So what did happen? The first decade of the 21st century was a crazy bookend to the twentieth, opening with a second Pearl Harbor and ending with a second Great Crash, with a second Vietnam wedged in between. Now we seem caught in the coils of a second Great Depression. These shocks radicalized the political system, damaging hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton in the Bush years and then driving Republicans to dust off the economics of Ayn Rand.
Some liberals suspect that the conservative changes of mind since 2008 are opportunistic and cynical. It’s true that cynicism is never entirely absent from politics: I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played about the lips of the leader of one prominent conservative institution as he told me, “Our donors truly think the apocalypse has arrived.” Yet conscious cynicism is much rarer than you might suppose. Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves. Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know—canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him—and yet that is done too.
Conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment.
Conservatives have been driven to these fevered anxieties as much by their own trauma as by external events. In the aughts, Republicans held more power for longer than at any time since the twenties, yet the result was the weakest and least broadly shared economic expansion since World War II, followed by an economic crash and prolonged slump. Along the way, the GOP suffered two severe election defeats in 2006 and 2008. Imagine yourself a rank-and-file Republican in 2009: If you have not lost your job or your home, your savings have been sliced and your children cannot find work. Your retirement prospects have dimmed. Most of all, your neighbors blame you for all that has gone wrong in the country. There’s one thing you know for sure: None of this is your fault! And when the new president fails to deliver rapid recovery, he can be designated the target for everyone’s accumulated disappointment and rage. In the midst of economic wreckage, what relief to thrust all blame upon Barack Obama as the wrecker-in-chief.
The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers. For the past three years, the media have praised the enthusiasm and energy the tea party has brought to the GOP. Yet it’s telling that that movement has failed time and again to produce even a remotely credible candidate for president. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.
Many hope that the tea-party mood is just a passing mania, eventually to subside into something more like the businessperson’s Republicanism practiced in the nineties by governors and mayors like George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani, Christine Todd Whitman and Dick Riordan, Tommy Thompson and John Engler. This hope tends to coalesce around the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, two smart and well-informed former governors who eschew the strident rhetoric of the tea party and who have thereby earned its deep distrust. But there are good reasons to fear that the ebbing of Republican radicalism remains far off, even if Romney (or Huntsman) does capture the White House next year.