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Lessons from the Mugwumps

January 10, 2010

I liked Frum’s recent piece yearning for the days of the Mugwumps.  His lesson is one of the stale nature of political reform:

Partisan affiliation nowadays carries less meaning than it did 125 years ago. Our divisions are more ideological and cultural than political: Red State versus Blue State, conservative versus liberal, religious versus secular. Yet today, again, many of the causes that seem to most agitate Americans on either side of these divides—like abortion and racism and reverse racism—seem frozen in time, left over from the culture wars of three and four decades back. Spend an evening watching cable news, and it’s a whole prime-time lineup of bloody-shirt-waving.

For people on my side of the aisle, the conservative side, the ancient causes seem especially distracting. Twenty-first-century America abounds in problems that ought to galvanize a modernized conservatism: excess government debt, onerous taxation of savings and investments, a dangerous overinvolvement of government in banking and finance, increasing dependence on energy from unfriendly sources, immigration policies that degrade the average skill and productivity of the American workforce, the strategic challenge from an emerging Chinese superpower. How are we to develop answers to these problems of tomorrow if in our minds it is forever 1969?

His line on party affiliation is undoubtedly true in a more profound way for elected officials (like Congress) than we villeins, especially when it comes to their own political dominion.  Everybody would give you that answer if you asked it of them (yeah, politicians are just in it for themselves!), but few actually realize that it’s true.  And the cable guys just egg it on—O’Reilly, for example, seems uninterested in real policy and interested in judging people for how they behave.  Which is fine, except that a lot of people (his is the most popular political show on cable teevee) take what he says really seriously, and consider the range of topics that he covers all that there is to talk about.

The real issues that need airing out are those which Frum lists in the second paragraph above.  I don’t see a good reason to declare the culture wars over and we lost and all that, and there’s nothing worse than judicial activism on behalf of legislation, but none of these things are being decided at the federal level anyway.  Every statewide to attempt to legalize same-sex marriage that has gone to a vote has failed (latest case: New Jersey), federally-funded abortion looks like it will be absent from the health-care bill, and charges of racism are becoming increasingly fatuous, a la Harry “Christmas” Reid. Let’s talk about something real for a change.

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