Neoconservative David Frum ’82 said American politics are unusually right-wing — in a “sane” country, anyone more conservative than him would be institutionalized.
Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush ’68, spoke to about 30 people at a Branford master’s tea in the first on-campus event in the William F. Buckley Jr. Speakers Series, which will bring prominent conservatives to Yale for the remainder of the semester. He talked about the state of America, elite education, and the role of conservative ideology in shaping national discourse.
Frum said he believes American policymakers have failed completely during the last two decades to make economic decisions that benefit the majority of Americans.
“If a decision was made in Washington, and it was important, then it was a disaster,” said Frum. “The median annual income in the U.S. is $44,000. What’s the current cost of Yale?”
Because those in power have made poor decisions in recent history — culminating in the financial crisis of 2008 — the American people have come to distrust their leaders’ motives and abilities, Frum said, adding that this has underscored America’s tradition of anti-elitism.
This sentiment would fade if America’s leaders started making better choices for the welfare of the common person, Frum said. But he emphasized that elites do and always will exist, and should be allowed to lead. Everyone at Yale is a member of the American elite, he added.
“The elites’ leadership role is what justifies them,” he said, adding ironically: “I think that’s why God allows them to exist in the first place.”
Genetic inequality, which can never be eradicated, is not necessarily a bad thing, Frum said. The problem arises when a country’s most capable citizens respond to anti-elitism by disavowing their advantages and the responsibility that goes along with them instead of using their skills for the benefit of society.
While elites on the right and left may come up with different answers to America’s problems, this is a natural source of political debate, and an essential element of democracy, Frum said. But he added that recently, the Tea Party has hijacked the right wing of the discourse.
“They’re like people preparing for a flood while the house is on fire,” Frum said. “They’re working on the national debt which might be a problem in 2020 and ignoring the fact that we’re in the worst and most protracted economic crisis since World War II.”
Frum also discussed famous Yale conservative William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, the namesake of the series and the author of “God and Man at Yale.”
“The most important thing about Bill Buckley is his generation,” Frum said. “The book was revolutionary because he claimed an equal right to the school without being a descendant of its founders.”
According to Frum, much of the criticism of Buckley’s book stemmed from his Catholic roots. In 1951, the year that Buckley’s book was published, Yale was a very different place from today. There was an attitude that non-Protestants attended only on “sufferance.” Buckley challenged that assumption. Later Jews, women, racial minorities and gay people would follow in Buckley’s path, Frum said.
Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, one of the organizers of the event, said he appreciated that Frum was not afraid to criticize the conservatives. He said that he was glad his group had been able to expose other students to Frum’s unique viewpoint.
Three other students interviewed said they enjoyed hearing about Frum’s strong conservative views, and liked that he was willing to accept good ideas produced on both sides of the political spectrum.
“I like the way he adapts liberal ideas,” Ken Hershey ’13 said, adding that he hoped the fact that Frum was able to disagree with “mainstream Republicans” on core issues such as healthcare and the national debt implied more diversity among the Republicans than is normally portrayed in the media.
Frum joined the George W. Bush Administration in 2001 and served as special assistant to the president for economic speechwriting during 2001 and 2002 and is widely credited with coining the term “axis of evil” to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
The next lecture in the William F. Buckley speakers series will be with Richard Perle, former Chairman of the Defense Board Policy Committee under Bush, on April 14.
Correction: March 4, 2011
An earlier version of this article referred to Daniel Pearl when it meant to refer to Richard Perle.