The great tragedy of democracy is that we get the politics we deserve.
Anti-Palin conservatives are aghast that The Glorious Conservative Cultural Revolution – joyfully fought for decades against the liberals, “experts”, the blacks, the queers, women who work, unions, immigrants, urbanites, public libraries, the poor, people who live near salt water, the secular or heterodox, the ENEMEDIA, fictional child wizards, scientists, community organizers, people who drink the wrong caffeinated beverages, Ay-rabs (those people whose anscestors hail from somewhere between Greece and Bangladesh, and perhaps Venezuala), people who drink the wrong alcoholic beverages,”intellectuals”, and all the works and pomps of Modernity – has come home. Now that good, decent, honest Conservatives With Bow Ties are being attacked with the kind of viciousness normally reserved for the very poor and people with actual intellectual achievements, it is clear that things have gone entirely too far. “Crunchy Con” Rod Dreher is verklemmt, flinging himself onto the couch for some conservative re-birthing therapy, wherein we learn, in quite revolting detail, that Rod’s Reagan fixation stems from unresolved daddy issues. You have lost your movement, Mr. Dreher, but you have gained something far, far more valuable: yourself. Congratulations on the breakthrough, and please pay my receptionist on the way out.
Daniel Larison goes farthest, deciding that Sarah Palin’s populism of yahooism is not truly “populism” because … well, because. Because it is directed at people who live and work in Washington and are suspected of attending “cocktail parties“. Because it does not come from the refined mind of Rick Santorum. Because it does not punish “the establishment” with policy, because it does not advance the intellectually correct policy ideas of Daniel Larison, it is “pseudo-populism”, or “quasi-populism”. Mr. Larison should write a book about this, titled What’s The Matter With Kansas, Texas, Utah, Idaho, white evangelicals, rural areas, most of the writers at National Review’s NYC offices … . Hmm, that might not fit on the cover. Maybe you could try a hip, wired cover design like this:
Republican politics have always been populist politics, at least for as long as I have been alive. Economic resentment in American politics naturally flows down, rather than up ias populism requires, so right wing economic populism always has a sort of Alice in Wonderland quality to it. One thinks of George Wallace reinventing white racism as up-directed anger at the “pointy-headed intellectuals“, the imagined ringleaders of desegregation. One thinks especially of Reagan’s brilliant Looking-Glass attack on the desperately poor (and, ahem, “urban”) as being “Welfare Queens“, a move which would have made the Red Queen’s head spin, but which still makes all good bow tie conservatives cheer. George W. Bush’s justa-good-ole-boy mugging, while equally absurd, went over very well – as did his response to hurricane Katrina, a very well-recieved “Let Them Eat Cake“. “Joe” the “Plumber” has become a winger-populist hero because he might get taxed more if he nets a quarter million dollars a year (he wouldn’t, but being unable to do the math only adds to his authenticity). That sounds like populism turned completely upside-down, and it is, from almost any imaginable theory of politics. But in the politics of the conservative base, the conservative base is always the ultimate victim, even when their approved leaders control every branch of government, even when anything. Critiques of this are ipso facto eggheadery, and that goes double if you call them “critiques” and invoke elitist dead foreign languages. You fuckin’ egghead.
True Populism – and here, all right-thinking people agree – is the populism where your personal greivences are addressed, and where you are never the target of any greivence. These populisms are very attractive for obvious reasons, and are often well-argued and logically consistant in the way that elitist eggheads find so edifying. Populisms which fail to meet these criteria are not populist at all, no matter how popular, and no matter how monomaniacal in their portrayal of common folk struggling against some sort of oppressive elite. Sarah Palin defines this oppression in a very petty, adolescent way, true; a very petty way which resonates powerfully with huge numbers of Bush/Reagan voters. In the midst of the biggest financial crisis in 70 years, in the midst of two failing wars, in the midst of the lowest right track/wrong track numbers since Nero’s last blow-out concert, the Republicans running with this “pseudo-populism” may get 2-3% less of the popular vote than in 2000 or 2004. Or, they might win. If feel your pain about this, Bow Tie Conservatives, I really, honestly do, much more than you can know. But it’s time to face the truth about populism in practice: you rouse the rabble you have, not the rabble you wish you had.