The Right’s response to David Frum’s perceived heresies has inflicted serious intellectual and political damage on the conservative movement.
I’m a full-spectrum conservative of conviction. But even if I leaned to the left, I still would find it laudatory that, in recent decades, political conservatives in America have been the most steadfast defenders of freedom of speech and the most vigorous champions of free and open intellectual inquiry.
Indeed, no graduate of an American college or university in the past quarter century cannot help but notice that the biggest threat to free speech today comes not from the political Right, but from the academic Left.
And it’s not just America, but Canada, too, which suffers from this problem. Why, only this week Ann Coulter was prohibited from speaking at the University of Ottawa.
So it is with great sadness and disappointment that I read today of David Frum’s forced resignation from the American Enterprise Institute.
AEI, of course, has long been home to some of the world’s greatest scholars and academics, including many who have been shunned by the academy for their right-leaning views.
But David, it seems, has pushed the intellectual envelope too far even for AEI’s tastes.
On Sunday, for instance, David charged conservatives and Republicans with helping to bring about the healthcare debacle because, he alleged, they were unwilling to negotiate in earnest with the Democrats.
I think David’s mistaken about this. I don’t think Obama and the Dems ever showed any real willingness to negotiate in good faith with conservatives and Republicans.
Nonetheless, David’s view is hardly extreme or beyond the pale. But coming on the heels of what is certainly the most crushing legislative defeat for conservatives since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, David’s view surely struck some on the Right as rubbing salt in fresh wounds.
Still, propounding unpopular views is nothing new for David. He has, after all, become the scourge of the Right for his hard-hitting criticism of some conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.
David also is no friend of Fox News and especially Glenn Beck, whom David considers to be a political disaster for the Right.
I’m not going to argue now whether David’s specific criticisms are right or wrong, wise or foolish. Plenty of people, including David Horowitz, already have done that. I have my disagreements with David; but then I’m a born contrarian who has disagreements with almost everyone about one thing or another.
But here’s what I also know, which too few conservatives appreciate: David has a point, and probably more than a point. America has changed, and is continuing to change, in significant ways — demographically, educationally, culturally, and politically. Polling data overwhelmingly confirm this.
And so, simply replaying the Right’s greatest political hits from the past quarter-century no longer will suffice. We need new ideas and new public-policy proposals.
These new ideas and new public-policy proposals can and should be based on eternal truths and long-standing principles, but they must, in fact, be relevant to the times in which we now live.
That’s why David started up his own website, FrumForum, to which I am a proud contributor: He is trying to help the GOP forge a new path forward in this new and more challenging era.
David is especially sensitive to changing social mores and cultural views, and how these shape (and are shaping) political attitudes. The end result, in his mind, is a brand of conservatism that is necessarily much more socially moderate (and perhaps even socially liberal) and far more wonkish and technocratic.
Now, I myself am a cultural conservative; and so I instinctively recoil from any effort to jettison social and cultural issues from the conservative fold.
But David’s larger-scale point, it seems to me, is unassailable: We conservatives and Republicans need to be far more sophisticated and savvy if ever we are to win politically and govern effectively.
Talking about political first principles, after all, is fine for a college debating society. But political first principles really aren’t of much interest to an increasingly educated citizenry who have more practical and mundane everyday concerns. Yet, too many conservatives and Republicans refuse to acknowledge this simple truth.
Here’s something else that I know: David Frum — and his beautiful wife, Danielle Crittenden — are two of the kindest and most gracious people in Washington.
Indeed, Frum and Crittenden have reached out to young conservatives and young Republicans in an effort to help foster and promote new talent. That’s not something you hear much about, but it’s absolutely true.
But what kind of message does it send to these young conservatives when someone of David’s stature and achievement is, in effect, forced out from one of America’s top conservative think tanks? What message does this send about the value the Right places on free speech and free and open intellectual inquiry?
The message sent is especially damning now because the Conservative Movement really does require new thinking if ever it is to regain political power and govern effectively.
I’m still a full-spectrum conservative of conviction; but my confidence in, and esteem for, the organized Right has been dramatically shaken today. The people and institutions that I once thought stood foursquarely behind intellectual freedom and independent thought have revealed themselves to be far more dogmatic and intolerant than I ever would have imagined.
That’s not good for conservatives, conservatism, or America.
John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter: @Guardian0