Were the 2012 campaign a Hitchcock movie, Mitt Romney would be the MacGuffin—a device that drives a lot of plot gyrations but proves inconsequential in itself. Then again, Barack Obama could be, too. Our down-to-the-wire presidential contest is arguably just a narrative speed bump in the scenario that has been gathering steam throughout the Obama presidency: the resurgence of the American right, the most determined and coherent political force in America. No matter who is elected president, what Romney calls severe conservatism will continue to consolidate its hold over one of our two major parties. And that party is hardly destined for oblivion. There’s a case to be made that a tea-party-infused GOP will have a serious shot at winning future national elections despite the widespread liberal belief (which I have shared) that any party as white, old, and male as the Republicans is doomed to near or complete extinction by the emerging demographics of 21st-century America.
But isn’t the tea party yesterday’s news, receding into the mists of history along with its left-wing doppelgänger, Occupy Wall Street? So it might seem. It draws consistently low poll numbers, earning just a 25 percent approval rating in a Wall Street Journal–NBC News survey in September. The tea-party harbinger from 2008, Sarah Palin, and the bomb throwers who dominated the primary process of 2012, led by the congressional tea-party caucus leader Michele Bachmann, were vanquished and lost whatever national political clout they had, along with much of their visibility (even on Fox News). So toxic is the brand that not one of the 51 prime-time speakers at the GOP convention in Tampa dared speak its name, including such tea-party heartthrobs as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Scott Brown, who became an early tea-party hero for unexpectedly taking Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 2010, has barely alluded to the affiliation since.
All this evidence is misleading. As one conservative commentator, Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway, wrote during the GOP convention, it means nothing that Republican leaders don’t mention the tea party anymore. “In reality, of course the Republican party of 2012 is pretty much the tea party at this point,” he wrote. “One need only look at the party platform and listen to what the speakers are actually saying to recognize that fact.” He saw the tea party as “likely to see its influence increase after the November elections regardless of what happens to the Romney/Ryan ticket”—and rightly so. Though the label itself had to be scrapped—it has been permanently soiled by images of mad-dog protesters waving don’t tread on me flags—its ideology is the ideology of the right in 2012. Its adherents will not back down or fade away, even if Obama regroups and wins the lopsided Electoral College victory that seemed in his grasp before the first debate. If anything, the right will be emboldened to purge the GOP of the small and ideologically deviant Romney claque that blew what it saw as a “historic” opportunity to deny a “socialist” president a second term.
History tells us that American liberals have long underestimated the reach and resilience of the right, repeatedly dismissing it as a lunatic fringe and pronouncing it dead only to watch it bounce back stronger after each setback. That pattern was identified in an influential essay, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” published by the historian Alan Brinkley in 1994. Brinkley was writing two years after the religious right of Pat Robertson had stunned liberals by hijacking the GOP convention from the country-club patrician George H.W. Bush—the same fundamentalist right that had ostensibly retreated from politics after the humiliating Scopes trial in the twenties.
The culture-war convention in Houston was just the most recent example of liberals finding themselves ambushed by a conservative surge. As the afterglow of the New Deal gave way to the postwar boom, the preeminent literary critic Lionel Trilling declared, in 1950, that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America. And for a while a string of conservative defeats proved Trilling right: the failed bid of Senator Robert Taft (“Mr. Conservative”) for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination, the censure of Joe McCarthy in 1954, the epic trouncing of Barry Goldwater a decade later. During that Republican electoral debacle, Richard Hofstadter, the historian who would famously stigmatize the right as embodying “the paranoid style in American politics,” wrote in The New York Review of Books that Goldwater represented “a very special minority point of view which is not even preponderant in his own party.” He added: “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?” As it happened, Ronald Reagan, the most enthusiastic and eloquent of Goldwater exponents, would be elected governor of California just two years later.