Republicans get scolded for betraying conservatism
Not right enough
Republicans get scolded for betraying conservatism
By David Frum
(HarperCollins, 205 pages, $32.50)
There is a thread of mystery in David Frum’s Dead Right, a long essay on the recent rise and alleged decline of American conservatism. The title itself is enigmatic: does it signify that the political right is dead in America, corrupted by ideological deviants and contaminated by mindless extremists, as the Toronto-born author argues?
No, conservatism remains a viable crusade, Frum concludes. Rather, as becomes apparent to a reader working through the book’s didactic chapters, the title may serve as a declaration that it is the author who is “dead right,” a polemicist supremely confident that he is among a dwindling few who are Conservatively Correct.
It will not be Frum’s fault if the U.S. Republican Party ignores his analysis of what is wrong, persists in pursuing popularity, refuses to jettison single-interest riffraff and fails to focus on a primary objective that smacks of anarchism: stripping government to a shadow. Without such reforms, conservatism is unlikely to regain what Ronald Reagan and George Bush frittered away—an opportunity, says Frum, “for eliminating the progressive income tax and the redistribution of wealth by Washington.”
For Frum, it is clearly frustrating work serving as conservatism’s Carrie Nation, a straitlaced scold railing against the evils of big government rather than booze. Many have sinned. The culpable include the men of electable consequence in the Republican Party—presidential possibles Jack Kemp, William Bennett and Pat Buchanan among them—for having bent too far towards what the electorate wants instead of what, in the author’s view, the people should get. Frum’s firmament of villains is peopled by naysayers who infest right-wing causes: such embarrassments to conservative
elitists as media fulminator Rush Limbaugh; the “paranoid billionaire” Ross Perot; the racists, homophobes, male chauvinists, fanatical anti-abortionists and Christian zealots who, despite Frum’s distaste for their influence on Republican politics, have traditionally attached themselves to conservative movements, often by invitation. In Frum’s book, those turncoats and political troglodytes rank
almost as low as liberals and are nearly as dangerous as social democrats.
The rankings reflect the main mystery in Dead Right: Frum’s premise that conservatism is in decline. In fact, 15 years after the advent of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the core tenets of Frum’s conservatism—reduced government, balanced budgets, the erosion of social programs, the privatization of public enterprises—remain holy writ in governments of any partisan stripe. Elements of Reagan’s voodoo economics remain
intact. Central bankers control the industrial world’s economies. President Bill Clinton’s fatally ravaged proposal to improve the American health-care system, assailed by Frum as a historic expansion of government’s role, was far from that. As with Clinton’s so-called reforms of criminal law and welfare, his health plan was essentially conservative, leaving medical insurance largely in private hands.
But Frum is a disciplinarian. For a 34-yearold writer who has sermonized for journalistic icons of big business and the political right—among them The Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine and the roustabout American Spectator—he is unforgiving of even modest attempts by government to redress social wrongs or repair private enterprise. The author dedicates Dead Right to his mother, the late Barbara Frum, who won fame and fortune by serving Canada as a broadcaster for the publicly owned CBC. For his part, Frum fils is appalled by the idea that government should oversee, let alone direct, an essential national service. Conservatives advocate minimal government, he explains, “because they admired a certain type of character—self-reliant, competent, canny and uncomplaining— and minimal government was the system of government under which the character they admired flourished best.”
Most conservatives, he writes, agree with a thesis that traces liberalism to an “evil decision” by Western man in the 14th century, namely “a decision in favor of moral arrogance, in favor of the radical reconstruction of the world along lines suggested by whatever reformist or revolutionary ideology happened to hoid power at the moment.” He tracks modern conservatism to the early 1950s (an era when Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist fanaticism held America in thrall). What to do? “Conservative intellectuals should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party,” he concludes, “and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practise honesty, and pay the price.” “Conservatism,” Frum advises, “was never supposed to be a sunny political ideology. It was always a doctrine for the tough-minded.” Tough-minded he may be, at least when dealing with the backsliders who affront him. And Dead Right is certainly not sunny. After 205 pages of Frum’s slim volume, spooky may be a more appropriate adjective.
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