Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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P.J. O’Rourke on the Collapse of Conservatism

Many thanks to Clint for pointing us to this angry (but it seems to me to be righteous anger) piece by P.J. O’Rourke. Of course, being of O’Rourke’s pen, it also comes with a healthy dose of humor and wit. It seems to me that somewhere in there, between the humor and the anger, are some healthy chunks of harsh truth. We should eat them no matter how hard they are to swallow.  

Discussions - 15 Comments

Funny commentary, thought he is dead wrong on abortion and immigration (Weekly Standard tends towards the Rockefeller side of things).

He seems to argue against your notion that we need to "convince" folks on the principals of conservativism. As he notes, people already are. What happened was a failure of a party. I take this article as a good sign - conservatives are starting to see that conservativism does not = GOP and wondering what to do about that...

I would have called it a Libertarian take on those issues. He says what my sons say, which is not surprising since they have grown up reading O'Rourke. People do not know what their principles are, or rather, do not know that their principles are conservative. They know they are not liberal. They just call their principles common sense or something like that. Of course, we must not be populist about that sort of thing. Not on an intellectual site like this one.

(Christopher, did you stay home last Tuesday, or did you vote?)

In that last bit you say, conservatives have this awful problem in that if they cannot find expression of conservative principles, or common sense, or whatever, in the GOP, where are they going to find it? Nothing available appeals. No one appealed as candidate. The percentage of actual voters in this election was not substantially greater than in previous elections, as noted in a couple of posts. We heard a sound and fury signifying nothing. The only passionate conservative voters I know were voting against Obama, and not for McCain at all. Call them "panic voters" who were all about "No! No new New Deal, please!" Those who voted knew they were voting for a new Hoover over a new FDR and felt no joy in that.

Well, we have an historic opportunity to stand against historic change and shout, politely, since we are conservatives, "STOP, PLEASE. NO,THANK YOU!" I think we will get hoarse with repetition, but perhaps in quiet moments we can make our points and those can be labeled something other than conservative for general consumption. "Conservative" seems to grate on the ear of the general public, and O'Rourke is right. We can hardly blame the listeners for what they heard, or what they saw.

Some good points, some special pleading. Does anyone really think that McCain lost because of his position on abortion? The only time the issue came up in a big way (during that Saddleback interview) McCain came off well and Obama poorly. McCain did not lose because of his failure to highlight Obama's abortion radicalism, but if the economic issue had been a draw, a McCain attack on Obama's positons on partial birth abortion and public financing of abortions would have helped McCain and not just with the conservative base.

On immigration: could the GOP have nominated a more pro amnesty politician than McCain? Does any such politician exist? How did that work out for them? Making gains among latinos is a must if conservatives are going to be anything but a rump in the coming decades, but this election didn't tell us much about how to approach the immigration issue in a constructive way. The Republican primary voters (a more conservative group than the average American)voted for a pro amnesty nominee. In the general election, latino voters overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Conservatives interested in governing face a difficult road.

O'Rourke says, "If the citizenry insists that abortion remain legal--and, in a passive and conflicted way, the citizenry seems to be doing so--then give the issue a rest."

Here he ignores the fact that the citizenry has never insisted on abortion at all, whether passively or conflictedly. Rather, the citizenry has--perhaps--passively and conflictedlyacceptedabortion as a right created and secured in and through a Supreme Court decision.

In this way, the role of the court remains a crucial conservative issue (of which abortion becomes one of the most controversial particulars). O'Rourke makes of the abortion question something other than what it is. (He is to be applauded in acknowledging the ways in which abortion can be limited.) But it should not outlawed on his understanding of the insistence of a citizenry that has not insisted anything.

(Christopher, did you stay home last Tuesday, or did you vote?)

Well, in a moment of weakness I went to the polls. I was going to vote for some locals and against Udall (who won - New Mexico has two lib's as senators now). I was going to leave pres. blank.

Funny thing though. I moved here to New Mexico about 4 months ago now. Soon after my arrival, an enthusiastic Democrat worker showed up at my door and we discussed politics for almost an hour (just trying to do my part, keeping him from talking to others :). He was registering voters so I filled out my card, and even asked him if he would turn it in since I was putting an R next to my name. He assured me he would.

When I arrived at the polls, I was not registered.

So it's official, I am a disenfranchised voter!!! LOL!

