David Frum says true things. Pundits bash him.

2012-11-09 18:28

It says something when David Frum is described as not really a conservative, or as someone unimportant and uninformed. The man has credentials. I don’t like everything he says or does, but I have read his writing and found it persuasive more than once. Not always, but more than once. And a speechwriter for George (H. W.) Bush is almost certainly not reasonably considered some kind of leftist.

Last year, David Frum wrote an article in which he openly acknowledged that he had been wrong about gay marriage. He granted that the evidence was in, and the things he had believed would happen if gay marriage became legal had not happened. And at that point, to many Republicans, he ceased to be a conservative. His more recent effort, a short ebook entitled How Romney Lost (link is to a Huffington Post review; yes, there’s a reason for that) has gotten him even more thoroughly condemned. He is viewed as a traitor.

Throughout comments on many sites, conservative and liberal, we see a flood of people who identify strongly as conservative assuring us that David Frum is a fool, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that he’s unimportant. And there, I think, is what went wrong. This ties closely to the way in which conservatives, even otherwise rational ones, explained that Nate Silver’s polls were wrong and Romney had a good shot at winning the election. And no, Silver didn’t just “get lucky”. It’d be conceivable to say that it was just luck if only one prediction had been right, but the bulk of the statistical work based on actual state-level polls consistently agreed, and Silver in particular managed to call at least 49 out of 50 states. (He listed Florida as a slight lean for Obama, but it hasn’t been called yet as of this writing; last statistics I saw showed Obama ahead by around 60,000 votes out of over eight million, which is a slight lean indeed.)

And here, I think, is the thing: Conservatives tend to perceive group loyalty as a value in and of itself, and humans in general tend to conflate “good news” and “support”. Which is why Jennifer Rubin was popular with many conservatives — they preferred systematic dishonesty to accurate reporting, then made decisions based on information which had been chosen to be pleasant rather than true. For a long time now, “conservative” in the US hasn’t meant “small government”, it’s meant “refuses to change mind on an issue because that is a sign of weakness”.

So when Frum quips Horrible Possibility: If The Geeks Are Right About Ohio, Might They Also Be Right About Climate?, he gets attacked, demonized, and ridiculed by the Right. When he gets positive and respectful reviews and commentary from liberals (such as a review on the Huffington Post suggesting that he raises interesting points), it proves even further that he isn’t really a conservative; that something, somewhere, must make his opinions wrong and unimportant.

Changing your mind based on new evidence isn’t something that the modern American Right can respect; their underlying model is that you start with ideology and select facts based on that. Even the ones who are doing their personal best to use accurate facts have been gradually dragged down by a large pool of conservative-oriented media who make their money saying what conservatives want to hear. You can dismiss the gap between conservative outlets and everything else as the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media, but reality is what exists whether or not you believe in it. Voters in Ohio weren’t an artefact of some misleading polling, but a reality which the Romney campaign disregarded because they would rather listen to people telling them they were winning.

My question is, when did this start? I think it started being a problem for the Republicans in the 80s, but that’s not when the actual pattern started. No, I’m putting my money on the Scopes Trial. That was when it became clear that you could get a lot of very vehement support by denying science. Vehement support means money and votes. So when the Republican party, in the 80s, realized that there were money and votes to be gotten by rejecting reality, they did it. And it worked; it worked brilliantly. It won elections, because they had a large base of voters who would never, ever, consider voting for people who didn’t say things they wanted to hear. The only reason it’s not still working is that the population in question is declining. They’re dying of old age, and too many of their kids have gone to college now.

College, the famed bastion of “liberal bias”. We all know academia is “liberal” in the US. But what if that weren’t a bias on the part of academics, but rather a reflection of the huge portion of the Republican party platform that relies directly on a rejection of substantial hunks of basic modern science? What if it’s not that academics have a bias towards the Left, but that the Right has a bias against things that educated people tend to accept? It is about time to confront the possibility that angrily rejecting science does not work.

This would have a couple of effects. First, it would wipe out a large portion of the Republican party’s current base. Or would it? The people who insist on voting only for anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-science candiates are not going to vote for a Democrat no matter what. They might become a third party, but while they’re a “large” portion of the Republican vote, I don’t think they’re big enough to win elections on their own. Secondly, it would convert a large number of undecideds and Democrats into a new kind of “moderate” Republican, by which we mean “a Republican who is willing to admit that science works.” I suspect they would get more votes, in total.

Losing the fanatic fringe would eliminate the bulk of the party’s anti-gay stance — a stance which is starting to hurt them some in elections, and that’s only getting worse. (Some observers note that some Democrats vote for anti-gay stuff, concluding that it is helping the Republicans, but I don’t think that takes into account the people who now identify as Democrats or Independents because of the issue.) Losing the fringe would eliminate the bulk of the party’s thinly-veiled anti-woman stance, too. The remainder might actually take steps that could reduce the number of abortions, like making contraception widely available, or making prenatal health care consistently available even to poor people. Fine by me. I would love to vote for a candidate who wanted to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the frequency of the circumstances under which they are most often sought, rather than acting to punish women and not caring how many abortions there are.

Such a transformation of our politics might even save marriage. As Mr. Frum points out, allowing gay marriage doesn’t seem to destroy the instutution of marriage. So why is it that the harder people try to “defend” marriage, the worse things get? Maybe it’s because the self-described defense of marriage is actually the attack on it. Reducing the creation of enduring family bonds to “one innie, one outie” has been a devastating assault, and the continued tolerance of that rhetoric among allegedly mainstream Republicans may or may not help the party, but it certainly hurts our society as a whole.

That Romney got fewer votes than McCain ought to be some kind of wake-up call. It won’t be. And the same people who ignored all the signs, polls, science, and evidence leading up to this are going to be continuing to demonize and marginalize Mr. Frum. And that sucks. But I think, from what I’ve read of his writings, that he would rather be honest than popular, so I think he’ll survive.

That being the case: Mr. Frum, you do yourself a disservice when you ask when Romney insulted gays. You might ask around to see whether you can find a token gay friend you could ask questions like this of, so people wouldn’t have to publically point out Romney’s surprise that gay people have families, or his dismissive reference to a woman’s “adopted” daughter immediately after hearing that she’d given birth to the daughter in question (same link). Or to explain that when you say that a group of people are what is wrong with society today, some of them may take offense. His superficial politeness does not come close to making his comments and statements somehow “not insulting”. I really feel like I can, and should, expect better of you.

Peter Seebach

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