The Christine O’Donnell Debate
Will O’Donnell’s political élan help the anti-statist cause more than her naïveté will hurt it?


Last Friday, GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who had defeated Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware primary three days earlier, was in Washington, where her cheerful excoriation of the pathologies of America’s “ruling-class elites” kindled the enthusiasm of the audience at the Values Voter Summit.

A short time later, O’Donnell, facing questions about witchcraft, mice with human brains, and the improper use of campaign funds, canceled appearances on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday.

Even her opinion of lying has been scrutinized. She holds Immanuel Kant’s view that to tell a lie is always wrong. Most people, I suppose, take Dr. Johnson’s position that “if . . . a murderer should ask you which way a man is gone, you may tell him what is not true.”

What is the conservative to make of O’Donnell’s candidacy? Although just about everyone on the right has now rallied around her as infinitely preferable to her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, the primary stoked an intense intra-conservative debate. Karl Rove, Erick Erickson, Charles Krauthammer, and writers at National Review pointed to the candidacy’s defects. Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint, and Sarah Palin argued for its promise.

O’Donnell has been compared to Palin, but she has nothing like Palin’s record of accomplishment. Palin, when she became John McCain’s running-mate in 2008, had in succession run a business, a town, and a state even as she raised a family. O’Donnell, by contrast, has been little more than a gadfly and a perennial office-seeker.

Yet she has, undeniably, a political gift; her gaffes can be plausibly explained, and perhaps her finances as well; gadflies have their virtues, of which courage is not the least. Her critique of the statist policies of the “ruling-class elites” has touched a nerve.

It is true that the word “elite” is apt to be tossed around a little casually in hard times. No simple definition of the term is likely to prove satisfactory, and the pathologies O’Donnell is concerned to isolate are more characteristic of certain members of the leading classes than others. Her bête noire is the elitist who has embraced the intrusive social state. The social creed was once the philosophy of rebels against established order; but, as Lionel Trilling long ago showed, it has become inseparable from a vision of power and mastery. The social idealist, Trilling said in 1948, is one “who takes license from his ideals for the unrestrained exercise of power.” The “ultimate threat to human freedom,” he wrote in a sympathetic account of George Orwell’s thought, could well come from a “massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture.”