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A Compass in Choppy Waters

eye on the news

A Compass in Choppy Waters

The Weekly Standard: an Appreciation December 15, 2018
Arts and Culture

I’ll miss The Weekly Standard, to which I occasionally contributed. Over the nearly 25 years of its publication, I found it a source of reading pleasure and unexpected insight. Back in 1996, for instance, when I turned to free-market economist Irwin Stelzer’s article in the Standard on Pat Buchanan’s economics, I expected Stelzer to administer a thorough drubbing to a writer whom I loathed. I got nothing of the sort; instead, I was thoroughly informed by the article. Buchanan, Stelzer noted, didn’t argue about the effect of free trade and the overall size of the economic pie but rather on its distribution. Here was a piece of Trumpism avant la lettre. “An increasing body of economic research, noted Stelzer, “supports [Buchanan’s] position that free trade hurts low-paid workers and benefits shareholders and corporate executives.”

In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, The Weekly Standard benefited from pithy and even humorous book reviews by David Frum, no longer a popular figure on the right, as he was then. The recent Yellow Vest riots in Paris brought one to mind. Frum was writing on the great historian Robert Tombs’s book France 1814-1914. Tombs noted that in the century after 1789, France adopted a dozen new constitutions. This led Frum to relate an old joke that I had forgotten. An Englishman goes to his local library looking for a copy of the French Constitution. “I’m sorry, sir, the librarian replied, “but we don’t carry periodical literature.”

And speaking of France, Christopher Caldwell’s dispatches from Europe made for must reading. His 2003 article on the French elections anticipated the situation that would bring the technocrat Emmanuel Macron to power in 2017. “Much of present-day French politics springs from the panic of April 21, 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen’s fascistic National Front outpolled the ruling Socialist party to finish second in the opening round of France’s presidential elections,” Caldwell wrote. Forced to choose between the thoroughly corrupt Jacques Chirac, who denied the existence of anti-Semitism in France, or Le Pen, the center and left parties united to defeat the hard right overwhelmingly. The same dynamic recurred in 2017, when Macron presented himself as the leader of a “new” party to defeat le Pen’s daughter, Marine. Yet Macron is but a new edition of his predecessor, Socialist president Francois Hollande, who left office with approval ratings in the single digits. Under Hollande, the Socialists represented not the workers but the public-sector civil servants and technocrats. Strange as it may seem, Macron is a more suave, more literate, wispier version of New York mayor Bill de Blasio.

Turning back to America: 20 years ago in the Standard, David Brooks—later to become a New York Times columnist—spotted the trend that would define the 2018 congressional races. Writing in 1998, he observed that “the Democratic vote in America’s richest 261 towns has risen in every presidential contest over the past two decades. The Democrats won 25 percent of the rich vote in 1980 and 41 percent in 1996. In this last election, Bill Clinton carried 13 of the 17 richest congressional districts in the country.”

In 2015, Standard political analyst Jay Cost saw the rocky future for American politics. “According to the polls,” noted Cost, “people have been unhappy with the course of government policy for over a decade. . . . We have not seen such sustained dissatisfaction since public opinion polling began. In fact, we’d have to travel back to the 1980s to discover so prolonged a bout of electoral distemper.”

I’ve mentioned here just a few of my favorite articles from the Standard. They come to mind because they connect with our current turmoil, which is unlikely to abate. For more than 20 years, I looked forward to reading the Standard—it was a weekly compass to help guide me across choppy waters. America is much the poorer for its passing.

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