Churchill used to say somewhere that only someone with a sense of humor could understand the most serious things in life. That’s one reason I’ve always told people that they should take the political humorist P.J. O’Rourke more seriously—deep down inside, his political humor is anchored in a grasp of some fundamental political truths. Like Will Rogers, or Mark Twain, his work conveys a serious teaching, and, like Jon Stewart and comics on the left, he can reach younger voters in ways that straight up commentary from old fogies likes me can’t.
This is preface to bringing your attention to a bracing article O’Rourke wrote at the Weekly Standard right after the 2008 election and which recently surfaced again on several blogs. It is even more salient today than it was in 2008: “We Blew It.” It is a thoroughgoing self-criticism of the complacency and mistakes of the conservative movement going back to the Reagan years. We had the left cornered in a box canyon, he says, and let them escape. And in recent years we’ve failed to perceive how the political landscape was shifting beneath our feet. There’s some of the usual O’Rourkian wit here and there, but on the whole this is a deeply serious article. It is very much worth reading the whole thing, but herewith samples from the beginning and the end of the piece:
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. . .
We, the conservatives, who do understand the free market, had the responsibility to–as it were–foreclose upon this mess. The market is a measurement, but that measuring does not work to the advantage of a nation or its citizens unless the assessments of volume, circumference, and weight are conducted with transparency and under the rule of law. We’ve had the rule of law largely in our hands since 1980. Where is the transparency? It’s one more job we botched.
Although I must say we’re doing good work on our final task–attaching the garden hose to our car’s exhaust pipe and running it in through a vent window. Barack and Michelle will be by in a moment with some subsidized ethanol to top up our gas tank. And then we can turn the key.
I don’t agree with every particular of P.J.’s piece, but I agree with its self-critical spirit. (And in fact the chapter on the 1984 election in my Age of Reagan book makes the point that the Reagan campaign made a huge strategic blunder by not seeking to finish off liberalism and the Democratic Party in that election—that “morning in America” was a bad strategy for the long-run.) Here’s part of how I put the matter in a memo I wrote and circulated to some conservative leaders a couple of years ago (before, needless to say, the re-election of Obama):
How did the Left get the drop on us? In the early- to mid-1990s we thought we had won on the major premises of politics and policy—Francis Fukuyama told us so!—such that what was needed from the likes of us was the technical work of unraveling piece-by-piece the architecture of the administrative-welfare state. The reasons for thinking this way were all around us, from the spectacular fall of the Berlin Wall to the market liberalizations proceeding apace in nearly every corner of the world to the spectacular rout of Hillarycare and the noticeable acceptance of market logic within Clintonite & Blairist liberalism. These encouraging signs were profoundly misleading. The problem with thinking you are riding a “wave of history” is that the wave might leave you stranded on a sandbar far from shore. Just ask Newt.
I have a field theory for this that is simple but hopefully not simplistic. We should not repair behind exogenous excuses about the surprise of the housing bubble/financial collapse and the extraordinary phenomenon of Obamamania. The seeds of decay and regress should have been evident long before these events. We should be honest: we—our cause, our movement—became complacent. We became too narrowly focused on policy studies to the exclusion of the sustained public argument about the principles and practices of a free society that were the predicate of policy reforms. We forgot the “public” part of “public policy” studies. . .
I don’t think we ever fully appreciated, as Hayek did as far back as the 1960s, that the nature of the challenge from the Left would change profoundly going forward from that point, and become much more difficult. Instead I think the conservative intellectual movement, and its institutions, became entirely too self-congratulatory (which was one of the mistakes the Left made starting in the 1960s).
In some ways we have become a mirror image of the very problem we are set against: we are bogged down in petty details instead of broad principles.
Now, one obvious consequence of the loss of the conservative intellectual movement’s focus on the broader public argument part of “public policy studies” is that we have a crop of presidential candidates who speak almost entirely in technocratic tones. And so we get a crop of candidates who promulgate 59-point jobs plans. Why not? That tends to be what they see from us [think tankers] most of the time. Conservatives who talk incessantly of finding “the next Reagan” are missing the point in looking for that particular skill set and style (though those are not unimportant things); a large part of what made Reagan effective was that he represented the culmination of a generation of patient public argument to change public opinion on general principles. For a variety of reasons I do not put much stock in the public opinion poll data that shows the public is “with us” on a variety of discrete questions.
Well, it was a long memo, and this is enough. But it does explain part of why I decided to leave Washington last year, and try something else. P.J.—let’s party!