10 Questions For David Frum

1. You consider yourself a neoconservative from what I have seen on Twitter. If so, what does that mean?

It would be more accurate to say that I accept the label “neoconservative” since others find it helpfully descriptive. I myself long considered the term a biographical rather than an ideological description. To my way of thinking, it described a cohort of people, born between the wars, who had started as New Deal liberals and then migrated rightward in reaction to the social convulsions of the 1960s & 1970s: Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and so on.

That isn’t my story, obviously. But over the years, I have come to share many points of belief with the people for whom the term was coined, including:

a) belief that a social insurance system stabilizes a free market society rather than under-cutting it;

b) respect for social science methods and insights;

c) commitment to a liberal world order anchored by American primacy and leadership.

2. Arguably we live in an age of some pessimism as to the prospects of liberal democracy in the developed world. But unlike the 1930s there does not seem to be a coherent ideological replacement. Will this phase pass like a fever dream, or is a new movement emerging to take the place of liberal democracy as the hegemonic system of our age?

Outside the Islamic world, this is not an ideological age. The main alternative to liberal democracy is kleptocratic authoritarianism. That’s not a belief system to ignite the hearts of men! But it is certainly powerful, robust, and effective system – and one intensely appealing to those pocketing the proceeds.

3. In ancient China, and elsewhere, there was a debate as to whether it was better to be ruled by technocrats selected on merit in relation to their skills and abilities, or administrators with good character and an adherence to virtue. Fareed Zakaria and others have suggested that the shift in the American system from the latter to the former in the 1960s may have long term consequences in relation to the robustness of our democracy. First, you would agree that we are today ruled by technocrats? If so, do you think that it may lead us toward illiberalism?

I don’t agree that we are ruled by technocrats – but I certainly endorse the idea that elected officials should rely heavily on technocratic advice.

4. You are Canadian. Aside from a contingency of history is there any justification for why Anglophone Canada should not be part of the United States of America? Is there some deep cultural difference which justifies this political division that Americans can’t perceive?

Who coined the phrase, “a bias in favor of what is”? So many things exist because of a contingency of history … probably most things. You don’t want to go tampering with those facts without excellent reason.

5. In the late 2000s you had something of a rupture with movement conservatism, at least insofar as you began to violate tribal shibboleths (for example, your advocacy of accommodation rather than resistance toward Democratic plans about health care reform). Was this a gradual shift, or, was there a “eureka” moment?

Very gradual at first, then very sudden. I became interested in the early 1990s in the evidence that something was going wrong for middle-class living standards. This is now a universally acknowledged fact. At the time, it was a severe heresy, at least at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where I then worked. This led me to an interest in the negative effects of mass immigration, more heresy.

Things began to move faster for me with the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. I knew her a little from White House days. She was an admirable person in a lot of ways, but the nomination was startlingly inappropriate. That should have been obvious to everybody. It was obvious to everybody. But only a few of us – Laura Ingraham was the first out of the gate – dared say so. It was not a pleasant thing to witness the fall-in-line syndrome so up close, angry, and personal.

Next came the financial crisis of 2008. The radical actions taken then first by the George W. Bush administration, then by the Obama administration, were necessary to prevent the crisis from accelerating into a global economic collapse. In this crisis, mainstream conservatives clung to ideological precepts irrelevant at best, potentially catastrophic at worst. In the long dismal recession afterward, their solutions seemed to me inhumane, perverse, and dangerously destabilizing. Trump is part of the price, it seems to me, for the mistakes of that period, including the Gang of 8 mistake of trying to open immigration even wider during the most protracted unemployment since the 1930s.

Maybe back of it all, though, was my experience in the Iraq war. That went wrong in large part because of groupthink. I personally resolved never to be a part of such a thing again.

6. In your book “Dead Right” you suggested that nationalists were the most potent possible part of the future Republican coalition, and you did not seem to relish this prediction. For a generation this seemed like an incorrect prediction, as the Republican party remained internationalist in its orientation, with the Christian component receiving much of the attention in symbolics and rhetoric. No matter the details of where Donald J. Trump takes the party, it does seem that the 2016 campaign did portend a victory for nationalism. What did you see in the 1990s to suggest to you that nationalism and populism would have a bright future a generation down the line?

What I saw: The slowing of economic possibilities and the acceleration of immigration. That combination has never ended happily before, and it seemed unlikely to end happily now.

7. There are different ways to understand the world around us. One method mimics the forms of quantitative science, and deals in regressions and hypothesis testing. Another is more impressionistic and deals in historical narrative and innumerable details and facts. What, if anything, have you learned from fields such as political science, which deal in formal models and empirical data sets, and what have you learned from a field such as history, which engages in narrative argument?

There’s a lot to learn from political science, but I admit my own way of thinking is shaped by history and the law, the two fields I have studied most systematically. It’s important with history to appreciate what it teaches and what it does not. The so-called “lessons of history” are really more vague guidelines. As a favorite teacher of mine told his students: “History never repeats itself. It only appears to do so to those who don’t pay attention to details.” What history does offer is a deeper understanding of how we come to be in this or that particular predicament in which we find ourselves.

8. Do you accept the that the next generation will see the emergence of the post-work world? If you do, what is your preferred solution to oversupply of labor in such a world? (for example, universal basic income, or massive public works projects).

Frankly, I doubt it. There is always work to do – if people are prepared and incentivized to do it.

9. We live in a time when human genetics and genomics are making massive advances. Rather than reviewing the details of the findings, what I’m curious about is whether intellectuals in and around Washington D.C. are aware or cognizant about what’s going on in universities and in the private sector. Is science seen as a topic which is left to area specialists, or does it inflect and influence policy more broadly?

Science exerts pitifully little influence over political discussion, I’m sorry to say.

10.What’s the one book that stays with you as being formative in your thinking from the time you were a young person? I’ll give you my own example, Matt Ridley’s Genome, published in 1999.

Only one? And how young? I find it’s fiction and poetry that stay with you longest. Here’s one passage that may provide some consolation to us all.

“There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said
things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant
to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it
from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because
he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as
it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through
all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate
stage must be preceded. I know that there are young fellows, the sons
and grandsons of famous men, whose masters have instilled into them
nobility of mind and moral refinement in their schooldays. They have,
perhaps, when they look back upon their past lives, nothing to
retract; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of
everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures,
feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and
sterile. We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for
ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else
can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom
is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.
The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are
not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at
school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by
reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that
prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory. I
can see that the picture of what we once were, in early youth, may not
be recognisable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in
later life. But we must not deny the truth of it, for it is evidence
that we have really lived.