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Posted by on Mar 26, 2010 in Guest Contributor, Health, Politics | 14 comments

Frum’s Fall a Telling Blow to Pragmatism on the Right

Would the last intellectual conservative to leave Washington please turn out the lights?

The fall of AEI senior Fellow David Frum is not only a loss for intellectual conservatism, but a warning to conservative apostates everywhere that tolerance for opposing viewpoints on the right in the Age of Obama will not be a paying proposition. The previous firing of Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan senior policy analyst from the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing an anti-Bush book should have been seen at the time as a shot across the bow by the moneybags who largely fund the conservative movement and who are apparently so insecure in their own beliefs that they are terrified of the independent mind, of thoughts and ideas that don’t match up with their own.

Most of the internet right is joyful today at the humbling of Frum who has stood four square against the emotionalism and excessive partisanship demonstrated by those who consider themselves true conservatives. He has lambasted the cotton candy conservatism of Beck, Limbaugh, and other pop righties whose exaggerated, over the top rhetoric may bring in ratings but ultimately damages the cause they purport to espouse.

Does this mean Frum was always right? Nobody is always right, which is one of the main points of intellectual conservatism. A healthy conservatism would have intelligently debated Frum’s frequent critiques of the right and the GOP. Rather than questioning his motives, his ambition, or his commitment to the right, a dynamic colloquy could have ensued that would have benefited all.

Alas, such was not – could not – be the case. Instead, Frum’s numerous critics accused him of naked ambition, trying to curry favor with the left and the press in order to further his career. He was dismissed as a non-conservative or a RINO because he didn’t believe government was the enemy. He was charged with practicing punditry under false pretenses, of not really believing what he was talking and writing about.

I can tell you from experience that it is that last criticism that hurts the most and is the quickest to bring anger to the forefront of one’s emotions. Frum knew that his critiques would diminish him in the eyes of the very people who were paying his salary. Perhaps some of his critics should try doing that in their own job someday. The squeaky wheel often does not get the grease, but rather, is replaced – and quite easily as is the case with Frum.

Indeed, Frum speculates to Politco’s Mike Allen that it was his Waterloo article that proved the last straw for some of AEI’s biggest contributors:

David Frum told us last night that he believes his axing from his $100,000-a-year “resident scholar” gig at the conservative American Enterprise Institute was related to DONOR PRESSURE following his viral blog post arguing Republicans had suffered a devastating, generational “Waterloo” in their loss to President Obama on health reform. “There’s a lot about the story I don’t really understand,” Frum said from his iPhone. “But the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained. I think Arthur took no pleasure in this. I think he was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”

That “economic pressure” was in the form of a donor revolt, made even more remarkable, Bruce Bartlett writes, because of the cone of silence that dropped over AEI health policy wonks who were instructed not to talk to the press because they agreed with some of the things Obama was trying to do:

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

Sadly, there is no place for David and me to go. The donor community is only interested in financing organizations that parrot the party line, such as the one recently established by McCain economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin.

I can see the gloat on the faces of Frum’s critics as they read that “the elite isn’t leading anymore.” This has been the biggest bone of contention between the few conservative critics on the right who rail against the mindless, ideologically driven opposition of many movement conservatives to anything they don’t agree with vs. the reasoned and logical, more pragmatic opposition that is more open minded, more accepting of the notion that compromise is necessary for government to work.

In fact, this was the thesis of Frum’s Waterloo article; that by choosing not to engage the Democrats in crafting Obamacare, the GOP shot itself in the foot by not only appearing weak, but eventually being unable to block the monstrosity of Obamacare. In achieving this dubious honor, the governing elites were driven like a herd of cattle, being prodded on by talk radio and Fox News buffoons who lead the movement and where any deviation from accepted wisdom was met with a withering blast of mockery and threats of excommunication.

Why has conservatism turned into such an echo chamber? Why do most on the right only read and digest that with which they agree and not open their minds, test their basic assumptions against opposing views? What is it that frightens them so that they see those who criticize the rank emotionalism of a Beck or Limbaugh as “the enemy” rather than the normal give and take among people who disagree?

I searched for an answer to these and other questions in my 5 part series “Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead.” And while I never came right out and said it, I think what I was driving at was that the rejection of intellectuals or “the elites” is symptomatic of a lack of confidence in what conservatives should stand for. Issues aren’t the problem. There is broad agreement on which issues are important and what position conservatives should hold.

Rather, it is a lack of confidence in what conservatism as a philosophy should be all about. Witness the health care debate and the eagerness with which many conservatives are embracing the rush to federal court to have Obamacare declared unconstitutional. Does anyone see the titanic irony in, on the one hand, declaring fierce opposition to “activist judges” while on the other hand scurrying off to court in order to plead with a judge to take an activist stance against legislation with which the right disagrees?

This is the kind of emotional partisanship that is killing conservatism, driving the right off a cliff. And it comes from closing one’s mind to alternative viewpoints; to understand where the other side is coming from (both the left, and opponents on the right) while being terrified that one might be harboring views that are not in lock step with the majority. It is fear that is driving this kind of excessively partisan, morbidly ideological behavior on the right – fear that being cast outside of the groupthink that has become modern conservatism will leave the apostate without a political ship on which to sail.

Reading and listening to Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, and other pop conservatives without investigating alternative viewpoints, without challenging your own beliefs from time to time, marks one as a philistine. It is the antithesis of conservatism to close one’s mind and reject alternative viewpoints based not on their relevancy or reason but rather on the source of the criticism.

It is easy to dismiss conservatives like Frum by chalking up their opposition to the groupthink by wittily offering that they say those things so that they can get invited to liberal cocktail parties, or advance their careers in the leftist MSM. This kind of personal criticism is easier than having to respond directly to the charges that modern movement conservatism has lost touch with reality, and has become irresponsible, loutish, anti-science, and anti-intellectual. Greedy, selfish, cynical, and most of all, intellectually rigid, what is being identified as modern conservatism has no coherence, no basis in logic, and proudly represents itself as the party of little or no government at all.

And people like Frum, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Bruce Bartlett, and others like them who are in bad odor on the right for being “traitors” will go on being ignored and marginalized because actually dealing with their criticisms by debating them on the merits or demerits of their opinions opens a chasm beneath the feet of most movement conservatives. Even the tiniest of hints that not all they believe may be true is enough to throw the fear of God – or Rush – into them and send them scurrying back into the safety and warmth of blissful ignorance found on talk radio and conservative internet salons.

The apostates are not always right. On health care, it is naive to believe the Democrats were prepared to work with the GOP on anything that would have stopped short of the kind of comprehensive remaking of our health care that eventually passed. This, the GOP could not countenance under any circumstances and remain a viable political party. In that respect, the main thesis of Frum’s Waterloo article is hopelessly wrong. But should that be cause to force him out?

Not if conservatism was a healthy, dynamic, politically relevant entity. If that were the case, the conservative moneybags would have gotten their money’s worth because conservatism would have been better for the subsequent debate. Instead, lockstep lunacy reins and Frum – and the rest of intellectual conservatism – finds itself on the outs.

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