David Frum's novel approach to American politics

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First aired on Power & Politics (15/5/12)


The world in David Frum's new novel, Patriots, feels oddly familiar. The departing liberal American president is the country's first ever African American to hold the office. The political landscape of the country is divided into two parties: the constitutionalists and the nationalists. There is a "sinister cable news network" called Patriot News. There's an influential newspaper called the Wall Street Transfer. There's an ongoing, controversial war, not in Iraq, but in Mexico. It may be fiction, but it's very close to what's really happening in the political sphere of our southern neighbours. And that's exactly what Frum intends.

The journalist and former economic speechwriter for George W. Bush wants people to better understand the American political system, After spending years and years talking about it to friends and family, and to the public as a journalist and speaker, he realized the easiest way to distill a message "is to tell them a story about the message." However, he altered enough of the reality to reinforce the idea that this isn't Frum's own experience in Washington and working in the Bush administration. But it is a darkly satiric take on the problems that exist in Washington today and what could happen if something isn't done about them. "I wanted to take [you] a little outside reality," Frum told Politics & Power host Evan Solomon in a recent interview. "I want to show you the situation as it is now. Changing the position of the camera can help you see better."

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What does Frum want readers to see better? That the American political system is "broken" and "a very wasteful political system," and people have too much faith in its ability to work well. Which, Frum argues, is far from the reality. "There's no guarantee that it has to work," he said. And, in fact, the further polarization of the right and the left in America is harming the system more than the public realizes, according to Frum. "People are bringing to it new attitudes that cause it to function increasingly dangerously."

The novel is told from the conservative point of view, but Frum says readers don't have to worry about any bias in the book. He's been in Washington a long time and knows how the city and the political system there work. The conservatives aren't the only ones involved in the games, and the problems in how they operate, which Frum details in Patriots, aren't unique. It's everyone. "I'm sure I could tell, if I had a different life, a similar story about the other side."

Despite its dark material, Patriots ends on a hopeful note, and Frum tries to take a positive attitude towards everything that's happening in Washington as the Unites States heads into the 2012 presidential election. In the book, the new, conservative president "is given an opportunity to make a difference" because, as Frum states, "the message [in the book] is we all can." And we need to, Frum argues, if things are going to change.

"I'm not a cynic in that I think it's futile," he admitted. "But I'm very worried."

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