The paradox of converted Republicans

Jay Rosen has an interesting post up that contains a bit of rare (for him) political analysis. To sum it up, parts of today’s Republican Party are still somewhat moored in reality and for other parts the horses have left the barn. Rosen cites David Frum as an example of a Republican who is fighting for a more factual approach to politics, describing him thus:

For a representative figure among reality-based Republicans I would go with David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a conservative who cannot stomach what has happened to his party. But rather than become a Democrat or claim some sort of ideological conversion, Frum has taken up his pen, as with: When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?

Rosen then quotes Frum diagnosing the problems in today’s GOP, noting that Frum writes:

Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves. Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know—canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him—and yet that is done too.


Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat.

Frum’s diagnosis is eloquent and succinct. I could hardly write a better critique of the current conservative movement myself.And herein, for many progressives OK, for at least one progressive, lies a dilemma. Seeing this from David Frum, whom Charlie Pierce has appropriately referred to as former war propagandist David Frum, produces two very strong, very divergent emotions.

On one level, I’m happy. It’s good to have more people criticizing the conservative movement for all of the stuff that Frum outlines. Having that critique come from someone who is a Republican, or at least used to be, is useful as well because that argument may carry more currency than one from a person who has been opposed to the Republican Party for their entire life.

That said, an equally strong emotion (and maybe stronger depending on your view on politics, personal makeup, sociology, etc) is wanting to grab David Frum and shake him very hard and demand to know what took him so goddam long to figure this out. David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush. He coined the term ‘Axis of Evil.’ He backed Bush’s policies to the hilt, with devastating effects on our image abroad (Iraq) and our national treasury (Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D, Iraq again).

It’s all well and good that David Frum has discovered that the conservative movement and Republican Party is to a large extent ‘epistemically closed,’ but it would have been a helluva lot better if Frum had realized that before the 2000 election sent GWB to the White House and changed the world. And as Bush passed those shit policies, often with Democratic help, was David Frum a prominent, righteous voice demanding review and reservedness? Please. Let’s not kid ourselves: Frum might have been booted from FNC and AEI but he now gets to blog for the Daily Beast (along with another animal of similar stripes) and appear on other cable news channels as that coveted dissonant conservative.

One more note on Rosen’s piece. This line really jumped out to me:

So I’m not saying that the Democrats and progressives are the ones who are in touch with reality, while conservatives and Republicans are not. (But I guarantee you some will read it that way.) I’m saying that the tendency toward wish fulfillment, selective memory, ideological blindness, truth-busting demagoguery and denial of the inconvenient fact remains within normal trouble-making bounds for the Democratic coalition. But it has broken through the normal limits on the Republican side, an historical development that we don’t understand very well. That is, we don’t know the reasons for it, why it happened when it did, or what might reverse it. (We also need to know the degree to which it is a global phenomenon among conservative parties in mature democracies, or an American thing.) Political scientists: help!

Part of what is so potentially damaging about Frum and Sully and the rest of our recent conservative converts is that they implicitly present a false history. Frum was all cool with being employed by the movement that he now criticizes until a few years ago. But the concept that conservatism has just now gone ’round the bend is risible.

Like Jay, no, I don’t really know when this “happened” to conservatism. But here are a few guesses: you wanna know why conservatives won’t take incredibly good deals on policy proposal because said proposals might contain a teensy bit of revenue? Ask Grover (he got his start in the ’80s). You wanna know why Dick Lugar is gonna face a primary opponent in his next Senate race despite his status as a sane Republican statesman? Read about how Tom Delay turned the word “primary” into a verb (as in, “We’ll primary you”). You wanna know why the interests of the wealthy are as well represented by the Republican Party today as they have been during any time in history? Have a look at Jack Abramoff and the K Street Project.

I do know this: the change that Frum describes has been happening for quite some time. It has been steady, cumulative and forseeable. This is not a recent development. It did not just happen overnight. And David Frum, like his compatriot at the Daily Beast, voiced full-throat support for these policies and inadequacies for pretty much his entire adult life, including when it mattered most. And that remains important.

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