Tag Archives: David Frum

Reality Bites: Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism

1 Dec

In a nice post about Peter Viereck, a mid-century American conservative who the New Yorker rightly rescued from obscurity a few years back, Andrew Sullivan makes the following observation:

…there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to expain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?

Equally, there has been a long tradition of the kind of conservatism that is ascendant today: relishing violence and war, ideological, revanchist and in favor of limiting government but not of limiting other forces inimical to liberty, like rentier classes, or a fusion of corporate interests and legislation.

As some of you know, I’ve been poking at Sullivan about this distinction for some time. In a nutshell: my argument is that the second tradition Sullivan cites is what conservatism is all about; his argument is that any account of conservatism ought to include the first tradition as well.

Sullivan doesn’t dismiss my argument:

Viereck preceded [William F.] Buckley and was almost instantly de-legitimized in a manner that the “conservative movement” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has become quite adept at (see: Sullivan, Bartlett, Frum et al.) What Viereck reveals is that in some ways, the new leftist critiques of conservatism (like Corey Robin’s stimulating, if uneven, series of essays) have a point.

He just thinks, as he’s argued before, that my argument is incomplete.

Sullivan admits that Viereck was a minority voice on the right, famously excommunicated by National Review for “passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism”: Viereck argued that conservatives should support the New Deal and labor unions, and opposed McCarthyism and favored the Democrats.  Sullivan clearly sees himself (as well as fellow fugitives David Frum and Bruce Bartlett) in a similar light: as a lonely heretic on the right, trying to bring some moderation to the movement. That made Viereck homeless in the 1950s, and it’s what makes Sullivan homeless today.

There’s just one problem with this story: conservatives aren’t supposed to be homeless, they aren’t supposed to be fugitives. Theirs, as Bill Buckley liked to say, is “the politics of reality.” Indeed, just yesterday, Sullivan said the same thing: “I believe conservatism is about facing reality.” But if your position proves time and again to be a chimera—as the great historian of British conservatism John Ramsden has written, with the exception of Robert Peel and Stanley Baldwin, no Tory leader has ever pursued a Burkean program of preservation through reform, and even Peel could not persuade his party to follow him—at what point does it run the risk of quitting the field of politics altogether and retiring to the reliquary of pure theory and idle speculation?

Back in the heyday of Cold War polemics, there was a phrase tossed around on the left—alternatively, “actually existing socialism” or “real socialism”—intended to signify the gap between Marxist ideal and communist reality. It was used sincerely and ironically, by defenders and detractors of the Soviet experiment alike. But in the hands of a certain type of Marxist purist, it came down to this: yes, the Soviet Union is a disaster, but once we have a true socialist society, all will be peace, love, and understanding. I’m simplifying and exaggerating, but you get the point.

Sullivan’s conservatism, like Viereck’s and others’, often has the same flavor. But where purists of the left have nothing to apologize for or be embarrassed about—theirs, after all, is a self-professed politics of utopia—conservatives of the Sullivan variety have some explaining to do.  For by their own definition and identification, they have excluded themselves from that family of political impossibility. Theirs, to repeat, is a politics of reality, not utopia.

Utopia, it’s often been remarked, has a literal meaning in the original Greek is a word with Greek roots that mean “no place.” I would submit that if you have to reach back more than a half-century to Eisenhower (the notion of Reagan or Bush I being at peace with the New Deal is hard to square with any narrative of American history I’m familiar with) to find a place on the right for your political ideal, then your politics are as utopian as that of the most radical leftist, who, after all, also believes that his Promised Land is a mere half-century out of reach.

Update (December 3, 8:15 pm)

Bruce Bartlett, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s top policy advisers and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Bush I, has weighed in on the comments section. I urge you to read his thoughts on all this.

Update (December 3, 11 pm)

Just to give you another example of the right’s utopianism, this is from Ross Douthat’s column today. We’ve talked about Douthat before, how his views on sex betray an agonistic desire for self-overcoming. Here he is today, in a piece titled “The Decadent Left” (the right, as I argue in my book, is obsessed with decadence), talking about how much he appreciates Occupy Wall Street; unlike self-interested and narrow groups like unions, says Douthat, OWS fights for something larger than itself. The right is infatuated with the politics of impossibility, even when—particularly when—it comes from the left.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”

The Financialization of Political Discourse (or more on David Frum)

9 Jul

As a follow-up to my earlier post on David Frum, it occurs to me that I overlooked one additional peculiarity in his use of the word “constituency.”

