P.J. O'Rourke's conservative mystique

The conservative ironist remains funny, but now his arguments are laughable.


Thomas Schaller
November 12, 2008 1:30AM (UTC)

There are some good critiques of the Republican Party, and conservatives, in this essay by P.J. O'Rourke, who is still funny but whose shtick seems to be wearing thin. He's right about the GOP's self-destructing behavior, past and present, and about conservatives being wrong if not myopic on issues like immigration and even taxes.

But the whole essay reeks of the conservative movement's larger problem, namely its continuing assumption that we are some sort of post-agricultural, "center-right" citizen-state where people own guns, work their small-business concerns and sleep forever next to the girl down the block they married as a teenager:

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Let us bend over and kiss our ass goodbye. Our 28-year conservative opportunity to fix the moral and practical boundaries of government is gone--gone with the bear market and the Bear Stearns and the bear that's headed off to do you-know-what in the woods on our philosophy.

An entire generation has been born, grown up, and had families of its own since Ronald Reagan was elected. And where is the world we promised these children of the Conservative Age? Where is this land of freedom and responsibility, knowledge, opportunity, accomplishment, honor, truth, trust, and one boring hour each week spent in itchy clothes at church, synagogue, or mosque? It lies in ruins at our feet, as well it might, since we ourselves kicked the shining city upon a hill into dust and rubble. The progeny of the Reagan Revolution will live instead in the universe that revolves around Hyde Park ...

After the events of the 20th century--national socialism, international socialism, inter-species socialism from Earth First--anyone who is still on the left is obviously insane and not responsible for his or her actions. No, we on the right did it. The financial crisis that is hoisting us on our own petard is only the latest (if the last) of the petard hoistings that have issued from the hindquarters of our movement. We've had nearly three decades to educate the electorate about freedom, responsibility, and the evils of collectivism, and we responded by creating a big-city-public-school-system of a learning environment.

Liberalism had been running wild in the nation since the Great Depression. At the end of the Carter administration we had it cornered in one of its dreadful low-income housing projects or smelly public parks or some such place, and we held the Taser gun in our hand, pointed it at the beast's swollen gut, and didn't pull the trigger. Liberalism wasn't zapped and rolled away on a gurney and confined somewhere until it expired from natural causes such as natural law or natural rights.

He continues with some curiously historical lessons and reflections drawn from the 20th century that, in many cases, have little relevance to what's going on in the country right now and the future of the conservative and liberal movements:

The "Southern Strategy" was bequeathed to the Republican party by Richard Nixon--not a bad friend of conservatism but no friend at all. The Southern Strategy wasn't needed. Southern whites were on--begging the pardon of the Scopes trial jury--an evolutionary course toward becoming Republican. There's a joke in Arkansas about a candidate hustling votes in the country. The candidate asks a farmer how many children he has.

"I've got six sons," the farmer says.

"Are they all good little Democrats?" the candidate asks.

"Well," the farmer says, "five of 'em are. But my oldest boy, he got to readin'..."

There was no need to piss off the entire black population of America to get Dixie's electoral votes. And despising cracker trash who have a laundry hamper full of bedsheets with eye-holes cut in them does not make a man a liberal.

Blacks used to poll Republican. They did so right up until Mrs. Roosevelt made some sympathetic noises in 1932. And her husband didn't even deliver on Eleanor's promises.

The longer conservatives like O'Rourke cling bitterly (along with their guns and old-time religion) to some halycon, default and ultimately incorrect vision of America, the longer and deeper their slide will be.


Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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