August 16, 2010 | 13 Comments
It’s hard to find someone involved with or who pays attention to either Canadian or American politics who is not familiar with the name David Frum. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Frum was involved in politics from a young age, volunteering for an NDP candidate at age fourteen. The experience, he would later say, caused, “any lingering interest I might have had in the political left [to vanish] like yesterday’s smoke.”
Frum went to Yale and then worked for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, successively, followed by a six-year stint as a fellow for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. But it was in 2001, following the election of George W. Bush, that Frum became a household name as a speechwriter in the Bush White House, coining the phrase, “axis of evil”. Frum left the White House in 2002 and became a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, promoting conservative ideas and ideals in American culture.
Of late, Frum has become a bit of an apostate, vocally airing his concerns about the state of American conservatism. Frum earned wide criticism for a recent post he write entitled Waterloo, skewering Republicans for their approach to the 2009-2010 health care reform debate. A prolific writer and speaker, Frum now spends much of his time trying to play a role in revitalizing the conservative movement at FrumForum.com.
Frum was kind enough to take time out his very busy schedule to trade a few emails with me in regards to politics in his home country.
Scott Payne: If you were to give an overview of your take on the current state of Canadian politics, what would it be? Do things seem good? Bad? Lively? Stagnant? Are there some interesting trends that you see when scanning Canadian political headlines? Is there a pervasive narrative that seems to — within reasons — sum up where Canadians are in regards to their political lives?
David Frum: Canada has escaped more mildly from the global recession than any other developed country. Incomes and jobs are beginning to recover. The country’s balance sheet is stronger than any of its major trading partners. Secessionist tendencies in Quebec and the West have ebbed. The country’s armed forces themselves have distinguished themselves in the first major combat operations since the Korean War. That’s a formidable record of good governance. And since the point of politics is to produce good governments, I’d say Canadian politics are doing very well.
SP: And yet despite this, in the country’s last federal election, voter turnout was the lowest in the country’s history. Do you think that election fatigue is solely to blame for Canadians’ recent disengagement from one the primary civic activities of their democracy?
DF: A hair under 60% turned out – that’s pretty good, especially in a country with such a large population of newly arrived immigrants. It will take the newcomers a little time to feel oriented and familiar, to form the kinds of connections that inspire voting.
Besides: I’d be careful about using voter turnout as a measure of political health. US voter turnout rose dramatically between 2000 and 2008, because voters became increasingly dissatisfied with the way their government was run and because an increasingly partisan media enflamed cultural divisions.
Maybe we should interpret a low turnout in the same spirit as the old joke about the child who never spoke until at age 8, he told his mother: “The soup’s cold.” Stunned, she exclaimed, “You can talk! And yet you’ve never spoken until now?” He answered: “Until now, everything’s been fine.”
SP: Perhaps. Though, looking at the country’s election turn out results from 1867 onwards tells a potentially different story. From 1867-1958, when the country realized its highest turnout of 79.4%, voter turnout fluctuated on a year-by-year basis between roughly the mid-seventies to the mid-sixties. But starting in 1962 and running through to our last election 2008, when we take a wide lens view of things, there is a distinctive though not precipitous drop in voter turnout. Even the elections of 1984, 1993, and 2006, which were undoubtedly “throw the bums out” affairs of disenchantment, barely registered beyond a blip in terms of this general trend.
It is a slow, but steady slide towards less and less Canadian participation in federal elections. And contra your suggestion regarding the impact of immigrants on voter turnout, a study by Elections Canada concluded that, “immigrants are neither more nor less likely than native-born Canadians to vote.”
Some looking at that data might conclude that while democracy is not even remotely in peril in Canada, there does seem to be a troubling trend towards lesser and lesser degrees of Canadian engagement with our political process. Silence, some would suggest (contra the old American proverb), is not golden. That democracy is founded upon cacophony and and movement away from that dynamic is something about which well meaning people should be concerned.
DF: If matching 1867 turnout is your aim, here are a couple of suggestions about how to achieve it:
1) Restore patronage hiring throughout the federal civil service. If parties could promise thousands of government jobs to people who voted the right way, voter participation would soar.
2) Raise the voting age back to 21. The 18-21 year old cohort votes in lower numbers.
3) Abolish suburbs. Voter mobilization is much more difficult in the modern suburban context than in the more fixed residential patterns of yesteryear’s farming countryside and industrial city.
4) Eliminate campaign finance limits. Nothing motivates voters like anger – if parties could deploy thousands of passion-enflaming ads against each other, voter enthusiasm (and anti-enthusiasm) would surge.
In other words: the drivers depressing voter turnout are deeply embedded in modern social structures. The trend to lower participation is observed in many democracies beside Canada.
But before we begin to identify solutions, we need to be a lot more specific about what exactly is the problem. People who enjoy politics as a spectator sport may wish for more “cacophony.” But that preference should not be inserted into the argument as an unexamined premise. Nor should you take for granted the “cacophony” will deliver the results for which you wish. It would be easy to imagine changes that would fill Canada’s airwaves with more political talk, paid and unpaid; very far from certain that such talk would yield a better functioning democracy.
SP: Before turning to your comment in regards to the cacophony, which I think is a good one and ripe for discussion, I wonder if I could pose a closing question in regards to this line of thought. Is the logical conclusion at which we arrive that lower levels of voter turnout are, towards which you playfully gestured, the natural outcome of a well functioning democracy? And does this ultimately result in a subtle soiling or downgrading of the very act of voting itself?
DF: Declining voter turnouts are an outcome of changes in modern social life. They are the political cognates of declining church membership, declining participation in civic clubs, and so on. From Oslo to San Diego, we’re just no “joiners” the way people used to be. Maybe it would be better if we were. But don’t go looking to the specific defects of Canadian politicians to explain a phenomenon you see in almost every advanced country.
SP: Your concerns about the current state of American conservatism are no secret. Why did you choose to try to address those concerns via the creation of FrumForum.com (nee NewMajoriry.com) as opposed to utilizing some more traditional avenues? And what advice would you give to Canadian bloggers who are interested in affecting Canadian poitical discourse, but are frustrated with trying to access the political scene through channels like party structures?
DF: My goal at FrumForum is not only to publish my own work, but also to try to recruit and sustain a movement for Republican and conservative reform: to give a platform – plus some advice and encouragement – to young people who bring a new generational perspective. The blogosphere not only lowers the barriers to entry into the marketplace of ideas. It also lowers barriers to cooperation and network-forming.