A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

In yet another effort to remain relevant to our political discourse, David Frum is partnering with William Galston to launch a new project that is sure to to revolutionize politics in much the same way the New Majority Frum Forum has.  It’s called “No Labels,” and I’ll let Frum describe it:

On Dec. 13, more than 1,000 citizens from the 50 states will convene in New York to change the odds. They are founding a movement – No Labels. Among them will be Democrats, Republicans and independents who are proud of their political affiliations and have no intention of abandoning them. A single concern brings them together: the hyper-polarization of our politics that thwarts an adult conversation about our common future. A single goal unites them: to expand the space within which citizens and elected officials can conduct that conversation without fear of social or political retribution.

Their movement rests on the belief that the real American majority wishes to reassert control over a political system mired in brain-dead partisanship. Those traveling to New York are going at their own expense. No Labels is gaining a thousand fans on Facebook each day. Citizens across the country are asking how they can get involved.

Frum is discouraged by our current political discourse and wants to turn things around:

Our political system does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary. At a time of national economic emergency, when Americans are clamoring for positive action, our government is routinely paralyzed by petty politics. Through the summer, as the economy teetered between recovery and stagnation, the Federal Reserve lacked a quorum because a single Republican senator took it upon himself to block Obama’s appointments. Republicans were only doing unto the Democrats as the Democrats had done unto them: In January 2008, as the country geared up for an epoch-making election, the Federal Election Commission lacked a quorum because one Democrat had put holds on President George W. Bush’s nominees.

Nor does the political system work if politicians treat members of the other party as enemies to be destroyed. Labeling legitimate policy differences as “socialist” or “racist” undermines democratic discourse.

Frum is understandably concerned.  For example, can you imagine what would have happened to the progress of this Nation had there been in its young history a nasty presidential election in which one of the candidates was described as a “toothless” monarchist, or the other as a dangerous atheist upon whose election female chastity would be regularly violated?

Oh, about that.  (And yes, every quote from that video was actually said at some point during the 1800 presidential campaign.)

But surely we got past that nasty old election and grew as a country.  I means it’s not as though an entire political party was formed simply out of opposition to a president of the United States, a man whose critics described as a dangerous tyrant.

Errr, never mind.

Surely, though, we can all look fondly upon an era of great compromise and bi-partisanship. I am of course talking about the age of the Great Compromise of 185o, followed up by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  Look at all the good will that followed on the footsteps of warm and fuzzy compromise.  Just ignore things like one Senator caning another Senator on the floor of the Senate, “bleeding Kansas,” and that minor conflict between 1861-1865 that resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 young men.

The fact of the matter is that “bitter partisanship” is a fact of American life.  We can wax poetic all we like about some bygone era of lover-dovey bi-partisanship, but the reality is that this is just a myth.  And the one political party that did try a “can’t we all just get along approach?”  Yeah, it kind of died.  (Interesting, isn’t it, that it was much more successful as a party when it took a less gentle tone?)

As absurd as this project is, it’s also a bit obnoxious.  As Stanley Kurtz ponders, who exactly is David Frum to sit in judgment of what constitutes appropriate political discourse?  Kurtz writes:

On its face, a principled opposition to political labeling is both incoherent and illiberal. Labels can surely be misused. Yet political discourse itself would be impossible without the basic terms through which we name and recognize our own political beliefs and those of others. Abused as they may often be, we can’t even think without labels — which is to say, without categories. Galston and Frum label their own opponents when they decry them for “brain-dead partisanship.” Apparently, Frum consigned my book to that category without even reading it. Who was the brain-dead partisan there? Galston and Frum don’t actually mean “no labels.” What they really mean is, “no labels of which we disapprove.” Their new group might more aptly be named “Shut Up.”

It is not the job of those who cherish liberty of thought and discussion to ban claims of Obama’s socialism or of Tea Party racism, but to subject all of these assertions to the scrutiny of serious debate. While many or most accusations of Tea Party racism are baseless, legitimate complaints are possible and cannot be ruled out in advance. If Tea Party critics have serious evidence of racism, let them present it. If their evidence is tissue-paper thin (as most of it has been), that weakness can be (and has been) exposed.

One can almost picture a 19th century David Frum decrying a certain political speech that engaged in some wild conspiracy talk and discussed the inevitable conflict that would occur if we continued down the path of compromise on the slavery issue.  Such bitter partisanship would have no doubt run afoul of the standards of the “No Labels” set.

But hey, he’s got a thousand people showing up to a conference in a city where that many people live in an average apartment building.  The winds of change sure are a blowin’.

I probably must add that no, this is not a clarion call for complete hysteria when it comes to political rhetoric.  I’m not saying that we should feel free to abandon reason.  But I find Frum’s endeavor both naive and a little presumptuous –  not quite fascist (I’ll save that term for strikeouts).

