Today is my last day working with David Frum's blog. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been with this project for two and a half years. This has been both an exciting and unique perch from which to follow the Obama presidency.
A colleague once compared working on Frum's blog to "monks preserving knowledge during the Dark Ages." If this is true, then what were we preserving? I've thought about this for several weeks, and I think the following are the most important lessons I've learned from my time on this project.
(Quotes that follow are taken from memory, and are often paraphrases.)
1. Inequality is Real, and it Matters.
This might be the blog's most important lesson. David is fond of quoting these opening lines of The Great Gatsby to remind himself of how lucky he has been in life:
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
It's no secret that David comes from an elite background and that his family will be fortunate enough to survive many of the worst effects of the great recession. Yet this was never something he felt content with. He once remarked "The future will be fine for me, its everyone else I'm worried about."
Conservatives don't like to talk about privilege or inequality. There is a worry that starting that discussion is seen as granting ground to leftist arguments. After all, if you concede that some groups may be unlucky in America, you risk endorsing wealth redistribution.
Yet David has a way of approaching this problem which I think is healthy: "people's grievances are often legitimate. The challenge is over the solutions." To give one extreme example, you do not need to support slavery reparations to acknowledge that many minority communities face systemic and compounding obstacles to upward mobility.
There needs to be an acknowledgment that mobility and opportunity are not as prevalent in America as we want them to be. Admitting that can allow for an honest discussion about how to rectify that.
2. A Positive Republican Alternative is Possible.
At times, talking with David about the GOP felt like talking about a Republican Party that had yet to be brought into existence.
Instead of just bemoaning the latest ridiculous comment from talk radio, a lot of time was spent discussing what conservatism could and should be.
Why couldn't the Republicans and conservatives…
-Embrace gay marriage with the same enthusiasm as David Cameron? ("I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.")
-Have a Values Voter Summit be about all voters of faith and not merely be an Evangelical Christian convention?
-Would it really be so hard for the GOP to renounce Austrian economics and support monetary stimulus in an emergency? (As Milton Friedman would have done.)
-Could the pro-life movement change priorities from criminalizing abortion to working to find effective ways to disincentivize it?
-Can Republicans acknowledge that a Tax Credit is just as bad a subsidy?
-Can Republicans learn how to do the effective ethnic outreach needed to win minority groups in elections? If even Canadians could learn how to do this...
-And is it so hard to admit that Fox News is clearly produced with an eye towards the geriatric population and that it doesn't do a good job of speaking to Americans who are not yet 50?
There was no element of the Republican Party that was left untouched in our analysis. Sometimes the changes discussed were about how the party sold itself, other times they were about radically reorienting policy priorities.
Yet at all times it was about crafting a version of the GOP and conservative movement that was better then what currently existed.
3. If you Abandon the Party, Crazies Take Over.
I've always thought it was absurdly short-sighted to argue that since Republicans had gotten more radical since 2008, it was time for "Reasonable Republicans" to leave the party and either become Democrats or Independents. To which I answer: do you want to make is easier for Jim DeMint to run the Senate? If there is a vacuum of power and leadership, then the more radical and passionate members will take over.
Wishing for America's two-party system to end and for someone else, whether it is Americans Elect, Michael Bloomberg, or for a magical third party that doesn't exist yet to swoop in and save the system is a pipe dream. Wishing for either Party to achieve a permanent majority that will never lose an election is equally foolish.
I can understand if the average voter feels disaffected, and everyone has a right to vote their conscience. But I can't understand why there is less interest in working to change the GOP from within.
America's two-party system is stable. As I see it, in tight elections the fate of the nation lies in how well the economy is doing. If the economy is going well, the incumbent party is more likely to get reelected, if it is going poorly, the out party will do well. It's a crude model, but I think it has held up pretty well.
This means that you have to assume that over time, both parties will occupy the Presidency and that the Senate will likely switch hands with some regularity.
The timeframes that matter may be long (Democrats may not re-take the House till after the next census and redistricting) but with this state of affairs being the norm, it is imperative that both parties are capable of governing. The nation can't afford a situation where one party wants to let Medicare run on auto-pilot and the other party responds by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.
It's cliche to say, but a GOP that is not held captive to its radical wing is in everyone's best interest. And you can't just wish the crazies away.
4. Sarah Palin is not the Problem, Thought Leaders Are
I think there are many people who initially supported David's project back in 2009 because they agreed, at least in whispered tones, that Sarah Palin was probably not the best standard-bearer of the party, and that she may not even be qualified for higher office. (What a contrarian viewpoint to hold at that time!)
