Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: David Frum's Patriots

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 reality.

(Full disclosure: A contributor to the now-defunct FrumForum, I have worked with Frum before and maintain some level of personal association with him.)

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