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Dante alighieri


  1. Thanks. Just joined the FB group. There’s no denying that we’re become more partisan over the last few decades. Can you imagine a 49-state presidential victory today? But I think it’s the issues, rather than the climate, that is driving most of the partisanship. Having said that, the climate isn’t helping. I think the right should cheer Frum’s counterbalance to Jon Stewart’s left-leaning Rally to Restore Sanity. There’s a dangerous but popular idea these days that sane = liberal and crazy = conservative.

  2. To quote an old Illinois saying, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Anytime people are arguing about something important, emotions tend to get high and language becomes intemperate. Most political language fortunately does not descend usually to the billingsgate under which serious theological debate has sometimes been conducted.

  3. Can you imagine a 49-state presidential victory today?

    Well, that victory was won by a man who ran on one of the most unabashedly, unambiguously conservative platforms in American history. As I wrote in the linked to post on Almost Chosen People, the main cause of the Whig Party’s death was its inability articulate a clear agenda. So I would argue that an electoral landslide of that magnitude is more likely when there is a clear ideological rift (perhaps the Eisenhower victories providing the counter-example).

    At any rate, I think we get bogged down by this notion that we’re living in the most partisan times ever. It might seem that way, and the mass communications revolution has probably made our politics seem more bitter and confrontational. Also, there is a bit of myth-making about our past, for example the romaticization of something like the “era of good feelings.”

    There’s a dangerous but popular idea these days that sane = liberal and crazy = conservative.

    The counter to that is not to join Frum’s never ending quest to mold the Republican party in his image.

  4. I took a look at the FB page you linked to. I’m not sure the self-congratulatory “at least we’re not like that rabble on the extreme” message is really the surest way to win converts. Also, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to decry labels while at the same time labeling anyone who is even slightly a bit your left or right an extremist? Labels for thee and not for me? And instead of worrying about the tone of politics, isn’t it more useful to actually promote ideas people can get behind? I’m sorry, but I’ve just had enough of this kind of moral preening.

  5. “There’s a dangerous but popular idea these days that sane = liberal and crazy = conservative.”

    Considering the recent election results in reaction to what Obama and the Democrat Congress did, RR, and further considering the fact that 40% of the American people now call themselves conservative, and that Republicans now outnumber Democrats, I’d say you’ve got that formulation backwards.

  6. What is truly dangerous is the idea that sanity = perfect calm. If your house is burning down and you’re trying to reason with the flames, that makes you more insane than the man frantically looking for a water hose.

    Sometimes genuine rationality necessarily gives the appearance of what would otherwise appear to be irrational. Different situations call for different attitudes, dispositions, words and actions. To recognize that simple truth is sane. To struggle against it is either vanity or insanity.

  7. The specific problems he describes derive rather less from political labels and such and rather more from the Senate’s asinine parliamentary rules. That is something the Senate can fix. And they won’t.

  8. The man who slandered Robert Novak and other conservatives who opposed the Iraq War as “unpatriotic” is lamenting the tone of political discourse?

    Frum is a hypocritical fraud.

  9. Ideas such as “compassionate conservative” and “bipartisanship” has resulted in alot of bad laws (how about that Senior Citizen Drug benefit) I rather like drawn out battles I think it paints a picture for the citizens of this land I want contrast and real choice not compromise which leads to something that does not work and no one really likes.

  10. The man who slandered Robert Novak and other conservatives who opposed the Iraq War as “unpatriotic” is lamenting the tone of political discourse?

    I cannot recall what he said about Mr. Novak specifically, but the main object of his critique was a circle of commentators associated with the Rockford Institute. I would not say ‘unpatriotic’ was the most apt term, but it would be fair to offer that the views of these characters have had certain ‘structural’ similarities to the views of someone like Victor Navasky, who definitely is unpatriotic. Among those who endorsed the critique was the historian Stephen Tonsor, who had in the past been considered one of their number (he disagreed, saying they were ‘flaky cranks’) and the widow of Leopold Tyrmand, who had founded the Rockford Institute’s monthly magazine in 1976; she said her husband would have been appalled at what his successors had done with his publication.

  11. Here is a link to the text of the article Jay referred to:


    Frum I think was on target with some of his observations, although attacking the patriotism of one’s adversaries, rather than their policy positions, is almost always a mistake on many levels. As for Frum, this was back in the day when he was still attempting to pretend that he was a conservative, although he was still usually the same insufferable jerk that he is today.