(Just as a reminder, this is the comment from Frum that sent me into such a tizzy: “[Obama] issued no public call to constituencies like the financial industry to bring pressure to bear on the issue.” I know, I know.  Political theorists can work themselves up over the durndest things.)

Not only does Frum assume the banks are Obama’s constituency. He also assumes the banks are the natural constituency in a debate about the national debt because they are the ones—perhaps the only ones—with an interest in how that debate turns out. It’s as if the debate about the debt is primarily between the bankers and politicos only.

Viewed historically, that’ s somewhat unprecedented. Public debt has traditionally been one of the major political questions of any era. It was a key issue, if memory serves correctly, in 18th century debates in Britain between the Whigs and the Tories (otherwise known as the Court and the Country parties). It was a leading cause of the French Revolution (perhaps all major revolutions?  Isn’t that one of Theda Skocpol’s arguments in States and Social Revolutions?  It’s been a while…), insofar as the French monarchy was veering toward bankruptcy (in part b/c of its support for the American Revolution) and had to convene the Estates General in order to raise revenue.  It was of course a major source of the divide between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, resulting in one of Hamilton’s most brilliant tracts, his First Report on Public Credit.  And as we now know from the debate about the current debt and the 14th Amendment, it was a major concern of the Reconstruction Congress after the Civil War.

That we now assume so easily that it’s the banks who care most about the debt because it is they who have most at stake, again, testifies to the steady financialization of not only our economy but also of our political discourse.

For more on this and related issues, check out this post and the discussion over at the excellent new blog The Current Moment, run by my friend Alex Gourevitch.

David Frum, Regular Pain in the GOP Ass, Writes the Most Honest Sentence In Journalism I’ve Seen

7 Jul

David FrumThis statement from David Frum is one of the more honest sentences in journalism I’ve read in some time. Analyzing Obama’s bungling of the debt crisis—having failed to back the GOP into a corner, Obama is now hoping for a best-case deal in which he gets massive cuts in Democratic programs with not much in the way of tax increases—Frum writes:

[Obama] issued no public call to constituencies like the financial industry to bring pressure to bear on the issue.

Reading along, noting those strong declarative terms—issued, public, call, constituency—you think Frum is going to say something like: Obama “issued no public call to constituencies like the labor movement” or Obama “issued no public call to constituencies like the elderly.” Instead, he slips in that mention of the financial industry, which is not, to put it politely, what we ordinarily think of as a constituency.

Constituency is a weighty political term. With its connections to “constitution,” it evokes the act of founding a new polity and constructing its fundamentals.  Like a constitution, constituents constitute (parties, presidencies, congresses). It also has strong biblical and democratic overtones. Biblical because constituting has a suggestion of creation about it: governments are created; they also create (laws, charters, wars, colonies).  Democratic because it is ultimately only the people—or those who speak in their name—who can truly create something. When the leaders of the French Revolution decided that France should be governed as a republic, not a feudal monarchy, they convened not as three separate estates but as the National Constituent Assembly. It was the people who constituted the government; they were the government’s constituency.

Moving back to Frum territory, it is governments that constitute banks (and corporations), not the other way around. That is why we don’t ordinarily think of banks as a constituency. Indeed, Thomas Macaulay, the 19th century British Whig often cited by tonier conservatives like Frum as a predecessor, admitted in a 1831 letter to his sister that he had tried to attach the word constituency to business interests but that it somehow felt inappropriate: “I happened, in speaking about the Reform Bill, to say that I wished that it had been possible to form a few commercial constituencies, if the word constituency were admissible.” (His aristocratic interlocutor replied that she thought constituency “an odious word.” She got its indelible democratic association.)

Frum, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, is now a regular pain in the GOP ass, poking his erstwhile colleagues on the right to move to the center.  He’s also one of the shrewder observers of the Democratic scene.  I’m not sure if he’s being snide or sincere here, but that artful equation of the financial industry and Obama’s constituency stings. Not just because it’s true, but also because it shows how degraded a political term like “constituency” has become when it is so easily and mellifluously applied to something as undemocratic and unpolitical as a bank.

Update (11:55 am)

Ezra Klein has an excellent chart, comparing the budget deals (specifically, the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases) negotiated by Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Obama. Totally confirms what Frum says about how Obama is getting screwed and screwing himself (assuming, of course, that in an ideal world he’d prefer to see a different outcome—an assumption it’s getting increasingly difficult to sustain). As a side note: it’s a sad commentary on the state of the left that increasing taxes is how we count a Democratic win these days.  It just confirms in the public mind that the only thing the Democrats have to offer is more taxes, as opposed to valuable government programs.  For more on this, see my earlier post.


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