Like the Roman cursus honorum, the ascending path of neoconservative success is carefully prescribed. Instead of the progress from aedile to consul, however, the journey leads through hackwork up to the glories of publishing with Basic Books, appearing on TV talk shows, and gracing the mastheads of neocon magazines. David Frum managed to move through all of these levels while still in his 30’s, and although he lives in Washington, he continues to propound distinctly neoconservative views in his native Canada as a columnist for the National Post.
Previous to this study of America in the 1970’s, Frum produced two books setting forth the tenets of a defanged conservatism while damning those of the crotchety Old Right. While the neocons howl against the counterculture and “new class” machinations, their critique is not aimed at the minions of the federal government nor the political class in general. As ambitious Beltway climbers, neocon journalists have no desire to slay the monsters that sustain them: They do not oppose unrestricted immigration from the Third World and the social engineering that accompanies it; nor “moderate” feminism; nor an activist foreign policy designed to “moralize” other countries; nor most of Bill Clinton’s “centrist” policies. What they deplore are the excesses of the hippies of the 1960’s and 70’s. For neocons, the enemy is never government per se, which we are expected to love as the highest expression of patriotism, but the cultural change brought about by the countercultural rebels of the 60’s. Although the “Reagan Revolution” supposedly cleansed the rest of our society, academia and at least a portion of the media are thought by neoconservatives to remain firmly under the control of “hate America” zealots. Summing up their view, Chester Finn, the neocon educational guru, describes the academic world as “an island of totalitarianism in a sea of freedom.”
Unlike Frum’s earlier books, How We Got Here is not an echo of the neocon party line, although the author does throw some bones to his patrons. To those who feel nostalgia for the United States of 50 years ago, Frum offers the establishment retort: “It is not true that things in general were better half a century ago, things in many respects were worse —more militaristic, less innovative, more statist, less tolerant, more unionized, less humane, more prejudicial.” Moreover, Frum insists that the United States has recovered morally after “the scandals of the Clinton presidency touched off an explosion of baby-boomer self-disgust.” Thus Vice President Gore delivers speeches “recalling the pride with which he wore his country’s uniform and describing ‘faith and family as his deepest commitments. Former draft evaders queued in bookstores to buy Tom Brokaw’s Valentine to their wartime parents.” Frum is anxious to show that Americans of today combine the best of past and present, renewed “family values” and entrepreneurship with relaxed borders and oozing tolerance.
Despite his occasional imitation of Ben Wattenberg’s celebration of “America, the World’s First Universal Nation,” Frum offers truth as well as bromides. His chapter entitled “The People’s House,” which lists the numerous powers seized by the judicial-administrative state over the last 5 5 years, leaves the impression that only minimal opposition has been mounted to this arrogation of power. While, in the 1940’s and 50’s, the federal government increased its surveillance and regulatory activities by appealing to military neccssity, since the 60’s, it has grown more intrusive, allegedly out of sheer niceness, controlling people’s lives to help them overcome “prejudice” and ensuring the flow of middle-class entitlements.
Frum notes that a close correlation has existed since the 70’s between the growing presence of women and blacks in the professions and universities and increased complaints of sexual harassment and racial discrimination, prompting further government activity to eradicate prejudice by modifying social behavior. From this, he leaps to the dubious assumption that growing complaints of prejudice are a by-product of expectations raised by the dismantling of barriers to employment. Yet the causal relation may be somewhat different. Professional and academic positions have been forced open by political fiat; indeed, much of the celebrated rise of a black middle class has depended on racial set-asides, deanships in minority affairs, and other government-mandated forms of compensatory justice. For justifying and expanding this system of preferential treatment, griping has been essential. Predictably, die more such behavior is rewarded, the more the decibel level rises.
Frum’s basic argument is nonetheless convincing. Although the 60’s did much to aggrandize federal power and energize the civil-rights and antiwar movements, the 70’s contributed even more to a new American political culture; Feminism, gay rights, and the expectation that government would accommodate victimized minorities were products of this decade more than of the preceding one. Frum demonstrates this by presenting the views of journalists, politicians, reform activists, and judges associated with that fateful decade. He also stresses the impact of the corrupt presidencies of the 60’s and early 70’s in fueling the movement for structural reforms, while noting also the ironic effect: Calls for more responsive government led invariably to expanded and less accountable government.
While much of what Frum has to say on this subject is self-evident, the examples he cites are not always persuasive. There is no reason to assume that the party seniority system in Congress or the party caucuses before the emergence of presidential primaries promoted responsive popular government. The weakening of the two-party monopoly on American politics (if that indeed has occurred) may be a happy outgrowth of the forces that have led generally toward judicial-administrative tyranny; it is doubtful that even more monopolistic party organizations would have prevented the flow of power since the 70’s to the media, social workers, and practitioners of victimology. The two parties have cooperated happily with the ascending political elite, in return for the right to organize elections and distribute patronage. On one point, though, Frum is undoubtedly right: All of the talk in the 60’s and 70’s about “openness” prefigured a rush in the opposite direction, toward an arbitrary judiciary, the mendacious politics of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, and the further destruction of self-government.
One reason for the degradation of democracy in America is the growing public indifference to the government’s assaults on a once-free society. Although affirmative-action, sexual-harassment and other behavior-modification laws have a negative impact on tens of millions of people, none has become a major electoral issue. Polls suggest that fighting discrimination in the workplace is a widely shared national concern, one that many Americans believe the federal government should address. Even assuming the obvious—that most of those who expressed this opinion are liberated women or government-coddled minorities—the question remains: Why is there no equivalent countervailing outcry targeting the government’s bullying of white heterosexual males? In the United States and most other Western societies, white males and, more generally, the identifiable cultural majority have either quit protesting their collective humiliation or have been unwilling to make this humiliation a major political issue.
Frum underscores this point as he explains the rapid transformation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act into a springboard for minority quotas. Although prominent congressional sponsors of that act explicitly denied that it could be used to support minority preferences, it “took the federal government all of twenty-four months to rubbish every one of these solemn guarantees.” By April 1966, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was citing the act to impose integration quotas on Southern schools. By the mid-70’s, the Civil Rights Act had been reinterpreted to mandate preferential treatment in education, corporate employment, and civil service not only for blacks but also for women (who are mentioned specifically as a protected category). The same type of preference was steadily extended to other official victims, while the media condemned opposition to this practice as the “politics of bigotry.”
But why was there no public outcry against this violation of the rights of non-minorities? And why, almost 30 years later, does the reaction remain so remarkably weak, even after decades of enforced discrimination against whites and males? Although Frum’s work does not answer these questions fully, it does shed light on a decade that got us where we are. It also furnishes a compelling brief against the happy talk gratuitously inserted by its author in his conclusion.
[How We Got Here: The Seventies, by David Frum (New York: Basic Books) 418 pp., $25.00]