  12. For the record, here is a link to said column.

    In retrospect, perhaps Frum should not be condemned for the article’s title so much as the meandering, score-settling undertones. If he contented himself with noting some of the loopier elements on the right (Raimondo and Rockwell, for instance) it may have been a touch more fitting. In the specific case of Novak, he lumps him in with the rest of the “unpatriotic” conservatives without acknowledging the relative merits of his arguments. Say what you will about Novak and even Buchanan, even if they were wrong on the war they didn’t deserve to be so casually lumped in with the rest. In fact, as much as I dislike Buchanan, this is a pretty disgusting smear:

    Pat Buchanan, one can say, permitted a dual loyalty to influence him. Although he had denied any vital American interest in either Kuwait’s oilfields or Iraq’s oilfields or its aggression, in l991 he urged that the Sixth Fleet be sent to Dubrovnik to shield the Catholics of Croatia from Serbian attack. “Croatia is not some faraway desert emirate,” he explained. “It is a ‘piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ a Western republic that belonged to the Habsburg empire and was for centuries the first line of defense of Christian Europe. For their ceaseless resistance to the Ottoman Turks, Croatia was proclaimed by Pope Leo X to be the ‘Antemurale Christianitatis,’ the bulwark of Christianity.”

    How is this any different than accusing Jewish Americans of having dual loyalties to America and Israel?

  13. Donald beat me to it. And his point stands – in the end, Frum didn’t do himself any favors by attacking the patriotism and not the substance of the arguments made by some the paleos.

  14. This has got to be a parody article.

    “They are founding a movement – No Labels. Among them will be Democrats, Republicans and independents…”

  15. Scratch below the surface, and Frum’s entire piece at National Review was an anti-Catholic screed.

    I’m certainly no paleocon (although I am becoming more sympathetic as the years go by), but I was and remain apalled that National Review printed Frum’s calumnious piece. The fact that that infamous editorial appeared in William F. Buckley’s publication will forever, in my mind, be a mark against National Review.

    Frum owes those he attacked in that despicable hit piece an abject and public apology. Alas, it is too late to make amends with Mr. Novak.

    Who knows? Perhaps Frum sees his leftward swing and talk of “civility” as a sort of penance for his disgusting slander of better men than he in his pursuit of the war agenda. An admission that he was wrong would, of course, have been preferable to trying to flaking out and becoming a parody of the typical liberal elitist Republican.

  16. Jonah Goldberg has a great take on this “No Labels” idea here. The key grafs:

    What no-labelers really mean is that they don’t like inconvenient disagreements that hinder their agenda. And that’s what is so troubling, indeed so undemocratic, about this claptrap. When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what’s right, what they are really saying is you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say. When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program. Have you ever heard anyone say, “We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That’s why I’m going to abandon all my objections and agree with you?” I haven’t.

    No Labels says it’s “about taking the politics out of problem-solving.” It is amazing how cavalierly people say this sort of thing, as if this wasn’t the rationale behind pretty much every dictatorship since the dawn of man. Nearly once a week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives voice to his full-blown man-crush on China’s one-party dictatorship because — according to Friedman — the Chinese, unlike us, can implement “optimal” policies without getting bogged down in such distractions as elections, the rule of law, human rights, etc.

    Look: You can’t take the politics out of problem-solving. Politics, even in China, is the art of problem-solving. People aiming to yank the politics out of government invariably end up removing the democracy instead.

  17. for his disgusting slander of better men than he in his pursuit of the war agenda.

    I think as a practical matter one can generally refrain without much trouble from evaluating men as men and just look at their words. That having been said, given that his targets included Thomas Frank, Justin Raimondo and Samuel Francis, I would have to say your opinion of Mr. Frum as a human being must be quite severe.

  18. As for the other gentlemen about whom Frum was writing, I know very little about them, apart from Pat Buchanan (of whom I’m not very fond, but still hold in higher esteem than I do Frum).

  19. My regrets: “Thomas Fleming” not “Thomas Frank”. Thomas Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas. Thomas Fleming is the editor of Chronicles.

    It is true in that particular article he includes a list of people he has in mind which includes Robert Novak and Patrick J. Buchanan, which was ill-judged as they are qualitatively different from most of the other characters on his list. His specific comments about Novak’s writings seem within the bounds of civil (if not necessarily correct) criticism.

    Frum is perplexing, and perhaps an example of how middle-age has an unhappy effect on one’s faculties. Best ignored.

  20. Frum in this article was doing what a paleos did before and since: excommunicating from conservatism all those who disagreed with his stance on the war. But instead of saying anyone who supports the war is a neocon imperialist, Frum decries war opponents, or a good chunk of them, as unpatriotic. I agree with Art that he’s got a point when it comes to some of the names on this list, but he goes overboard when he starts flailing away at Novak and Buchanan.

    Frum is perplexing, and perhaps an example of how middle-age has an unhappy effect on one’s faculties. Best ignored.

    Agreed, and I think most have already taken your advice. This was just too amusing to pass up.

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