David Frum: What is the future of the conservative movement?

Question: What is the future of the conservative movement? 

David Frum: To understand the future of the conservative movement, you have to begin with the past. The conservative movement that I grew up with, that I’m a creature of, coalesced out of old, old pieces. They coalesced as a governing philosophy in the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to a crisis in American and world society that happened at that time.

The 1970s were a period of tremendous economic strain, social disarray, a loss of a sense of national identity in many countries; crises of so many and so different types it's almost impossible to summarize them. And in this mood of crisis, a lot of the governing ideas that had been in place since the Second World War, and before, suddenly seemed obsolete.

The conservatives stepped forward with a series of answers that called for opening up the micro-economy, making transactions easier, reducing the role of government in the economy, restoring some older notions of how you dealt with social problems and they had, not only in the United States, but around the world, tremendous success.

And that led to faster economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, it led to a restabilization of a lot of societies; above all, it led to the triumph in the Cold War.

But one of the things that happens with political ideas is when an idea succeeds it also makes itself obsolete, almost as obsolete as an idea that has failed.

Question: Do you see parallels to today?

David Frum: Well, that's where we are today. Where we are today is that we are at the end of a long political cycle that started in the 1970s. And the answers offered by conservatives have become largely exhausted and we're at a moment where advanced societies face a whole series of new problems to which traditional conservatism doesn't offer answers.

Traditional liberalism, of course, doesn’t offer answers either, but that's a different topic.

For example, we had this tremendous acceleration of economic growth; that faster economic growth has created a lot of wealth but it's distributed more unequally than anything we've been used to in almost a hundred years. So that's something that no one really has answers to.

At the same time, in this new and more unequal society, we've had a tremendous restabilization and remoralization of life at the top of society. Elite Americans lead very stable lives, they work harder, they don't abuse drugs, their marriages last, their fertility rates are going up.

But at the bottom of society there is increasing social breakdown and social disarray. It's not universal the way we thought it was in the 1970s, it's confined to the bottom third; but that's a special problem.

We have new environmental problems. We have new problems of migration to challenge all the advances of society, to test both their stability and their tolerance. We have a tremendous problem with fertility, of collapsing birth rates, societies that are no longer replacing themselves. We have new problems of fusing security with new technological possibilities and we have coming on a terrible set of moral problems that arise from our new control over human biology. How far can we go in tampering with human beings?

These are questions that are going to call forth a new kind of politics and they're going to leave a lot of the politics of the 20th century behind.

Question: Who are the leaders of the conservative movement right now?

David Frum: I think we are only at the very beginning of formulating answers to these questions. So I can go on issue by issue, and I can point to some people who have some interesting things to say.

On issues of demography-- I mentioned the problem with birth rates-- my brilliant colleague at the American Enterprise, Nicholas Eberstadt, is one of the great experts on population and its problems. I think, on the environment, we are in the middle of a free-for-all trying to measure the seriousness of our environmental problems and what should be done with them.

I don't know that there are people who are as yet grappling seriously enough with the problems of morality raised by new biological technology. Again, an AE colleague of mine, Leon Kass, has thought very hard about this, but I don't know that we're arriving at answers.

The problems of how do you cope with income inequality, what do we do for national security in a world in which the power of our traditional allies is ebbing--these are ideas we are just so much in the infancy of.


Recorded on: May 5, 2008

Frum talks about where conservatives will be after George W. Bush, who the leaders of the movement are and why the 1970s were so important.

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