Have conservatives lost the art of disagreeing agreeably? This weekend the most savage spectacle in town has been neither the grand guignol performance put on by Washington’s Molotov Theater, nor the South Carolina primary and its aftermath, but the battle between David Frum and Ramesh Ponnuru (plus Yuval Levin in the later stages) on National Review Online and “The Corner.”
It began, as spectators know, with Ramesh’s review of David’s new book Comeback in the current NRODT. It was a tough review but, read in full, less hostile than “mixed” — i.e., containing sharp criticisms but also clear agreement on some points. (Jim Antle’s review — which David paired with Ramesh’s — I personally would judge to be more favorable than mixed.)
As a writer I have to express some sympathy with David. When you’ve taken great pains over a book designed to revive your side in politics, it’s hard to receive a sideways attack not only from that side but also from your own magazine.
So David’s first response — fizzing with indignation — was fair game.
He and Ramesh then took issue over three facts. That battle may still be going on, but the last time I checked, David had conceded the first of the three and was strongly defending the other two.
It looks to me, however, as if they will both be proved right/wrong over Fact (2), the question of whether the higher birthrate in “red” states is due to the higher birthrate of Hispanic immigrants there or to a higher birthrate among religiously-inclined native-born Americans. Both groups certainly have higher than average birth-rates (though their marriage and illegitimacy patterns differ in other respects.) So common sense would suggest that both groups play their part in boosting the demographic prospects of the red states. If so, that would mean David was overstating something real.
Could someone please do the demographic work to show whether — and if so, to what degree — this is so? It would certainly be convenient if both men could then declare “honors even” and move on. Maybe too convenient, however.
That leaves the suggestion that Ramesh (and Yuval) borrowed or replicated some of David’s arguments (sometimes the very arguments that Ramesh had criticized in his book review.) They indignantly reject this, and I think David would be wise to withdraw that particular suggestion.
As he himself concedes in a posting, conservative intellectuals continually take in each other’s intellectual washing. They swop ideas, debate them, amend them, reject them, and reconsider them in the light of new evidence, until it is impossible to recall who proposed them in the first place. If I felt so inclined, I could probably accuse all the contributors to the current debate on Post-Reaganism of borrowing or replicating my ideas in “After Reaganism” eleven years ago! It wouldn’t be true, but I could make it plausible, and in some moods I might even persuade myself.
But there is an underlying problem here — which the Ponnuru-Frum battle merely illustrates. We can also see it playing out on “The Corner” in relation to the primary contests and more generally. We used to have, but are losing, the custom of fighting internal battles more courteously than battles between Left and Right.
There is a good reason for that distinction. Everyone knows that there are usually elements of theater and exaggeration when Left attacks Right and vice versa. Partisan accusations of endangering America by folly or design are somewhat discounted as part of the political game. They even perform an important representative function in letting voters on both sides feel that their ideas and interests are being vigorously advanced. (Hence the tradition of thanking opponents for fair campaigns when the voting is done — it signifies a return to somewhat less-partisan attitudes after the election.)
But when we attack someone on our own side, nothing is discounted. All is taken seriously. The attacks sting far more than attacks across the partisan divide. And the battles escalate.
That does not mean we should avoid genuine debate in which real differences of opinion are expressed clearly. It’s part of our strength that we take argument seriously. But it is not impossible to reconcile genuine debate with Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment.