Wednesday, December 1, 2010

David Frum on the “Post-Tea-Party Nation”

by Michael Kaplan

David Frum wrote this critical piece on the challenge facing Republicans and the Tea Party after their victory in the 2010 elections. Frum, who is credited with writing the “Axis of Evil” speech for George W. Bush, has made a name for himself in recent years by leading, along with David Brooks, an insurgency to “reform” the conservative movement. This has earned Frum the enmity of Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin who accuse him of betraying core conservative principles to ingratiate himself with the liberal progressive elite. It may explain why the New York Times published this article.

Jacksonian populists are the main target of Frum’s critique. Frum sounds a lot like liberal progressives in his denunciation of Tea Party Jacksonians as anti-intellectual know-nothings—boobus americanus. And it is true, as I have pointed out in these posts, that anti-intellectualism is a major weakness of Jacksonian populist nationalism. But Frum goes too far with this. Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly, whom Frum points to as examples of Jacksonian ignorance, have developed thoughtful conservative critiques of Obama administration policies.

Frum’s Lesson 5 speaks to this: “Listen to the people — but beware of populism. Listen to the people and politicians who gather under the label ‘the Tea Party,’ and you are overwhelmed by the militant egalitarianism of their message, the distrust of elites, the assertion that the Tea Party speaks for ordinary Americans against a privileged ruling class.” Frum continues:

Non-Tea Party Americans may marvel that any group can think of itself as egalitarian when its main political goals are to cut off government assistance to the poorest and reduce taxes for the richest. But American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy. So much so that you might describe contemporary American politics as a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education: Jon Stewart’s America versus Bill O’Reilly’s, Barack Obama versus Sarah Palin.
Frum is right about that. Barack Obama embodies liberal, progressive, secular, cosmo-politan, elite, internationalist, “Bobo”America; while Sarah Palin embodies conservative, traditional, religious, provinical, populist, nationalist, Jacksonian America. This cultural polarization of two Americas has prevailed since the 1920s; think of Prohibition, flappers, and the Scopes Trial. “For that reason,” Frum concludes, “conservatives in recent years have ridden populist waves more successfully than liberals have done. Yet conservatives will not find it much easier than liberals to govern a society where so many people feel themselves cheated — and where so many refuse to believe that the so-called experts care for the interests of anyone beyond their narrow coterie and class.” What Frum refuses to concede is that Jacksonians have good reason to be suspicious of the motives of the political and cultural elites who have maligned and denigrated them.

The liberal progressive welfare state—Walter Russell Mead’s “blue beast”—did play a valuable role in taming the rough edges of American capitalism and stabilizing American society in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Frum is right to point this out (Lesson 4). Yet by 1980 this model had clearly reached it sell-by date. Liberal progressives, and maybe Frum, argue that the Reagan laissez-faire model had reached its sell-by date in 2008. Conservatives deny this, insisting that the administration of George W. Bush moved away from Reagan’s policies and capitulated to the likes of Barney Frank. Where we should go from here will drive an ever more heated political confrontation between liberal progressives and Jacksonian populist conservatives. Whatever either side comes up with will, in the end, come down to Americans having to work harder for less money and fewer benefits, until the productive capacities of the American capitalist wealth-creation machine are restored.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan