Saturday, October 15, 2011

Broken Discourse

I've often noted how the age of extreme partisan polarization we find ourselves in has so damaged our ability to come together and solve common problems that the resultant breach may simply have become insurmountable. I can't think of a better exemplar of the broken state of our discourse than this week's parting-of-ways between conservative commentator David Frum and NPR's weekly Marketplace radio program. The format of the show was a weekly point-counterpoint, with Frum holding forth on various news topics one week from the conservative perspective, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich representing the progressive side the following week.

Now, I've said here several times that Frum, though I stridently disagree with many of his political views, is still someone who I'd enjoy a conversation with because he strikes me as someone who views conservatism as a policy prescription as opposed to an ideology. Well, after years of drifting further and further away from what's considered conservative/Republian orthodoxy, Frum felt compelled to hand his walking papers to NPR over the GOP's laserlike focus on cuts, cuts, cuts even at the expensive of longterm prosperity, and his inability to be "the Republican voice" on something he disagrees with. Here's the money quote, from his farewell Marketplace appearance:
RYSSDAL: Let me quote you back to yourself in a post that you made on FrumForum not too long ago. You say: "Under the pressure of the current crisis -- intoxicated by anti-Obama feelings and incited by talk radio and Fox -- Republicans have staked out an extreme position on the role of government." That's where we are in this discussion, right? 
FRUM: It's not just the role of government though. We have got a sick patient -- the American economy. And we can see that the patient in the next bed -- the European economy -- he's looking even sicker and there's a real risk of contagion. And what I think we have to do at a moment like this: Have a very, very open creation of money and credit. This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. Here's where Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed. They didn't necessarily agree about why to do this medicine, but as to what the medicine was, they did broadly agree. But it's not the medicine that's being prescribed now. The fact is I'm kind of an outlier. And it's a service to the radio audience if they want to hear people explaining effectively why one of the two great parties takes the view that it does -- it needs to have somebody who agrees with that great party. I'm hoping that the party will eventually agree with me, but I can't blink the fact that I don't agree with them on this set of issues.
Responding to Frum's departure from the program, Robert Reich then took to his site and offered some comments of his own, and in the process zeroed in on the larger issue:
Why exactly was it necessary for David Frum to “represent” the views of conservative Republicans?  
I don’t feel any obligation to represent liberal Democrats. Over the years I’ve argued, for example, in favor of getting rid of the corporate income tax, creating school vouchers inversely related to family incomes, and extending free-trade agreements — positions not exactly favored by liberal Democrats.

The American public doesn’t want or need to hear “representatives” from the so-called right or left. It wants insight into what’s best for America.
The problem, of course, is that we can't even get each side to agree on what is "best for America." I don't know when it happened, exactly. Maybe it was a rhythmic drip-drip-drip so slow and steady that no one realized it was happening until it already had happened, but the popular notion of what passes for "conservatism" today has been wrested away from the intellectual class that Frum and the late William F. Buckley represent, and is instead governed entirely by the Limbaughs, Hannitys and Becks of this world, who've made politics less about the art of the possible, and more a zero-sum game where one side has to win and the other side has to lose. And the state of our collective conversation is poorer for it.

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