But once it became clear that Republicans could win elections again, and that Palin's star was fading, interest in the project waned. Furthermore, people were shocked that David still had critical words to say about the party and its policies even though its base was re-energized.
There is definitely an appeal in critiquing Republicans who are obviously unqualified to govern. But critiquing Sarah Palin, Todd Akin, Sharon Angle, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann, is actually very easy. (Often, you just have to quote them.)
Where it gets hard is when you have politicians and thinkers who are not self-evidently troglodytes but who none the less have ideas that are deeply problematic. There are a lot of bad ideas that get a decent amount of mainstream credibility and acceptance just because they sound technical or smart.
To give one example: Ron Paul has successfully filled a policy vacuum by providing "answers" on complicated topics like monetary policy. Sure he is wrong and wants to bring back a failed system, but you can't deny that he sounds like he knows what he talking about. You can't claim that he doesn't have any ideas. In his case, the ideas are wrong.
Successfully challenging thought-leaders is not as easy or as fun as laughing at social conservatives who don't believe in evolution, but it's more important.
5. Ultimately, This was an Idealistic Project.
David is a deeply cynical man, and I mean this in the most flattering and positive way possible. He always assumes a political actor is motivated by the desire for power, sex, or money. Very often, he is right. (There is a joke from the British sit-com, Yes, Minister that is appropriate here: "A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.")
Yet David's entire project rested on the idealistic premise that maybe elites can be convinced to be a bit less selfish and bit more conscientious. I remember a conversation we had soon after Occupy Wall Street started, where I was interested in getting David's take on issues pertaining to income inequality. Here is how I remember the conversation going:
Me: What is your view on income inequality?
David: I am less worried about inequality if there is a lot of mobility, I am even ok with increasing inequality if if is joined by increasing mobility.
Me: Do you think there is a time period you look to as an example of that?
David: The late 19th century, there was a lot of inequality, but living standards were also rising for everyone and there was a lot of movement into top income brackets.
Me: But you still expect that there will be an elite who will be incredibly influential in media and politics, right?
Me: Doesn't that elite need to be responsible?
David: That is the whole point of what I write about every day!
You can arguably distill the entire project down to an attempt to effectively communicate this idea: "Hey big money donors, you realize you don't actually need more tax cuts, right?" These days, that's a big ask.
There is a quote (not from David originally and I am not sure from who) that I often think about at my job:
The experiment did not fail. It successfully proved that the problem could not be solved that way.
I know what I've learned and gained from my two and a half years. I leave it to everyone else to evaluate the track record.
Huge debts of gratitude and thanks are extended not just to David, but also to the entire Frum clan including Danielle, as well as members of the Frum family I never would have expected to meet: Miranda, Nathaniel, and Bea. I wish them all the best in their endeavors.
I've also been blessed to have worked with a remarkable array of co-workers and interns for the past two and a half years, and I'd like to call out two of them: Meg Mali for his tireless tutoring, infinite patience and incredible loyalty, and Tim Mak for introducing me the basics of journalism and being part of how I got this job in the first place. (Though let the record show, I might never had gotten this job if it wasn't for Byron Tau.)
In the time that I have gotten to know my replacement, Justin Green, I have only been impressed. He posses an incredible work ethic, has a lot of great ideas, and brings a lot of dedication to the blog. I have every confidence that I leave the work in good hands.
Danielle has been both a great boss to work for as well as a close friend. As "Manager of the Editor" she would go well beyond the normal expectations of just making sure the staff did their jobs. Danielle has a rare combination of possessing both strict standards for work and strongly believing in having fun outside the office. Danielle's hospitality was expressed in many different ways, but there are a few that stand out:
-Her insistence on company calisthenics.
-The Polish Cookbook food tasting. (Pre-order the cookbook on Amazon!)
-Loyalty and friendship of the rarest and most valuable kind.
Working for David has been a pleasure and joy. I honestly never expected to have a job like this when I graduated college, and I think the above essay shows how great the time working for him has been for my own intellectual development. Working for David was like finally taking that college class I've always wanted, but never really had. It has been an honor to work on this blog and I have every expectation that things can only get better as new blood and fresh talent gets injected into the system.
Finally, you may have read in some places that the real point of this whole exercise has been to make sure David and Danielle stayed in good standing with the "liberal media elite" in order to keep getting invited to "Georgetown cocktail parties." Allow me to reveal the truth behind this rumor:
1) No one holds parties in Georgetown anymore.
2) The Frums don't need invites to parties, they host.