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The Tea Party Will Win in the End

That coalition, give or take a couple of components, would grow, not dwindle, in the decades to come. If the Goldwater campaign is often remembered today for the candidate’s trigger-happy (and self-immolating) nuclear bluster, his domestic ideology, unlike his Cold War bellicosity, hasn’t dated at all. His uninhibited anti-­government zeal long ago ceased to be “extremism” and became Republican boilerplate. Indeed, much of what Goldwater said in 1964 was recycled as is by virtually every major Republican politician in 2012, Romney included. The now-forgotten conservative radio talkers of that era sound strikingly contemporary, too. One typical broadcasting stalwart, Dan Smoot, upbraided Goldwater for making any effort to mollify moderates and liberals—lest he “chill the ardor of his real supporters.” Smoot was convinced, as was Goldwater, that a hidden American majority would vote the right into power if only it were offered a “clear-cut choice” between “constitutional conservatism” and “totalitarian liberalism.”

The right has never stopped believing that its vindication will arrive if voters are given that clear-cut choice. In the early primary season of 2012, nearly 75 percent of the Republican electorate judged Romney too ideologically squishy to offer it. Thanks to the remarkable flameouts of his competitors, Romney won the nomination anyway, but, following Bob Dole and John McCain, he is the end of the line for the desiccated remnants of his father’s more moderate party. The financial base of the GOP, like its voting base, has also completed its shift to the right; David and Charles Koch, after all, are the sons of Fred Koch, who served on Robert Welch’s original Birch Society council. If Mitt goes down, the billionaires will mourn his defeat for all of 24 hours before rallying around pure “constitutional conservatives” of a new generation like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan.

And if Romney wins? Like that other usefully anodyne front man John Boehner, he will more often than not do what he’s told by the radical young guns. His main task, as Grover Norquist said in February, will be “to sign the legislation that has already been prepared,” starting with Ryan’s harsh budget. At that dire point, another liberal certitude will offer some comfort to the defeated: The American public will rise up in revulsion at a draconian government downsizing of its New Deal and Great Society entitlements and will return the Democrats to power. That is entirely possible, but it’s still worth asking whether this as-yet-untested assumption might be as self-deluding as all the previous premature death knells for the American right.

For starters, take another look at recent polls, including those that augured well for Obama and the Democrats prior to the first debate. The GOP may be a small-tent party, male and mainly white, but Romney was still attracting as much as 48 percent of the vote despite being the most personally unpopular presidential nominee of either party in the history of modern polling. And while polls found Obama ahead of or even with Romney in every policy category, conservative ideology in the abstract fared far better. In the late-September Quinnipiac University–New York Times–CBS News survey of the swing states Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, for instance, the view that government is “doing too many things” easily beat the alternative that government “should do more.” The Pew American Values Survey from June is even starker in charting an intrinsic national alienation from a government that has been gridlocked since the turn of the century: By margins that approach or exceed two to one, a majority of Americans believe that government regulation of business “does more harm than good”; that the federal government should only run things “that cannot be run at the local level”; and that the “federal government controls too much of our daily lives.” Intriguingly, this animus almost uncannily matches that at the time of Goldwater’s trouncing in 1964. LBJ’s whopping 61 percent popular-vote total was matched by the 60 percent of Americans who told pollsters they were deeply concerned about the growth of bureaucratic federal government. Then as now, more voters identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, but the distrust of Washington transcends party lines and labels.

In the years between 1964 and 2012, presidents and wars both hot and cold have come and gone, as have countless culture wars, and yet the fundamental split on government’s role is much as it was when the right catapulted Goldwater to the top of a national ticket. The conservative credo has remained fixed even when it has been dishonored by its own camp (e.g., the free-spending administration of Bush 43). By contrast, the liberal faith that once seemed immutable to Lionel Trilling has been constantly downsized and muddied since the sixties. In the Obama era, it has become inchoate and defensive. Whatever the president’s other gifts, even he concedes his failure to convey “the story that tells us where he’s going” in his botched efforts to make the liberal case for the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. As his convention speech and first debate performance demonstrated, he is still having trouble mustering a powerful alternative vision to the right’s unyielding catechism. At the convention, that job had to be delegated to Bill Clinton, whose compelling address not only dramatized Obama’s shortfall in delivering a liberal message but that of the Democratic Party’s potential field for 2016 (Hillary Clinton included). That same convention week, the Times reported that neither Obama, Joe Biden, nor leading Democratic politicians in Ohio were willing to talk publicly about how administration policies, notably the auto-industry bailout, had contributed to that state’s economic turnaround. The White House feared that taking any credit for a liberal mission accomplished would inflame “public skepticism about large-scale government spending.”