Sunday, November 9, 2008

What do you mean 'we,' Kemosabe?

P.J. O'Rourke ruminates on "our" failure, applying the first person plural to what "conservatives" did, or did not do. Many of his criticisms are fair, and many of his jokes are funny, but O'Rourke suffers as badly as anyone from the common confusion over who and what is meant by "conservative." His paragraph on immigration is an example:
Our attitude toward immigration has been repulsive. Are we not pro-life? Are not immigrants alive? Unfortunately, no, a lot of them aren't after attempting to cross our borders. Conservative immigration policies are as stupid as conservative attitudes are gross. Fence the border and give a huge boost to the Mexican ladder industry. Put the National Guard on the Rio Grande and know that U.S. troops are standing between you and yard care. George W. Bush, at his most beneficent, said if illegal immigrants wanted citizenship they would have to do three things: Pay taxes, learn English, and work in a meaningful job.
When was a policy of border security seriously undertaken by the federal government? Under Reagan? Bush 41? Bush 43? So "conservatives" are blamed for a supposedly unworkable policy that has never even been attempted. And the idiocy of the Bush proposal to turn illegals into citizens is that people who don't obey immigration laws are not likely to obey naturalization laws.

Behold the incoherence of conservative discourse, with O'Rourke bashing a cartoon stereotype of Buchananite policy proposals (policies that, to repeat, have never actually been attempted nor even proposed by any Republican administration) in a magazine that would never publish anything by Pat Buchanan himself. And meanwhile, over at The American Conservative, they're bashing away at cartoon stereotypes of neoconservative foreign policy.

This epic battle of factional strawmen has been going on for years, with purges and counter-purges and ex-communications until conservatism looks like the Sharks and Jets going at it in West Side Story. (I've sometimes thought I should write a memoir entitled First They Came for Mel Bradford: Neo, Paleo, Me-o, but I don't know that enough people would get the joke to justify publication.)

Ordinary American voters can be forgiven their confusion that resulted in, inter alia, 54% of Catholics voting for Obama. "Conservatives" speak in a self-contradictory cacophony, the ideological label applied willy-nilly to politicians and policies, to include at various times Chuck Hagel and Joe Lieberman, Tamar Jacoby and Peter Brimelow, Chris Cox and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Doug Kmeic and Judie Brown.

Average voters don't pay enough attention to politics to differentiate among the Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors of conservatism. One survey found that 41% of CNN viewers don't know that Democrats hold a majority in Congress. Anecdotes from focus groups indicate that voters hold wildly inaccurate perceptions about politics. But pretty much everybody knows George W. Bush is a Republican, and they overwhelmingly hate him.

The problem with conservative intellectuals (and O'Rourke would qualify as such) is that they presume a far more informed electorate than actually exists. They therefore look at elections and imagine that voters are rejecting specific policy positions with which voters are, in fact, entirely unfamiliar.

Talk to any genuine independent voter and you will always hear them say they "vote for the man, not the party." So when independent voters swing sharply against the grumpy old bald guy, this cannot be viewed as a referendum on conservatism so much as it is a referendum on grumpy old bald guys. (Which is why the idiots who backed Rudy Giuliani in the primaries were . . . well, idiots. Giuliani is slightly less grumpy than McCain, but equally bald and almost as old.)

Republican "brand damage" or "Bush fatigue" -- the two phenomena are related, if not entirely coterminous -- translates to a relatively slight marginal difference in the partisan loyalties of voters. A few million people who used to be solid Republicans now call themselves "independent," and a few million former independents now call themselves Democrats. So the electorate goes from 51% Republican to 46% Republican in the space of four years.

This shift, however, cannot be blamed on conservatives if, by "conservative," you mean the average Rush Limbaugh listener. Limbaugh didn't tell Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and Ralph Reed to crawl into bed with Jack Abramoff. Limbaugh didn't tell Mark Foley to send e-mails to House pages. Limbaugh didn't tell Larry Craig to play footsie with that Minneapolis airport cop. Limbaugh adamantly opposed John McCain's nomination, and Limbaugh wasn't the one who advised McCain to suspend his campaign and endorse the bailout.

There is a hugely unjust process by which influential "conservatives" are scapegoating others for their own policies -- the likes of "Cakewalk Ken" Adelman and "Bailout Ben" Bernanke endorsing Obama, for example. Those whose ideas caused the Republican disaster exempt themselves from responsibility by casting aspersions on critics who opposed their disastrous ideas, so that Steve Schmidt points the finger at House Republicans who voted against a $700 bailout that Schmidt insisted McCain must endorse -- even though polls clearly showed voters disapproved of the bailout!

Conservatism has suffered mainly from an ideological inferiority complex, one that Ronald Reagan alluded to in 1964:
Yet anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we are denounced as being against their humanitarian goals. They say we are always "against" things, never "for" anything. Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so.
Exactly. Conservatism can be defined adequately as "opposition to liberalism," both in terms of general philosophy and specific policy proposals. To be against "the schemes of the do-gooders" ought to count as sufficient wisdom for conservatives, given that (a) the schemes will do no good, and (b) the "good" is subject to dispute anyway.

Conservatives don't need a global-warming plan, or a poverty plan, or a health-care plan. We ought to be arguing instead that the problems liberals now "plan" to solve are either non-existent (e.g., global warming) or else are largely the result of the last generation's liberal "plan." But the inferiority complex of conservative intellectuals requires that they offer up plans of their own to address these problems -- problems that have nothing to do with the just powers of a constitutionally limited government, the true meaning of the Constitution being the main thing we conservatives ought to be trying to conserve!

