The populist political realignment on both sides of the aisle since 2015 has left a great deal of old school political commentators homeless. The right as a whole hasn’t felt much sympathy for these voices.
Vociferous conservative voices in previous decades like George Will, Jonah Goldberg and William F. Buckley are a step out of place with modern discussions of populist conservativism which have pushed the party a great deal more reactionary, isolationist, protectionist and Paleo-Conservative. Even contemporary voices like Ben Shapiro are being widely written off for their “cuckish” approach to modern politics. In many ways this amounts to a purge of “establishment” and libertarian voices within the party as the people that were deeply alienated during the Obama administration struck back against the current cultural moment by electing the loudest and most belligerent person on the stage just as a means to spike people on both sides of the aisle.
The left’s populist revival is just a belligerent but in different ways. The millennial generation’s open embrace of socialist economics and identity politics would’ve made it an anathema thirty years ago. Now looney politicians like Bernie Sanders regularly run for the presidency. Don’t take my word for it. Hillary Clinton, arch Democrat, said his politics were untenable multiple times since the 2016 election.
“You’ve got to be responsible for what you say, and what you say you’re going to do… We need to rebuild trust in our fellow Americans and in our institutions, and if you promise the moon and you can’t deliver the moon, then that’s going to be one more indicator of how, you know, we just can’t trust each other.” – CNN
Anyone whose engaged in online politics can tell you just how far the far-left has gotten online. The mainstream Democratic platform defends rioting that destroys inner-city minority communities, pushes blatantly racist and discriminatory ideas, calls for defacto forms of segregation, calls for abolishing police departments and ICE, calls for reestablishing the founding date of America to 1619 when the first slave arrived in America and changing our entire understanding of American history and calls for an abolishment of gender norms, the nuclear family, capitalism, traditional forms of religion (excluding Islam) and “whiteness”.
When anti-capitalist protestors show up to Jeff Bazo’s house with a guillotine, you know some of them are more than a little bit off their rocker. What’s concerning is when thousands of socialists on twitter start praising them for it…
Naturally such extremes on both ends of the spectrum make it difficult to be an anti-populist dissident. There’s good reason to be skeptical of populism. Populism is generally reactionary, anti-intellectual and pushes policies that are designed to satiate the mob with easy solutions that don’t work in the long run. It’s hard to teach people why a society works the way it does. When ignorance rules the day, people start demanding easy solutions to multifaceted problems and thus cults of personality form around demagogues who peddle easy answers like “abolish capitalism” or “build the wall!”. I don’t always agree with populists or anti-populists on every issue but I’m generally sympathetic to people who decide to stand back and wash their hands of parties they no longer feel welcome in.
It is this bi-partisan deathspiral that the great P.J. O’Rourke distances himself from in his new book A Cry From the Far Middle. O’Rourke is famously one of the funniest satirists on the American Right but has moved a great deal closer to the center as a result of the rise of populism on both sides of the aisle. He voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 just because he wanted to mitigate the cost and chaos of the populist administration we got. Whatever you think of populists like Trump and Sanders in the years since, the chaos of our current moment remains. O’Rourke isn’t having any of it.
A Cry From the Far Middle addresses the decadence and moral hypocrisy of our times. It’s an essay collection accumulated from chapters he posted on his website American Consequences. As such, the through-line of the book is somewhat minimal. That’s not unusual for a P.J. O’Rourke book of course. He’s always been a scattershot of a writer going on long tangents and anecdotes. His best books like Give War a Chance and Eat the Rich generally though fall back on a useful structure or conceit that frames all of the topics he discusses in his essays.
The book largely falls back on most of the classical liberal arguments for constitutional law and establishment politics. He write chapters in defense of negative rights, federalism, the electoral college, against nationalism, for patriotism and naturally offers a chapter comparing the current societal moment to George Orwell’s 1984. I would imagine anyone already delved into the mire of politics would find many of these arguments repetitive. For me, it almost felt nostalgic. I’m somewhat homesick for the great conservative-libertarian unity of the Obama administration and I appreciate a good libertarian take from time to time. Sometimes you just have the urge to wash your eyes out with bleach and a good book would do you better.
The book isn’t however just a contrarian attempt to mitigate circumstance. Unlike some more run-of-the-mill Never-Trumpers, O’Rourke does a good job taking very specific pot-shots at the far-left AND far-right at the same time. Few writers will start off a book talking about America’s history of slavery and Native American oppression and then turn around and say how the people claiming to speak for those groups are pushing nonsense policies.
O’Rourke is, after all, one of the great conservative writers of our time. If there’s any conclusive point to the book it’s a categorical defense of the idea of America and a defense of the libertarian notion of liberty. He understands that such ideas create the loud, obese and angry country we are today but he makes the case that such an America is a blessing. We can complain about our problems all we want but at the end of the day we are in a good position overall. There’s reason to step back and count our blessings in spite of our the chaos and our cultural history.
Naturally, I don’t imagine most people will heed such a call. Old school conservatives and libertarians don’t play well to the new generation being weened on a diet of Tucker Carlson, Mencious Moldbug, Nick Fuentes and Pat Buchannan-esc Paleo-Conservatism. Even I, a reflective contrarian with political sympathies all over the spectrum, found aspects of his arguments out of touch. Libertarianism always struck me as a good idea but my recent considerations have lead me to the conclusion that the ideology is doomed to eternal obscurity.
So long as the far-left and far-right have as much cultural power as they do, they’ll be the ones setting terms for the national discourse going forward. I wish that weren’t the case because it makes it difficult for gentility and understanding to worm their way back into the discourse. I’m the kind of person who still mourns that people don’t take the literal office of the presidency seriously anymore. As the old joke once said, “Reagan never even took his suite jacket off in the Oval Office while Clinton…”
I still mourn that there’s nobody in America willing to actually take on serious issues like the debt crisis and that Republicans LIED to me for a decade about their willingness to take the issue on. The Republicans who claimed to actually care about the debt issues proved themselves liars. The Republicans who made excuses to avoid nominating Garland proved themselves liars. I’m still mad at the Democrats who bragged on live-TV that Obama-care was a Trojan Horse designed to smuggle universal healthcare into mainstream political discussion. I’m upset with a lot of people in politics and I sympathize with anyone who simply wants to wash their hands of things and fall back on older arguments like PJ.
For what it’s worth though, I applaud P.J. O’Rourke for being willing to go back to basics and try his best to redirect all of the CRAZY floating around in the cultural miasma. Sometimes you just need to be the one voice in the room not contributing to the mess. People don’t appreciate that in the moment but such efforts are laudable none-the-less. A Cry From the Far Middle is an honorable attempt to move the dial away from cultural collapse. Even if the people who need to read it don’t take it seriously, the world is better for having a book like this out there.