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?

(Cross-posted at The Other McCain.)

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