David Frum's new political satire, Patriots, is an entertaining and at times dispiriting read. Taking a look at partisanship and ideology in the current millennium, Patriots draws from Frum's experiences in the Beltway.
Briefly, Patriots is set in an alternate Washington. 9/11
never happened, but the US has been involved in a decade-long military
conflict in Mexico. It is also suffering through a long-term
depression/recession. Rather than Republicans and Democrats, we have
Constitutionalists and Nationalists, respectively. A moderate
Constitutionalist, General George Pulaski has recently beaten
Nationalist President Monroe Williams, the nation's first
African-American president. Washington is divided, angry, and feverish
with partisan intensity (sound familiar?). Pulaski comes forward with a
series of sweeping reforms to help tackle runaway deficit-spending and
restore the economy. However, he plans to do so by appealing to
moderates and Nationalists, and he thus enrages the right wing of his own
party. Enter the protagonist, Walter Schotzke, the spoiled heir
of a mustard fortune who is sent to work in the office of the last moderate
Constitutionalist senator from New England. Hijinks ensue.
A lot of public attention has focused on the "Where's Waldo" aspect of Patriots, as readers and critics attempt to connect certain aspects of Frum's fictional universe to our real one. Does
Fox News really run like Patriot News? Wait---is that Rush Limbaugh?
No, Mark Levin? I think I've seen that---yes, Grover Norquist! I'd like to leave that sight-seeing concern to the side for the moment. As Patriots is in part meant to be a satire, I doubt its main task is to offer 100%-accurate portraits of Washingtonians. (It perhaps ought to be said that some of the personality sketches are very harsh indeed.)
Instead, its purpose is to reveal by its comic distortions. Frum
might have some scores to settle in this book, but it seems to me that
fundamentally Patriots is not a Washington revenge fantasy. It
instead casts light on some of the grimmest tendencies of contemporary
American politics. Patriots, however, is not a plea for
"extremists" to reach across their rigid ideological lines and work
together in a spirit of moderate compromise. The kumbaya imperative is a standard trope in political novels, but Frum's point is more sophisticated that that. The Washington of Patriots
is peopled not by individuals of radically pure principle who never
compromise their ideals. Instead, it is filled with careerist operators
who use the language of purist principle as a marketing tactic. Much
of the political intrigue of the book is in part motivated by the fact that one
Constitutionalist activist does not get the job he was aiming for in the
new Pulaski administration, which causes his ideological allies to
rally together to break the new president. Once this activist does
receive his chosen job, however, the ideological dogs are called off.
Overnight, the organs of Constitutionalist thought, which had been
attacking Pulaski as a matter of principle, suddenly switch to his
defense. Once Pulaski kisses the ring of the right interest-group power
structure, all principled objections disappear. The sincerity of an
ideologue might be refreshing in the Washington of Patriots.
Walter Schotzke provides an apt narrator for this
dysfunctional capital. Cynical, soft, and inconstant, Walter comes to
DC without any fixed political principles or commitment to
Constitutionalist thought, so many of the mantras of the think tanks and
political operatives he comes across seem bewilderingly foreign. An
official at a top right-wing think tank, for example, poses the
following question to Walter: "And do you think that if your
family were allowed to keep more of their
own money, you might start new businesses and create new jobs?" Unused
to the movement line on "wealth creators," Walter thinks to himself that
any extra money he got from a tax cut would not go to investing in a
new business but instead to extending his foreign vacation.
Walter seems a sympathetic character, if not an entirely admirable
one. On the downside: he seems more interested in Xbox, fine wines, and
self-indulgence than anything else, at least at the beginning of the
novel. On the upside: unlike much of the rest of the Washington elite, he is
not self-righteous about his privilege and shows at least a trace of
real concern about the economic pain inflicted upon average Americans by
failed Washington policies. Even as the country has grown poorer in Patriots,
Washington has flourished (one of the more striking parallels with
today). And rather than focusing on helping the country or standing for
high principles, many of Patriots's Washington insiders focus on
beating their opponents of the moment and enriching themselves, all the
while wrapping themselves in the language of absolute rectitude. One
of the more troubling moments in the novel occurs when an uber-lobbyist
pats himself on the back for being a moral crusader by enriching himself
through influence peddling even as he actively works to impoverish his
fellow American citizens.
Without giving too much away, I'll note that Walter finds himself a bit by the end of Patriots
and seems to have exchanged the wastrel life of a playboy for
responsibility, duty, and some kind of civil engagement. Though this is
a personal victory for Walter, I can't help shaking the feeling that
there's something more broadly depressing at the end of the novel.
By the end of Patriots, the United States of Frum's fictional
universe seems to have settled for decline. Years of a
dysfunctional economy has not woken Washington up to reality but instead
has solidified some of its worst tendencies. A watered-down economic
package is eventually passed, and it helps the economy recover---but
never to full health. As Walter notes, "Most folks would not see again
the kind of prosperity they had enjoyed in years gone by." Some
individuals might be richer---spectacularly richer---but America as a
whole is a poorer place.
In some respects, the ending of this novel reminded me of the ending of the individual seasons for the HBO series The Wire:
each season ends showing the advancement (or decline) of various
characters even as the dysfunctional drug culture of Baltimore goes on,
unabated. So it is with Patriots. There are individual winners
and losers in its Washington power games, but it is the culture of
Washington that is the ultimate winner and, perhaps, the American public
that is the ultimate loser. Patriots shows a world where an
elite has gained power through manipulating and exacerbating tendencies
that make government impossible or at least unstable.
Perhaps that pessimism is misplaced; I hope it is. Perhaps there's
something utopian about that despair in the first place. Washington, or
any other nation's capital, has never been a font of total virtue and
prudence. Even the Founders eventually dissolved into petty sniping.
But I hope it is not too utopian to yearn for a politics slightly better
than that of Patriots---a politics where careerist blinders do
not override personal sympathy, where principle does not degenerate into
propaganda, where personal ambition can be tempered at least a little
bit by public virtue.
David Frum's Patriots is not a simple indictment of
Republicans or the conservative "movement" or the Tea Party or any other
faction of the moment; as Frum has said, he could
just have easily written a book focusing on left-wing rather than
right-wing politics. It is a sketch of a political dynamic gone terribly,
horribly wrong, of the threat posed by an elite unchecked by any sense
of humility or public spiritedness, and of the risk that the great
experiment of this American republic might trade the pursuit of
happiness for the pursuit of political spoils.
I don't want to believe that Patriots's Washington is a
perfect mirror image of our own; the lens of fiction has distorted the
contours of reality. I don't want to believe it's a prophecy, either.
But it does seem a warning. It is perhaps a sign of the extent of our
troubles when even seemingly absurd satire could be so easily confused with
(Full disclosure: A contributor to the now-defunct FrumForum, I have worked with Frum before and maintain some level of personal association with him.)