Opinion

David Frum: Saviour of North America?

Good luck to the Canadian émigré trying to rescue the Republicans.

By Crawford Kilian 30 Mar 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Who's laughing now?

The American blogosphere lit up on March 21 over the heretical views of David Frum: The former Canadian and ex-Bush speechwriter had actually blamed his own Republicans for the triumph that day of Obama's health-insurance reform bill. The Republican Party, he said, had met its Waterloo.

Rightwing blogs predictably damned and blasted Frum, but the squabble took a surprising turn on March 25. Frum announced he'd been fired from his long-time job with the American Enterprise Institute, and attributed it to "donor pressure" on the AEI. Another survivor of the rightwing think tanks endorsed this view.

At National Review Online, a blogger publicly ended his friendship with Frum, calling him "despicable." Danielle Crittenden, Frum's wife, came to her husband's defence on The Huffington Post.

This is all very entertaining for American political junkies, but it has implications for Canada as well. Almost alone, David Frum is trying to rescue American conservatism from itself -- from the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins -- and to rebuild the intellectual framework of conservatism that carried the movement from the destruction of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the triumph of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

How think tanks changed us

Think tanks like AEI were very much a part of that framework. In 1996, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado published No Quarter: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda. They documented the long, patient process by which such organizations recruited economists and policy experts, and trained journalists to carry the message. Our own Fraser Institute performed the same service in Canada.

This slow work went on unnoticed in the background of the turbulent 1960s and '70s, while the New Deal coalition destroyed itself over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon, in hindsight, looks like the last moderate Republican; in reality, as Rick Perlstein shows in his 2008 book Nixonland, Nixon was a profoundly cynical politician who exploited moderates and conservatives alike.

Nixon's success, though, lay in identifying and attracting parts of the electorate that old-fashioned liberals had ignored or taken for granted: the southern racists abandoned by LBJ with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the urban hardhats who detested the pot-smoking, war-resisting college kids.

As Perlstein shows, a kind of low-grade domestic terrorism had broken out in the 1960s. Bigots were shooting civil-rights workers. Anti-war activists were bombing university buildings. Police rioted in Chicago, and National Guardsmen shot students at Kent State.

Reagan's coalition

Nixon astutely recruited the southerners and the hardhats. He used dirty tricks to sabotage the campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. (The young Carl Rove was an eager apprentice in those days, Perlstein tells us.)

But, ruined by Watergate, he couldn't build on this coalition. That was left to Reagan, and by the early 1980s, the think tanks full of right-wing intellectuals had framed the terms of the national debate in both the U.S. and Canada.

"Big" government was bad, "big" labour was bad, and public institutions (except for the military) were innately inferior to their private equivalents -- especially education, which had produced all those suspicious-looking intellectuals. Never mind that conservative governments spent their countries into awesome deficits in the name of national security.

While it took a little longer to establish itself in Canada, this ideological framework has dominated our own debates since Brian Mulroney. But Mulroney was too centrist to please his right-wingers, including Stephen Harper. The 1990s clash between Red Tories and the hard right gave the Liberals a temporary lease on life -- despite their obvious intellectual bankruptcy from John Turner through Chretien and Martin.

Frum, who had already made his name as a conservative in Canada, migrated to the U.S. and flourished like many other émigrés. He wrote speeches for George W. Bush (coining the famous "Axis of Evil" phrase), published books, and became a fixture in the mainstream media as well as the blogosphere.

But he remained an intellectual in a party that increasingly despised "elitism." The children and grandchildren of the 1960s southern whites and urban hardhats inherited their suspicion of brains. By 2008, the old-line moderate Republicans were out of power if not out of the party altogether.

Obama: Not the Antichrist

Rather than viewing the victory of Obama as the inevitable arrival of the Antichrist, Frum has respected Obama's political skills and tried to draw lessons from his success -- just as Nixon drew lessons from Jack Kennedy's use of television. (Perlstein tells us Nixon got his first training in this field from a young TV producer named Roger Ailes, now the head of Fox News.)

In effect, Frum was treating Obama intellectually, not morally. Hence his "Waterloo" rant, and the resulting uproar.

His onetime allies, however, are aggressively anti-intellectual, and enjoy moralizing about their enemies. Their world is clearly divided into good and evil, and only they are good. Apostates and heretics are doubly evil, deserving nothing but very loud contempt.

This may be as much fun as screaming at Emmanuel Goldstein during the Two-Minute Hate, as Winston Smith does in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it is no way to build and maintain a coherent framework for a revived conservatism.

Perhaps the think tanks can do it, but it will take a lot of people like David Frum to help them -- and such people are increasingly unwelcome in the Republican Party. Worse yet, American liberals need such a conservatism as much as conservatives do.

FDR rolled over the Republicans in 1932, and conservatism took almost fifty years to recover. Lacking any serious opposition, the Democrats ran out of ideas and took too many of their constituents for granted (especially those unionized hardhats who defected first to Nixon and then to Reagan).

Fighting a lie with a half-truth

Much the same can be said of Canada's Liberals. With the post-Mulroney Progressive Conservatives in disarray, and the Reformers penned up in the unimportant West, Chretien and then Martin let the country run on autopilot. Against a unified right, the Liberals in 2006 managed no more than a fighting retreat. Four years and three leaders later, they seem no better able to rebut the Conservatives than the post-9-11 Democrats could rebut the neo-cons.

If anything, North America's centre-left faces the yahoo right as Albert Camus faced the communists: "Fighting a lie with a half-truth." Harper's Conservatives -- evangelical disbelievers in evolution, global warming, and science in general -- have better manners than the Tea Party. But they too reject everything about 20th-century thought except its worst mistakes.

If we have to choose between barking loonies and semi-competent opportunists, we can predict that voting for the opportunists will only postpone the disaster. When you're the only game in town, sooner or later you'll be crooked. Then only the loonies can replace you.

From the wonderful folks who brought you Iraq

The last generation of conservative think-tank intellectuals paved the way for 30 years of deregulation, the strangling of public services, endless wars, enormous deficits, widening income gaps, and the Crash of 2008. Maybe Frum's generation can do better; it can hardly do worse.

But without some kind of political intelligence on the right, the left isn't likely to do much better. Democrats, Liberals and New Democrats alike will sink into complacency and self-congratulation.

Worse yet, they might pin their hopes on another Obama, or Trudeau, or Broadbent, rather than on framing programs that actually deal with our present and future troubles.

So, much as I reject David Frum's politics, I wish him well in his efforts to transplant a human cortex onto the lizard brain of the North American right.  [Tyee]

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