For those of you instinctively cringing at what O'Rourke says about abortion (and, as a Catholic, I'm with you) I'd ask you to consider what might be true in what he's saying about it--at least in terms of perception. Remember: You don't have to convince me or Kate. You have to convince people like her sons and, probably (someday) mine. Consider the ethos of the time in which they were reared and how powerful that is--despite everything a mother can do to combat it. Think about how to talk to young voters and think about how unappealing much of what you say on the social conservatism front must sound to them. I'm not saying that you should abandon ship. There is a way to do this (hint . . . talk about LIBERTY more and MORALITY less). But it's clear that what we've been doing (for more than 30 years!) isn't working.

Pete is perfectly right to point out that abortion (and in California, gay marriage) did not come to us by electoral choice but by judicial fiat. Yes . . . but at least in the case of abortion, it makes little difference now. It is part of the air we breathe and certainly it is part of the mantra we teach in our schools. Let go of 1973. Fight the battle in front of you now an on the terms that will win it. Have to cook dinner now . . . but more later.

Christopher, you are not only a disenchanted, but also a disenfranchised voter? Is this what a conservative gets when he listens to a Democrat in an election season?

My sons are highly principled on the life issues, even the libertarian ones. However, the latter say that abortion is a loser of a political issue, since personal sexual liberty drives our national ethos. Richard Adams post, above about Megan McCardle's article wherein she says it makes sense to demand that the federal government take no stance on that issue. This says nothing about the states and if abortion were a state rather than a federal issue, I would be content. How about you? It is something. People are not horrified by the slaughter of an unborn child? I think most children relate to that horror. Somehow that becomes rationalized away. That is a pity and one of the great pities of our time. But if California's voters rejected gay marriage, that gives some hope for the pro-life impetus, if it ever gets into the political arena in a real way. Marriage means something. Life means something. If, after a couple of generations of indoctrination away from those ideas, people still hold them, surely that is something.

We have all of this going for us, worldwide. And yet we chose to deliver our sermons only to the faithful or the already converted. Of course the trailer park Protestants yell "Amen." If you were handling rattlesnakes and keeping dinosaurs for pets, would you vote for the party that gets money from PETA?

Thanks, to Julie for posting. This was the best line, especially for those of us who have been to the Creation Museum in Cincinnati, OH.

California's victory for marriage proves to me that conservatism in America is plenty strong. The GOP and the leadership in the conservative movement is weak. On that front, the Weakly Standard should take plenty of blame as well for guiding us into the wilderness.

O'Rourke isn't one of the nuts like Kristol though, and his piece is pretty darn good. It goes along with what I've been telling Republicans: We need a "Suburban strategy." Guess what, people in the suburbs don't vote for life when their home values are plummeting and they are losing there jobs. Sure I wish they did. McCain's margins didn't shrink much in the rural areas, and to the extent that they did it was probably holdover conservatives scared of McCain's maverickness. But we can't counter Democratic margins from cities with rural votes. It takes the suburbs.

Suburbs love stability, order, peace. These are the people who live in communities that look alike, think alike, etc. They want low crime, good roads, good jobs, stable economy. When things appear unstable, they panic and vote for the other party. They moved to the suburbs for stability, and darn it if they're going vote pro-life over a politician promising (or appearing to) economic stability. Deep down these voters prefer conservative social and economic values, even in California, but unless Republicans can show them they understand the need for stability, we won't succeed.

Bush has been (although I really like him) a rather unstable President. He's changed course a lot, much of it forced by macro events beyond anyone's control, but new wars, new secretary of states, defenses, new SCOTUS nominees, new policies all the time just doesn't make suburban people happy, especially when they don't seem to be working.

well back to work.

Think about how to talk to young voters and think about how unappealing much of what you say on the social conservatism front must sound to them.

Ah, but as O'Rourke rightly noted these kids "grow up" - they don't stay liberals for long. Certainly not after they have children.

This is why it is a bit silly for Conservatives to "dumb down" our principals and message for a "youth vote".

Besides, I am not at all convinced that conservative principles and message are "unappealing" to youth. Fr. Jacobse over at has collected a lot evidence that shows most generation x & y' ers are fully aware of the social and moral destruction of their parents and their culture.

But all this is besides the point - it's part of our nature to go through a bleeding heart liberal period in our youth. Aristotle (and many after) have complained about it.

So Julie, I am not sure what you are after here. Some sort of enlightened language or tactic to turn "the youth" to the right, or to make them understand what they are not quite ready to understand? Unfortunately, in our extremely prosperous culture, people delay "growing up" for quite a bit. In less prosperous times, a child could not stay a child for very long. I don't see what you do about all this, excepting you stick with your principals and message. They eventually get it (as we did).

