David Frum and "X but not Y" bias
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
If, like me, you started paying attention to politics less than four years ago, you'd think David Frum was a classic never-Trump Republican: Moderate, but with strong conservative principles that he is not willing to sacrifice for the sake of the party line. Trump, evidently a buffoon and a dangerous man, does not represent his values. But those older than myself may have seen (and forgotten about) a different Frum. As a writer, his most influential work was helping President Bush with his State of the Union address in 2002, for which he coined the phrase "axis of evil," and tried to justify invading Iraq. Based on his work for the Bush administration, he is clearly willing to work with buffoons and dangerous men.
Yet, rather than be criticised for this evident hypocrisy, many laud him for nuance. That he draws the line at Trump is in fact a more powerful statement given that he was comfortable enabling Bush and Cheney. His daily excoriations of the President in The Atlantic sends the message that "this dangerous buffoon is different."
He's right of course, Trump is different (as January 6th reminded us). But why take it from a man with a history of enabling bad people? Why are we letting Frum cast the first stone, and letting him have a career at a prestigious publication casting stones, given his sins? I think the answer has something to do with a deep bias in our society. For lack of a cooler, more concise name, I'm calling it "X but not Y" bias: A bias towards people that endorse "X," while criticising a highly correlated "Y." This approximation of nuance appeals to people's moderating impulses and applies a veneer of intellectualism. It certainly works for people like Frum, who endorsed Bush, the Republican Party, and neoconservatism (X), but not Donald Trump (Y).
Frum is a good case to look at when investigating the causes of this bias. Part of the blame in Frum's case lies with the liberal readership of mainstream publications like The Atlantic. For these people, who universally hate Trump, an indictment of the President is all the more poignant if it comes from someone who is his natural ally. The centre-left is eager to portray Trump as exceptional, different in all important ways from every Republican and Democrat that came before him. To this end, Frum's work during the Bush years lends him legitimacy, rather than opening him up to criticism.
Frum's endorsement of X but not Y also appeals to our moderating impulses. We like compromise, and are put off by even the most obvious unequivocal statements. What in reality might be splitting hairs comes across as nuance. By having seemingly contradictory opinions (or at least holding some opinions but not other, highly correlated ones), he gives the impression of being someone who knows what he's talking about. By toeing neither party's line, he gives the impression of an intellectually honest individual, shilling for neither of the two political behemoths he is caught between.
Of course, there are material incentives for his fake nuance, and his career path indicates to me that he is not entirely honest as an intellectual. His role at The Atlantic is the resident never-Trump conservative, and he has changed his position on a number of issues since leaving Bush's White House in 2002, and especially since the election of Obama in 2008. He admitted to being wrong on gay marriage in 2011, as well as saying he "feels silly" about the Iraq War.
Having helped Bush justify the Iraq War, and supporting a White House which sought to make marriage equality unconstitutional, he seemed fairly dedicated to both positions. This is not a man whom, after reflection, decided that the war in Iraq was "silly," or that gay marriage was actually okay in the end. This is someone who changed his positions on key issues to rebrand himself as a centrist for a job at a major publication with a centre-left readership.
This problem is far more widespread than Frum. X but not Y bias has lent legitimacy to all never-Trump conservatives (although Frum's career path makes him a particularly poignant example), including the Lincoln Project, which was a huge beneficiary while campaigning against Trump for the 2020 election. It also benefits lapsed liberals as well as lapsed conservatives. There's a cottage industry of pundits who left the left after a turn to "identity politics" or "woke politics." These pundits (Dave Rubin, and the "renegades of the intellectual dark web" come to mind), while repeating mainstream conservative talking points, add a garnish of intellectualism by assuring people that "they were once liberals too."
Not only individual pundits, but whole ideologies benefit from saying "this but that," or "X but not Y." Many people are tempted by the simple formula libertarianism ascribes to itself: "socially left, but economically right." How nuanced! It's hard to believe no one had ever thought of taking the best of "both sides." Libertarianism is made out to be an intellectually rigorous ideology, followed by an enlightened minority who bow to neither side's hegemony. Of course, "socially left but economically right" is the mainstream in most Western democracies.
The deep roots of this bias lay in a society that rewards armchair intellectualism. Society is structured such that the people who lead public discourse have the privilege to add infinite nuance, and to say "um, actually..." until the cows come home (or the economy collapses). The more ideologically slippery you are, the more you appear to be intellectually honest. Some pundits, like lapsed liberal Jordan Peterson, have mastered the art of the "I didn't say that," making his opponents look like biased ideologues for trying to pin down what exactly he's insinuating.
Unequivocal statements are made out to be anathema to rational discourse. If you're not hedging, or adding ifs ands or buts, how can anyone take you seriously? Activist is a dirty word. It is synonymous with "ideologue who hasn't thought things through." Believing in something is cringe-inducing. "Occupy Wall Street" is too broad. "Defund the police" is too specific. "All cops are bastards" is obviously the sweeping generalisation of an angry mob that can't think straight.
Of course people are angry. This should not invalidate their opinions. Public intellectuals, in a position of privilege, can afford to take the time to perfectly craft their positions, and then change them whenever it is convenient. The pundits I've mentioned are also privileged by their race, gender, class, and sexuality, giving them a separation from key issues that allows them to hedge without potentially sacrificing their rights. David Frum is able to view Bush's vociferous opposition to gay marriage as something trivial compared to the crass cruelty of Trump's Twitter account. Ditto abortion rights, ditto police brutality.
Moderation is a good thing. Rational discourse is a good thing. But these people only represent facsimiles of those things. While we laud the people who hem and haw over which rights are really worth rocking the boat over, those who are actually fighting for our rights are criticised as radical ideologues.
Legitimacy comes from nuance, but nuance can be falsified. The most ideologically slippery opportunists appear to be the most intellectually profound. The more you say without actually taking a stand, the more you will be rewarded. David Frum has many interesting things to say, But our bias for people who say "X but not Y" has allowed a range of pundits as smart as him or as stupid as Rubin to swindle society into taking them seriously.