Tea Party is mostly made up of Democrats and independents who converted. In fact, 66% are Republicans, and the rest are probably lying to pollsters about it because they're invested in the conversion story narrative.
I've never completely wrapped my mind around why the conversion story is so important to Republicans, especially conservative Republicans. I mean, on one hand, everyone likes a convert to their cause. There are certainly outspoken Democrats who used to be Republicans, including Arianna Huffington, David Brock, and well, myself. And Charles Johnson and John Cole, too. But on the whole, most of us decline to trumpet the fact that we were persuaded and changed our minds. David Brock is the exception, but he was such a rat when he was a Republican that only a very public atonement would even begin to get people to trust him. I'm sure many of you are surprised that I ever considered myself a Republican, because I don't talk about it. That's for two reasons. One, I was really young and stupid and like most people was just following in my parents' footsteps, and the period didn't even last that long because the incongruity between who I am and what Republicans stand for was far too great, which means I don't really consider that period of my life to be one that counts in any meaningful way. I converted in time to vote against Bush for Texas governor in his second term. I may have been a virgin longer than I was a Republican, though I can't remember for sure. The second reason is that it's shameful. It makes me cringe to think that I even considered the possibility that Republicans made sense, though to my credit, they still let reasonably sensible people in the party back in the 90s.
The other big difference between people who converted left and those who converted right is that the former group doesn't have a bunch of pretenders in it. Statistically, it's impossible for there to be as many Youstabees in the Republican party as people claim. Social science has amply demonstrated that party switching isn't really that common. People who are actually persuaded by the evidence are really rare (and tend to move from right to left anyway). Most people pick a party affiliation and then rationalize their choice. The number one predictor of your party affiliation is your parents.
So why does the belief that their ranks are full of people who used to be Democrats have so much sway over Republicans? I think part of it is that conversion actually did play a big role in shaping the modern Republican party. The one exception to the "people generally don't switch" rule is when the Democrats passed the Civil Rights Act and racist white voters in the South stampeded to the Republican party in protest. Without that, they wouldn't really have much of a party, so I think there'a lingering sense that they need to replenish their ranks with people who might have Democratic inclinations, but who, at the end of the day, choose their bigotry over common sense. But I don't think that's really true; the question was never, for bigots, a matter of their bigotry vs. their other concerns. It was always what party was welcoming to bigots, and up through the 50s, the answer was "both". When that stopped being true, they flocked to the Republican party, and that's basically become their brand.
I think another part of it is that there's a lot of Baby Boomers in the Republican party who are envious of their hipper, more liberal Boomer brethern. They've never gotten over the fact that it was the more liberal, hippie cohort of their generation who "won" the 60s. The Boomers that people think of when they think of that era weren't the Haley Barbour and George Bush sorts, jocks and rednecks lurching around in pick-up trucks threatening to beat up hippies and civil rights activists. The people who are the icons of the era were the people who rioted at the '68 Democratic convention and went to Woodstock. By pretending that the modern Republican party is a bunch of converts, the unhip Boomers who make up a large percentage of the party can pretend they were right there with the hippies, and totally cool too! They had Beatles records, that counts, right? But let's face it. It doesn't.
I also think that the association of Republicanism with bigotry and small-minded stupidity has a lot to do with the allure of the conversion story. There are definitely Democrats who play the "I'm a progressive, not a Democrat" card, but it's not really that big a thing. There's a huge amount of psychological energy on the Republican side in trying to distance themselves from their images as small-minded bigots. One strategy is declaring yourself a "libertarian". (Ron Paul clearly not knowing what either a Blackberry or an iPhone is probably was another nail in the coffin for using "libertarian" to try to pass yourself off as a hip Republican.) Calling yourself the Tea Party is a new version of this, though it's definitely of a more populist and less trying-to-be-hip flavor. And then you have the conversion story. If you claim you used to be a Democrat, but then saw the light, you're basically claiming (falsely in many cases) that you actually considered liberal arguments seriously, but decided the President is a secret Muslim anyway.
Of course, needless to say, there's an evangelical Christianity component to all this as well. If you read a lot of evangelical writing, you'll find that like half of them used to be Satan worshipping drug addicts who spent their weekends at orgies, but now Jesus is their savior. Conversion is a language that evangelicals speak fluently, and it's spread to the rest of the Republican party.