Eve Peyser does a good job of explaining how the phrase “owning the libs” gained currency and what it means. The occasion is U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent decision to admonish a bunch of high schoolers that real leadership doesn’t derive from insulting and “triggering” your political opponents but in persuading people to follow your reasoning and vision. Yet, I think the phenomenon runs deeper than an internet meme and fad. It’s a central aspect of conservatism to reject higher reasoning, whether that be the simple application of logic or a more rigorous application of the scientific method.
The original “owning the libs” was to respond to the theories of Charles Darwin by saying “I’m not some monkey’s uncle,” as if that settled the matter and no further discussion of the theory of evolution was necessary. Today’s Scopes Trial is probably the debate over climate change, and any time it snows or the mercury falls is a good to time to “own the libs” by saying “where’s your global warming now?”
It’s worth noting that the lawyer representing the anti-evolution side in the Scopes Trial was three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan. The Democrats were not always so staunchly on the side of science any more than they were always on the side of desegregation. One way that conservatives like to “own the libs” is to point out that a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Obviously, the Solid Jim Crow South was run by the Democratic Party. To point this out to deflect accusations of present-day Republican racism is no different from carrying a snowball into the well of the Senate to rebut theories of climate change.
There’s a fuzzy line in this kind of behavior. For some, quips about a snowball or not being a monkey’s uncle are convincing arguments. These people actually lack higher reasoning abilities. But, more often, the conservatives say and do these things because they know they’re bad arguments that will drive liberals crazy. If you’re trying to do the bidding of the energy behemoths in Oklahoma, both elements work for you. A lot of stupid people will be convinced that the ice caps aren’t really melting and the seas aren’t turning into vats of acid. That’s fake news. But, the smarter people just enjoy the show and give you points for triggering an apoplectic response from people who actually know how the brain is supposed to work.
If someone told you that the Houston Astros are not really the champions of baseball because the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 1964, you’d think they were talking nonsense. But if someone tells you that the Republican Party is the less racist of the two major American political parties because of a vote that took place in 1964, that is supposed to be a legitimate argument. Conservatives get real joy out of these kinds of retorts both because they’re infuriating and because they actually work on a significant portion of their base.
The conservative intelligentsia knows how to use evidence properly when the evidence backs their point of view, but they’re perfectly willing and even accustomed to cherry-picking, misrepresenting, distorting, denying, or manufacturing evidence to suit their purpose. This isn’t done primarily to own the libs. It’s done to justify economic policies that won’t deliver the promised economic growth, or changes in regulations that will allow more deforestation, mining, pollution, and extinction. It’s done to rationalize foreign policies that are set for ideological rather than factual purposes.
This practice has been a core element of the conservative movement from the beginning but it has mutated now because the Republican Party has been completely captured by the conservative movement. The scientists, environmentalists, economists, and foreign policy realists have been chased out, and the GOP is now fully committed to a cultural war in which they stand opposed to academia, the scientific method, and all the values of higher learning and inquiry.
Thus, doing something just because it will piss off liberals often takes the form of “liking” or sharing a really bad faith argument. The point is no longer to advance anything concrete but just to get the satisfaction of seeing the response. The Birther Movement definitely took this form. Yes, a lot of stupid people were actually convinced that President Obama faked his birth certificate, was a secret Muslim, and an illegitimate president. Most people, however, knew that was all horseshit and just liked to see the president insulted and his supporters upset.
As a fad, “owning the libs” will pass. But as an aspect of the conservative movement, it’s as permanent as their love for Ronald Reagan.