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Why Can't Traumatic Events Bring Politicians Together?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Coming up, an unexpected death can be a test of faith for just about anyone, but what happens when that death is a suicide? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes, but first when it comes to politics it's become something of a cliché to say 9/11 changed everything. And in the immediate days following those terrorist attacks, Republicans and Democrats came together.

They found new ground to forge compromises and work together. But that spirit of cooperation was pretty short-lived. David Frum blogs for The Daily Beast. He's also a CNN contributor. He recently wrote about the stalemate in Washington and he joins us now. Welcome.

DAVID FRUM: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: So in your column, it's pretty bleak.

FRUM: Yes.

HEADLEE: You basically say nothing changes anything.

FRUM: Anything.

HEADLEE: And if that's true, and we're going to get further into that in just a moment, but if that's true, what's changed? How is that different from, say, 50 years ago?

FRUM: I think it is deeply true. And it's not just a glib comment about Washington; it's about the way our minds work. The column you're referring to started as a reaction to a piece written by a CNN colleague of mine, Ruben Navarrette who expressed - he's a big advocate of the immigration bill and he said he was afraid that the events in Boston would change that public response or the congressional response to the immigration bill.

And I said no, it won't. Nothing changes anything. Newtown doesn't change the status quo on guns. The debunking of the most important paper advocating economic austerity, balancing budgets, and recessions has not changed the fact that we've got a sequester going on or that Europe is emphasizing balanced budgets as its way out of the Euro currency crisis.

And with immigration, Boston won't change anything. And what is going on here - well, first something about Congress which is about the rigidity of our congressional system. And second, something about human nature. Which is it really isn't true that we gather the evidence and on the basis of that we form our political conclusions. It's the other way around.

First we form our political conclusions and then we go hunt for evidence to prove that we're right.

HEADLEE: But is that recent? I mean, did Pearl Harbor change nothing? Did the Depression change nothing?

FRUM: OK. Well, I can - let me put it this way. One can overstate. I mean the Civil War? Yes. There are gigantic events but even in the wake of gigantic events like Pearl Harbor and the Civil War, what you're struck by is the conservatism of mind that persists until entire generations have disappeared from the scene.

And so through the Depression there were people who believed that the way to get out of the Depression was to stick to the gold standard and balance the budget. And it wasn't just conservative-minded people who thought those things. Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed in the gold standard for a year into his presidency. In fact, he took the United States off the gold standard without ever really understanding that he'd done it.

He had - he thought he was doing something else but it had the inadvertent effect of taking the United States off gold. And he continued to believe to the end that it was important to balance the budget during a depression and that's one of the reasons we got the double - the second Depression in 1937. Our minds are very conservative things.

And I suppose if you're looking for a takeaway from the column, I think as individuals each of us need to take our own temperature and to say are we as individuals responsive enough to evidence or do we hunt and peck, look for evidence to prove it? One last thought on this. It's kind of depressing. Social scientists, when they study this, find that the better educated and the better informed you are, the more resistant you are to new information.

HEADLEE: Oh, that's really depressing.

FRUM: And the reason is, a well informed person is good at explaining away contrary information. Whereas a less well informed person is not so good at it. So you can actually change their minds more than you can change the mind of the person who was better informed, or at least possesses more facts that he or she thinks are relevant.

HEADLEE: So when you say nothing changes anything, let me push back on you a little bit. Because obviously the public's mind has changed. The American public's mind has changed on gay marriage, for example, civil rights for gay Americans. Why hasn't that translated into a change from a lot of politicians?

FRUM: Well, that - as I say, the phrase nothing changes anything, like a lot of things, is exaggerated for effect. Obviously, I wouldn't want to deny that change ever occurs. It does occur. Change is the great fact of political life. But, you know, when you sort of look under at the mechanism of change, same sex marriage is a good example. People aren't changing their minds on same sex marriage.

People with one view are dying and people with a different view are coming into the political world to replace them. Now, what you're seeing is an effect of change happening through generational transition.

HEADLEE: Attrition.

FRUM: Through attrition. Yes. Thank you. And that - when change does come, that's the way it does tend to come.

HEADLEE: What is it about - is there a different atmosphere in politics, though? Why are politics so seemingly - and perhaps I'm wrong - more entrenched? Why is it so much more difficult to get even the slightest nudge out of political parties?

FRUM: Well, let's look at the gun debate, for example, to see how this is working in public opinion. If you look back at the year 1970 and compare it to now, you see many more Americans own guns in 1970. Back them about half of American households owned a gun. Today only about a third of households do. That's because of the decline of hunting. The people just own fewer long guns.

Those households that do own guns, own guns more. In 1970 we were in a period of rapidly rising crime. Today we're in a period of rapidly decline - or still declining crime. We probably have less crime today than at any time of the history of the American Republic. And yet back then people were sympathetic to gun control measures and now public opinion is hostile, sharply hostile, to gun control measures.