Fortunately, with abortion it's really easy. Either you are a person or not in the womb. All these liberals, libertarians, and easy going "out of my business" average-Joes can't change this fact. Conservatives have the duty place reality in front of them. We should never water this down. Looking for the non-existent magical rhetorical tactic is a waste of time and energy IMO...

If, after a couple of generations of indoctrination away from those ideas, people still hold them, surely that is something.

As St. Paul said, the law written on the heart. It may not win the battle, but it always wins the war...;)

Christopher . . . no. They don't eventually just get it just because they grow up. It isn't magic. It's persuasion. The conditions for persuasion change, as do all "conditions" with time. In your indignation at the current times (however justified such indignation may be), you want to suggest that this lack of "getting it" has to do with an inability to "grow up" on the part of a good number of people in my generation and in the one following mine. Perhaps that is a fair observation . . . but what of it? What does making that observation and asserting in haughty indignation gain for our side or for the unborn we wish to protect? Have you ever known insult to be an effective method of persuasion? If you really want to persuade, you would do better to try and understand the nature of the prejudice against you and to try, as best you can, to speak to it.

I'm not asking you to dumb down your principles and I'm certainly not suggesting that you should change your principles. What I'm suggesting is that you consider--just consider--that you might want to change the way you talk about them. That you want to call this "dumbing down" is revealing. Yet I can understand your temptation to call it so. But I think that if you reflect on it, you will come to see that much of your temptation to call this "dumbing down" stems from a righteous anger at the horror of abortion which is, however righteous, still an emotion. If you want to strike out at this horror, as I know you do, might I humbly suggest that we proceed with cold, calculating reason instead? Cold, calculating reason tells me that a successful argument against it begins in a realistic assessment of the state of public opinion, a realistic assessment of the political possibilities, a dedicated attempt to sympathetically understand ones opponents, and a plodding effort to effect the kind of transformation--first in sentiment and then in fact--that you wish to see achieved.

I think conservatives need to admit their world-view conflicts with their arguments concerning abortion. The way I understand it conservatives argue social policy cannot be contrary to deep rooted nature in humans because human nature cannot be changed.

I think its pretty obvious that one (disturbing) aspect of human nature is occasional infanticide. The ancient Greeks and Romans did it, Tactius thought the Jews were insane for not allowing fathers to kill their babies. Locke in his Treatise Concerning Human Understanding speaks of the English killing "monstrous" babies shortly after birth.

Modern abortion, like everything else modern, just makes our primitive desires more discreet and efficient. Any attempt to suppress them in a serious way will just lead to their emergence in some other anti-social way.

Either conservatives need to admit that human nature can be changed/should be changed, or need to give the idea of making abortion illegal a rest.

Does Steve really want to suggest that human nature is no more than a collection of primitive desires? I will agree that primitive desires do exist . . . but what is distinctive in human nature (as opposed to animal nature) is that we can think and reason about those desires. An animal cannot think why it ever should resist those desires and cannot, in fact, resist them. It cannot decide. Surely, this capacity is at least as important as the mere fact of these latent primitive desires? Prudence dictates that we not discount the power of primitive desires. It does not demand that we bow to them.

Steve, I don't think that history show that it has been a "primitive desire" of humans to kill healthy babies. At best, you can show that societies destroyed deformed, generally badly deformed, infants. Modern technology is used not merely to make the "primitive desires" more discreet, abortion technology has become so scientifically discreet that it has overturned our "primitive desires" for beautiful, healthy life.

Julie may be right about controlling "primitive desires" with "prudence," but surely Steve abortion today goes far beyond any such accepted practice of the past, and is in that unnatural.

While we are on the subject of murdering the unborn why not talk about the poisoning of the just born. A child is born in this country and is stabbed with a neadle containing unsafe amounts of mercury and aluminum which are preservatives in vaccinations. Meamwhile child cancer and autism is way up. I think the persuasion rhetoric needs to go and we need to tell young people the truth about things. We are not going to sacrifice the naivitiy of there youth anymore than DARE or sex ed does. I really don't understand the liberal idea of preaching abortion and promiscuity. "If you really want to persuade, you would do better to try and understand the nature of the prejudice against you and to try, as best you can, to speak to it" Wait a minute, I thought this is what liberals said we should do when the cave people attacked. So logicly, I can assume that liberals will now declare a war on a nation who is pro life. Liberal/Conservatism=false paradign and crude divide and conquer tactic of mass social control.

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