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The Tea Party Will Win in the End

Goldwater’s ideas—bizarre and otherwise—would eventually change the trajectory of the country, as Barack Obama would acknowledge, to some Democrats’ dismay, when appraising Reagan’s legacy in 2008. But no matter how many times the conservative bogeyman came back from the dead along the way, liberals were shocked at every resurrection. Whether it was the rise of Reagan, the coming of Scalia-Thomas “originalism” to the Supreme Court, or the Gingrich revolution of 1994, we were always gobsmacked.

Such is the power of denial that we simply refuse to concede that, by the metric of intractability, at least, conservatives are the cockroaches of the American body politic, poised to outlast us all. And so, after Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg spoke for sentimental liberal triumphalists everywhere when he concluded that America is now “in a progressive period” and that “the conservative movement brought about by the Gingrich revolution has been crushed.” That progressive period lasted all of a year, giving way to the 2009 gubernatorial victories of the conservatives Bob McDonnell (in the purple state of Virginia) and Chris Christie (in blue New Jersey), as well as that summer’s raucous Obamacare protests. Few Democrats had imagined that the new African-American president would be besieged so quickly by a conservative populist movement whose adherents dressed in 1776 drag and worshipped the frothing-at-the-blackboard Glenn Beck. Or that such a movement would administer a “shellacking” in the midterms.

Should Romney lead another shellacking of the Democrats this year, some liberals may squeeze out a modicum of solace by viewing it as the lesser of two evils: The man from Bain is no radical but a product of the traditional Republican conservative Establishment bankrolled by Wall Street. We are already being sold that story line by “centrist” GOP grandees on the Sunday talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages who repeatedly tell us that Romney is only pretending to be a hard-line ideologue to temporarily placate his party’s unruly base and that the “real” Romney is the center-right pragmatist who suddenly materialized out of nowhere at the first debate.

Should Romney lose in November, a far happier liberal scenario can be entertained: For all their qualms about stimulus spending and Obamacare, perhaps voters still prefer the party of modest government activism to the party of no government. Polls provide support for this view. In the latest Pew survey, the GOP as a whole is almost as unpopular as the tea party: Only 27 percent of Americans describe themselves as Republican (as opposed to 31 percent Democratic and 36 percent Independent).

One can almost write the obituaries for the right that would appear after a Romney defeat right now. Even the millions spent by Karl Rove’s sugar daddies in the post–Citizens United era had failed to sell a far-right GOP to American voters. Once again the republic has been saved from the crazies by good old bipartisan centrist common sense.

Dream on.

Where did these people come from?” asked a liberal friend of mine in Los Angeles this summer as we reminisced about the freak-show characters, from Bachmann to Mr. “9-9-9,” who cycled through the Republican-primary season, sequentially drawing unimaginable throngs of supporters. As Brinkley wrote in 1994, it’s a default liberal assumption that the right’s frontline troops are invariably “poor, provincial folk” or an “isolated, rural fringe” or “rootless, anomic people searching for personal stability,” rather than the perfectly conventional middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites they often are. We don’t want to believe they’re hiding in plain sight in our own neighborhoods and offices.

This was true at the dawn of the conservative movement in the early sixties, when typical grassroots organizers for the John Birch Society and the Goldwater campaign were not necessarily yahoos from the boonies but “housewives, doctors, dentists, engineers and ministers” from Orange County, in the accounting of the historian Lisa McGirr, whose study Suburban Warriors challenged long-held stereotypes of the American right. Religious and cultural conservatives and vehement anti-­communists were joined by fiercely independent Westerners who, like the Arizonan Goldwater, inherently disdained all eastern incursions, let alone Washington’s, into the nirvana of the former frontier. By breaking with moderate party leaders like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney and opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Goldwater instantly annexed the old Confederacy to his western crusade as well; no region hated the government more than the swath of states militantly resisting federal enforcement of racial desegregation. (In November, his only electoral votes came from the Deep South and Arizona.)

Journalists back then sneered not just at the racists rallying around the GOP ticket but at the “little old ladies in tennis shoes” and other outré zealots who palled around with crackpots like Robert Welch, the Birch Society leader who questioned the patriotism of Dwight Eisenhower and Earl Warren. Goldwater groupies were often seen as flakes, not unlike the tea-party zanies besotted with Beck a half-century later. Once the Goldwaterites were routed on Election Day, virtually every Establishment commentator assumed they would just crawl under a rock for good. A rare exception turns up as a prescient afterthought in Somehow It Works, an NBC News coffee-table book recapping the 1964 campaign. In the final paragraph of its epilogue, the anchorman Chet Huntley posed an “unanswered question” about those who had voted for the GOP ticket. “But twenty-six million votes are still somehow unaccounted for,” he wrote. “We do not know how they were divided among classic Republicans, segregationists, ‘Johnson-phobes,’ desperate conservatives, and radical nuts. Altogether, however, they are the American protest movement—the coalition of discontent.”