Instead of arguing over what a massive, expensive, insolvent government with unlimited powers should be doing, why don't we instead argue that the government is too big, too expensive and too powerful? That was what I signed up for. What about you?

UPDATE: Jules Crittenden responds to O'Rourke:
He makes some points, but seems to suffer from the very Democratic view that everything should be knowable in advance, executed with judicious hindsight, denounced if it encountered problems, and subject to ideological purity standards, especially where Republicans are concerned. And that northeastern elites should keep their country cousins off the nice furniture.
Glad that Crittenden recognized O'Rourke's digs at the "country cousins," which I had not targeted because I didn't want to draw the accusation of special pleading. But it certainly is worth observing that most of these cri de coeurs about the failure of conservatism are not coming from people who live in places where Republicans actually won.

Politically (as opposed to philosophically) the conservative center of gravity has always resided in the South and West, and among people pissed off at the Washington establishment. One can trace this theme from Barry Goldwater to Howard Jarvis to Jerry Falwell to Rush Limbaugh to Jim Gilchrist.

The Southern and Western political brawn of the conservative movement, however, has tended to empower a class of conservative intellectuals who have nothing in common with -- and who act as if they are embarrassed by -- the actual voters who make possible conservative governance. (Yes, David Brooks, I'm talking about you.)

This disconnect between conservative voters and conservative elites is deeply implicated in the incoherence that has come to typify the movement over the past 20 years. The people whose votes elect Republicans are never allowed to speak for the Republican Party. Stan Evans famously observed of conservative politicians in Washington that, by the time any of "our people" get into a position to do any good, they're not our people anymore. But regarding the contemporary class of intellectual conservatives, I'm not sure that they were ever our people to begin with.

UPDATE II: A big thank you to Kathy Shaidle and Sondrak for the linkage.

UPDATE III: LGF -- which lately has been trying to purge Pam Geller as a Nazi (!) sympathizer -- doesn't mind saying "we blew it." And I argee: You blew it. And in fact, you still blow. Purge-happy partisan fanatics! Purge the Buchananites! Purge the libertarians! Purge the creationists! Purge the pro-lifers! Bobby Jindal is "political suicide!"

Purge, purge, purge, until the Republican Party is only you, and then maybe people will understand that this was your objective from the very beginning, you intolerant assholes. I am reminded of Bob Barr's description of the more fanatical Libertarian purists -- they don't want to belong to the Libertarian Party, they want to belong to the Libertarian Club.

Let these purging purists have their way, and you can plan to hold the 2012 Republican convention in Charles Johnson's living room. And I'll vote Libertarian again.


  1. Actually, there IS a case to be made for more Mexican immigration: briefly, that demographics foretells economics.

    The single biggest reason that Europe (and Japan's) economies are dying is that there are no children, and damn few under-40's to spend money raising children.

    Generally speaking, US natives have the same situation; only immigrants are providing chilluns (you and me excepted...)

    I don't favor 'illegal' immigration, period. But another generation of Americans has to come from someplace, and it ain't WASP wombs.

  2. Stacy you're so fucking stupid, I swear. Republicans just lost the hearts and minds of massive amounts of voters nationwide and you're still in denial about so-called "non existent" problems your party has ignored in spite of the national embarrassment you caused yourselves. Please, by all means, keep your head buried in the sand. P.S., I don't give a shit if you don't "approve" of my comments. Fuck you.

  3. My GOP wife didn't like John McCain or his wife on the most personal level -- and liked Obama because Obama's wife said he quit smoking for her (which was a lie).

    If I hadn't explained to her what Obama would do to our family and our country should would have voted against McCain and for Obama.

  4. You have precisely explicated the parts of P.J. O'Rourke's piece which rankled me. It is a seductive lure to 'moderate' conservatism to make it more alluring to non-conservatives. But that is not what made Ronald Reagan so powerful and popular. Watering down conservatism seems to me a lot like going with beige wall-to-wall carpeting. It may not offend anyone but it may not have any appeal, either.

  5. What is it with anonymous commenters inevitably contributing ad hominem bile to blogs? For liberals online, anonymity is the equivalent to a white sheet.

    Thanks for noting Charles Johnson's response to O'Rourke. If he had his way, the tech- and taxes-obsessed libertarian wing of the party would be fighting in 2012 under the "abortions and cyborg implants for all - just leave my guns and taxes alone!"

    That would be a winner.

  6. "Actually, there IS a case to be made for more Mexican immigration: briefly, that demographics foretells economics."

    You're arguing MORE low-skilled workers will save the American economy?

    You clearly have no understanding of the economics of immigration. Go spend a few weeks reading and engaging their arguments before spewing crap like this.

    Immigration provides no net economic benefit to native born Americans, and low-skilled workers are not net tax payers. They wouldn't be able to support old white Americans even if they wanted to. And who's to say they'll want to? More likely, they'll vote to transfer even more wealth from whites to themselves. 3/4 of Hispanics voted for redistributionist Obama.

    You are partly right though. Demographics is destiny: import Mexicans and you'll get another Mexico. Go look up the education, income, and criminality stats on 3rd- and 4th-generation Mexican Americans.

    And they certainly are never going to vote majority Republican. Immigration means no more Repoblican party.

    And a permanently growing population is neither sustainable nor necessary. If we spent more money on automation instead of subsidizing immigrants and their children, we would be much better off in the long run.

  7. Nice post. Found you via Kathy Shaidle. I'll be back for sure.