When George Bush and John McCain tried to pass immigration reform, they were defeated by their own populist right. And in this election year, the appeal of nay-saying and politics-by-tantrum will be strong. For the Republicans, the tea-party movement is an irresistible opportunity to double down on the crackpot emotionalism, an edgy new little anti-Establishment brand extension nominally (but not ideologically) distinct from the tired, discredited old GOP, something like what pseudo-microbrews like Land Shark Lager and Red Dog are to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. If the Republicans, as a result, stick to their just-say-no game, what’s at risk is not merely Democratic majorities and Obama’s reelection, but—not to get too hysterical—the future of the republic. Apart from practical paralysis on addressing the big issues like health care and entitlements and energy, this extreme and practically nihilistic divisiveness, refusal as virtue, could become the new normal. In a Times dispatch from the Davos conference, Tom Friedman wrote that our political emotionalism and congressional dysfunction are freaking out the global leaders who depend on the U.S. to be the grown-up. Of course, “the Davos elite” is one of Pat Buchanan’s contemptuous populist terms of derision.
Americans are rustic and bumptious, sure; that’s part of our charm. And every so often we endure a big populist outburst. But if the elite really goes native, then we’re in trouble. “It’s time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency,” Sarah Palin said in 2008, and in 2012 I have little doubt she’ll be a normal Joe Six-Pack American seeking the presidency. Along with, perhaps, Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck. If an unknown, inexperienced African-American could do it, why not one of them? Fortunately, during the last half-century, large majorities of Americans have turned sensible every time populist push came to shove, declining to make George Wallace, George McGovern, Nader, John Edwards, Kucinich, Mike Huckabee, or Ron Paul president. When it comes to reenacting our patriotic founding story, we’d better keep choosing to play the deliberative gentlemen engaged in careful compromise more than the apoplectic vandals dressed up as Indians and throwing things overboard.