HEADLEE: Not background checks.

FRUM: If you describe it as a gun control measure, they - this is one of those things where if you phrase it right - that if you say should we keep guns out of the hands of undesirable people they will say yes. But if you then ask them about the general concept of gun control, you get - the public is opposed. What's going on here? What is driving - why have we had these changes?

And the answer is that the people who are the core of the political country, people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are carrying around opinions that were formed 20, 30, 40 years ago. When you ask people about guns today they are responding to the fears of crime they absorbed in the 1970s. And it will not be until those people pass from the scene and you have new generations come to the front, who had their experiences formed at a different time, that you'll get new answers.

Of course, they will be just of out of date then...

HEADLEE: That's right.

FRUM: we are now. And so I think this is like the perpetual tragedy we're all carrying around in our minds. Our politics are guided by opinions that were relevant a generation ago.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us I'm speaking with columnist David Frum about whether or not we can forge meaningful reform in the week of national tragedies. Basically, is it true that nothing changes anything? You know, you mentioned how you can phrase certain things and if you use the words gun control it changes people's opinion.

I find it's true that our politicians on both sides, all sides, are so good at putting negative connotations to certain phrases like gun control, like welfare mother, like liberal has become a negative thing in many circles; that as soon - that they become emotional triggers for people. So to a certain extent, political rhetoric, perhaps, is part of the problem.

Our politicians have gotten so good, and I'm including you because you were a speech writer for President George W. Bush and you were quite good at that in your time - is it part of the problem?

FRUM: What happens when you do political speech is you are connecting to deep beliefs that people had. So when you try to drive change through a process of persuasion, you don't - you know, Dr. Spock said that when you introduce a new toy to a baby the ideal toy is one that is the same but slightly different. So that's - when you introduce new ideas, that you are introducing always things that are the same but slightly different.

I mean, you mentioned a range of things. When you think why did the word liberal - why is that such a negative word? In the America of the 1960s it was very positive.

And the answer to that question is because between 1965 and 1980, people who were liberals did things that didn't work out very well and that were associated with rises in crime and civil disorder and inflation and the defeat in Vietnam.

And those Americans who were at an impressionable moment in those 15 years, who are all - most of whom are still alive today - formed new habits and changed their political vocabulary.

But I think, for those people who lived through the period from 2000 to 2010, something similar has happened to the word conservative. Now, we haven't noticed this yet, because it is only people under 30 who have a negative reaction to the word conservative. Those over 40 still have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to it, but as they march through life, carrying with them the impressions formed in the first decade of the 21st century.

You know, one of the things we know about the way people vote is that one of the strongest predictors of how you're going to vote is how you voted in the first two elections of your lifetime. And when you look at different cohorts in the electorate, that people who were between 20 and 25 during a successful Democratic presidency are much more likely to be Democrats forever. And people who are between 20 and 25 during a successful Republican presidency are much more likely to be Republican forever. And the opposite is true if you were between 20 and 25 during an unsuccessful Democratic presidency.

The most conservative group in the country are people who were in their 20s in the middle 1980s. They were young conservatives back in the 1980s, and now they're middle-aged conservatives on their way to being old conservatives. And the most liberal group in the country used to be people who were in their early 20s during the five years after World War II.

HEADLEE: During Clinton. Oh, I see.

FRUM: And...

HEADLEE: Well, is this set in stone? I mean, what you're arguing is that it has been this way, and e'er shall it be. Right? I mean, is there no way? What can we do to solve it? Term limits? Is that part of the problem? Do we ban lobbyists from D.C.? How do we get to the point where something like Sandy Hook or Aurora, Colorado could change the debate on gun control?

FRUM: Well, first, I think as in - a lot of this is about us as individuals. Remember, this is not just a statement about the political system. It's about how we react, that we - as Alexander Hamilton said of human beings, it would be less true to say that they are reasonable than that they are reasoning creatures. That is, we use reason as a tool. We are not really interested, oftentimes, in learning about the world around us. We're looking for proof.

So, first, cut that out. I mean, each of us as individuals make a more - and that's certainly one of the things that has shaped - I've gone through in my - in the past five years, I've been someone who's gone through a lot of political change. And one of the things that I have striven to do in my own life is to be more open to being persuaded by information that contradicts prejudices that I carry.

HEADLEE: But that may be why some conservatives who don't like you, and some do. I'm going to - we have to, unfortunately, close out this interesting conversation now. I'm speaking with David Frum. He blogs for The Daily Beast, and he's also a CNN contributor. He's a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. You can find his column on whether or not anything changes anything at both CNN and The Daily Beast.

Thank you so much.

FRUM: Thank you, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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