I have stated more than once in the comment threads of this blog that David Frum is one of the few sane voices left in the conservative movement. In fact, Joan Walsh of the liberal Salon.com, was quoted as saying, “FrumForum is the clubhouse for conservatives no longer willing to humor the crackpot fringe.” The reaction I get from my conservative readers is that Frum is a joke, a traitor, etc. etc. Conservative disappointment with Frum is not lost on the man himself. A year ago he wrote an examination of how he arrived at his views and as usual it made sense. Damn, it almost made we want to become a conservative.
Frum’s predilection toward criticizing his fellow conservatives can be broken into two categories:
Financial irresponsibility and bought politicians:
I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1996. And there I began to notice something disturbing. While the congressional victory of 1994 had ceased to produce much in the way of important conservative legislation, it sure was producing a lot of wealth for individual conservatives. They were moving from the staff offices of Congress to lobbying firms and professional associations. Washington (to quote something I’d write later) began to feel like a giant Tupperware party, where people you had thought of as friends suddenly seemed always to be trying to sell you something. Acquaintances of mine began accepting all-expense-paid trips to the South Pacific from Jack Abramoff.
George Bush narrowly won the presidency in 2000, and I was recruited to join the administration as a speech-writer. My initial brief was domestic policy and economics, and it soon become impossible to avoid noticing that the administration’s economic policies were not working very well.
Even as it fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration dramatically increased domestic spending (including the first permanent new entitlement program since 1974, the hugely costly prescription drug benefit for senior citizens). Taxes were cut in 2001 and 2003. Big deficits ballooned and a great consumption boom exploded. The stock market and the housing market soared — but median wages stagnated.
Conservative economic policies, which had saved the United States and the other advanced democracies from stagnation in the 1980s, suddenly seemed bereft of answers for the economic challenges of the 21st century.
This worried me. What worried me even more was how little it seemed to worry so many of my friends and colleagues from the conservative world and the Bush administration. A quarter century before, Ronald Reagan’s budget director David Stockman had famously said that it was the job of conservatives to attack weak claims, not weak claimants. We would creatively use the power of freedom to improve conditions for everyone. What had happened to that idealistic drive?
Even my conservative readers who hold Frum in disdain express disappointment about the Republican’s fiscal record between 2001 and 2007. So while they are annoyed at the messenger, they can’t deny the truth of the message. Fiscal conservatism during the 2000’s was a joke. Yet they hold fast to the belief that a GOP win this coming November will somehow change things. It will somehow put our economy on the right course. If past is prologue, as the saying goes, this is a pipe dream. But did conservatives simply lose their way financially in isolation? No, there were other factors, social factors that gave conservatives a pre-historic stench. The fact that Frum addresses this, the second category of his critique is really what pisses conservatives off.
Futile social reactionism and failure to change with the times:
So much of our energy was being absorbed instead by cultural battles left behind from the unfinished business of the 1960s and 1970s. Here, too often, we were on the wrong side of history: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we’d been fighting to protect the common-sense instincts of ordinary people from elite interference. Now, in the Terri Schiavo euthanasia case, with stem cell research, on gay rights issues, it was we who had become the interfering elite, against a society that was reaching its own new equilibrium.
Of course, that’s not how conservatives saw it. We saw a country divided in two, red states and blue, NASCAR vs. NPR, real America against the phonies in the cities. A movement that had begun as an intellectual one now scornfully pooh-poohed the need for people in government to know anything much at all. But expertise does matter, and the neglect of expertise leads to mismanagement and failure — as we saw in Iraq, in Katrina and in the disregard of warning signals from the financial market. It was under a supposedly pro-market administration that the United States suffered the worst market failure of the post-war era, and that should have sobered us. Instead, we rallied to Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber.
Disregarding evidence and expertise, we shrugged off warnings of environmental problems. One consequence: In 1988, the elder George Bush beat Michael Dukakis among voters with four-year degrees by 25 points. In 2008, Barack Obama won the BA and BSc vote, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Conservatives stopped taking governance seriously — and so Americans ceased to trust conservatives in government.
… on environmental issues, we have to follow the evidence where it leads — and on social issues we have to take our society as it is. If the world changes, we have to change with it. The refusal of so many of my fellow conservatives in the United States to adapt their thinking to facts and realities does not demonstrate their adherence to principle. It demonstrates a frivolous indifference to the responsibilities of political leadership.
The argument in which I’ve been engaged … is an argument (as I see it) over what conservatism should be: Is it a philosophy of government? Or is it an expression of cultural alienation? Is it politics or is it protest?
With horrible irony, I see my fellow conservatives in the United States opting out of politics at exactly the moment when they are most needed. The Obama administration is careening toward a more expensive and interventionist government, toward reckless spending and destructive taxation. This is where I came into politics 30 years ago, and I will stand again on the same side I stood then. But now as then, my side will only be successful to the extent it is knowledgeable, to the extent it is public-spirited, to the extent that it is based on evidence and research, to the extent that it advocates the greater good rather than the narrow interests and values of one class or one geographic section.
I don’t think of myself as having gone squishy. I think of myself as having grown sober. And my conservative critics? On them, I think the most apt verdict was delivered by Niccolo Macchiavelli, 500 years ago: “This is the tragedy of man. Circumstances change, and he does not.” [Bold emphasis added by me.]
Frum is dead on here. Intellect has been replaced by emotion. Regional, ethnic and racial self-interest has replaced a sense of service to the country as a whole. Ignorance has been embraced to the point that we stand by helplessly and can only laugh as a comedian uses a politician’s exact words to mock her. Well not everyone laughed. Those embracing the ignorance were offended. Suddenly the “little guy”, the ordinary guy, the real American is synonymous with the ill-informed ignoramus.
To put Frum’s argument another way, while our country is in the worst financial straits it has been in since the 1930’s, we are arguing about evolution vs creationism, whether gays should marry and Washington DC’s resemblance to 18th century British monarchy. To paraphrase Frum and broaden his statement a little, our government has ceased to take governance seriously and as a result many Americans no longer trust their government.
Frum is unfair to conservatives in only one way. We get what we tolerate. We eat up the foolishness spewed by Sarah Palin and Louie Gohmert as entertainment. It seems in this media age, that is all some of us want from government, to be entertained. If we demand serious governance by throwing out the Gohmerts and Bachmanns and relegating Palin to the gossip column then things might change. Frum doesn’t lay enough of the blame on the voter. But to get back to Frum’s point, since the GOP knows that the voting public is not sufficiently discriminating, then it falls upon them to clean up their act on their own. Republicans should openly hold the nonsense of Michele Bachmann up to public scorn. The more outrageous claims of Limbaugh should be explicitly repudiated by GOP politicians who wish to be taken seriously.
If conservatives don’t change their act soon, one of two things will happen. They will either lose in November, or perhaps even worse, they will win with nothing to bring to the table but social divisiveness and financial hypocrisy. David Frum has been trying to save Republicans from themselves. It is a shame they refuse to listen.