David Frum’s recent attack on Republicans says more about him than it does about them.
New York Magazine just published a pretty comprehensive critique of the GOP by David Frum. Frum thinks the Republican Party is way off track — beyond simple policy mistakes to deep character flaws.
I wanted to like what he wrote. I really did. There are so many things I would like to see the GOP do differently. I live in Colorado Springs, where “conservative” means an odd blend of neocon nationalism and libertarianism (it’s like living on Hannity). It’s frustrating to interact with every day, so I can sympathize with much of Frum’s viewpoint. The right-wing norms that pass for conservatism today do need to be challenged and rethought in light of 21st century policy conditions.
But unfortunately, Frum’s piece seems to be more about pandering to his predominantly liberal audience than it is about making a serious philosophical challenge to the Republican status quo.
First, a quick summary of Frum’s arguments. He says the GOP of the Cold War got things right—about inflation, taxes, foreign policy. But now, the Republican Party is just a mouthpiece for elitism and paranoid populism. It is dominated by radicals, and Frum lists reasons why that won’t change any time soon; particularly: (1) fiscal austerity and economic stagnation, (2) ethnic competition, (3) Fox News and talk radio. An early paragraph puts his perspective in a nutshell:
“America desperately needs a responsible and compassionate alternative to the Obama administration’s path of bigger government at higher cost. And yet: This past summer, the GOP nearly forced America to the verge of default just to score a point in a budget debate. In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed. In the face of evidence of dwindling upward mobility and long-stagnating middle-class wages, my party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners. When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.”
Naïve Assumptions, Liberal Stereotypes, and Dead Horses
Unfortunately, the case that Frum makes is intellectually lazy. This isn’t new for Frum, who last year was a leading proponent of the silly and short-lived “No Labels” movement. In this case, his argument too often depends on naïve assumptions, liberal stereotypes of conservative positions, and beating dead horses. An example of each:
Naïve assumptions. Frum thinks the GOP should have tried to “conservatize” Obamacare rather than oppose it. The Democrats had control of the government at the time and were thrilled to finally be able to pass their dream healthcare legislation–debate was minimal, legislative tactics dirty, and concessions almost nonexistent (except for the single-payer idea for which they couldn’t garner even enough liberal votes). I applaud Frum’s faith that the hated Republicans could have overcome all this. But to think the Republicans could have had a conservative influence on a fundamentally Progressive bill, let alone hijack the bill, makes me think Frum has been spending too much time outside the camp that kicked him out (more on that later).
Liberal stereotypes of conservative positions. Speaking of which, Frum frequently reveals a perception of Republican attitudes that can only have been shaped by buddies who are not themselves Republicans. Reread that except above, and you’d swear it was written by Maureen Dowd, not a man who is keen early on to establish his conservative street cred. I didn’t like everything about the way GOP leadership handled the debt ceiling issue, but those folks were concerned about out-of-control spending and saw an opportunity to force the Dems to confront the issue. Maybe they were playing chicken, but it wasn’t to score a cheap political point. Similarly, Republicans care about low income tax rates because they firmly believe in a trickle-down economic policy—when government policies encourage Steve Jobs to create an innovative business and get rich, the rest of us wind up with iPhones and more money with which to buy them. Again, disagree with the economic policy or not, their position is a good-faith one; only someone who doesn’t spend much time with Republicans would buy the idea that the only reason they support their economic policies is that they hate poor people and love super-rich people.
Dead horses. Pretty obvious: there was a market for Fox News and talk radio because the alternatives all leaned leftward. MSNBC is every bit as radical as its right-wing counterpart, and the predominance of liberal editorial boards created the market for conservative talk radio. Talk shows are inherently radical, because what makes good policy isn’t what makes good TV. And your average person probably does take his cue too much from Sean Hannity or Chris Matthews. But that’s not a conservative phenomenon. To blame the unique ills of an era’s political party on overheated rhetoric is, as 1800s campaign ads remind us, a bit short-sighted.
The GOP: the Party of the Super-Rich and the Not-Super-Rich?
The result of this intellectual laziness is that Frum yearns for a mythical golden age of wonderful GOP politics (an understandable if harmful tendency conservatives have), and gets a lot of facts about the present age wrong. For one thing, those Republicans he spends the entire article criticizing—he doesn’t even seem to know who they are.
Frum specifically mentions two groups as the “Republican voting base”—the super-rich and disaffected white people.
As numerous social scientists have demonstrated, the rich don’t vote Republican in anything like the numbers liberals imply. Dr. Andrew Gelman at Columbia led a team that did statistical analyses of these kinds of voting patterns. They found that there is only a slight edge for Republicans among people making $100k or more—52%. And rich states (i.e. where rich people live in large numbers) vote overwhelmingly Democratic. On top of that, as Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, the favored punching bag of the Left—Big Business—has every incentive to favor Democratic candidates, because huge corporations can survive high taxes and heavy regulations but their competitors can’t.
Then there are the disaffected working-class white people. That group has been a major deciding factor in most presidential elections in recent decades, and has been referred to with different names; values voters, Reagan Democrats, the Silent Majority, etc. But as Henry Olsen documented earlier this year in National Affairs, they aren’t Republican. They swing back and forth, consistently voting for the candidate who seems least likely to shake up their status quo (for example, they tend to vote against the guy who raised taxes, but they also tend to vote against the guy who cut their entitlement benefits). To call them the Republican voter base is disingenuous; it would be more accurate to call them the winner’s voter base.
And these two examples—the super-rich and the disaffected working-class whites—raise another question about Frum’s logic: how can the GOP be super-elitist and super-paranoid-populist at the same time? At one moment, Frum is saying the GOP is only about furthering the interests of the super-rich, but at another he is telling us its voter base is white people who don’t have a college degree. Those poor white people must be terribly self-sacrificing with their voting habits. In any case, if it’s possible to be elitist and populist at the same time, as Yuval Levin pointed out just this morning, such a thing has been a hallmark of the Progressive Left more than that of the Right.
The Tebow Effect
This takes us to the question of why Frum would write such a poorly thought-out assault on Republicans in a publication Republicans don’t read.
Lots of people lately have attacked Denver quarterback Tim Tebow for being—as far as I can make out—too humble. This reveals a lot more about them than it does about Tebow. Frum has provided us with similar insights.
One thing Frum is careful to work into his article—repeatedly—is the fact that he was fired by AEI (as he tells it) for not being Republican enough. In fact, the thing he seems to be most frustrated about is the fact that Republicans don’t listen to him. And he chose to air this view in a non-conservative media outlet, using non-conservative terminology and logic to appeal to liberal biases. I’m sure his readers are glad for another set of reasons to disagree with people they disagree with, but I’m not sure who benefits.
I’m not in the business of questioning somebody else’s motives (Frum did enough of that in his own piece). But I do know you don’t reform one political party by pandering to the other party’s readers with their own misinformed views. A true prophet has to be a lot more thoughtful, a lot more insightful, and a lot more accurate.
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Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.