This is an amazing time in American political history. We are seeing, in one of its purest forms, Darwinian evolution as applied to political movements, as the two main factions are constantly changing and adapting to an utterly unstable environment. And the changes and adaptations are absolutely fascinating to watch.
Human beings, by nature, look for patterns. It’s hard-wired into our psyches. But in politics, the circumstances are so constantly changing that there is barely enough time for a pattern to emerge before it becomes obsolete.
Here’s the pattern I’ve noted in the last decade or so of political history.
When a party finds itself shut out of power (no presidency, minorities in both Houses), it starts to fall apart a little. The leaders who oversaw the decline aren’t exactly exiled or excommunicated or executed, they just lose their relevance. They’re still around; it’s just that no one pays them much attention.
Instead, a faction begins forming within the party. But that’s not quite true; the faction sees itself as apart from the party. It doesn’t see itself as part of the whole, but sees the party as a useful structure to infiltrate and use to achieve their goals.
This faction has some rather unusual characteristics. For one, it tends to be largely leaderless. It is self-organizing, with some people assuming leadership roles, but there is no single leader or even a cabal that runs the whole thing.
For another, it tends not to focus on principles or issues, but at its core embodies a mood. An attitude. It’s fundamental nature is emotional, not rational.
For a few years, it amasses power. It draws members and money. It finds a few cooperative candidates and back them — hard. Should any “establishment” types choose to challenge (or, more accurately, resist) these chosen rebels, they are turned upon with exceptional ferocity — suffering far worse attacks from their putative “constituents” than they have from their nominal political adversaries.
These movements reach their peak during a presidential election, when they have a national campaign that their widespread arms can unite around. And the candidate they choose to back isn’t someone who comes from their ranks, but instead is one they can imbue with their beliefs. A candidate who is a bit of a blank slate, one with a few easily-recognizale traits that they can identify with, but enough ambiguities that they can project the rest of their agenda on to.
This is, in a nutshell, how the Nutroots responded to the 2000 elections and ended up giving us all President Obama.
And it is, in a nutshell, where I see the Tea Party movement heading — probably climaxing in 2012.
Who will be the candidate that the Tea Party will rally behind? Who will be the right’s Barack Obama? It’s way too early to tell — but there’s one person right now who seems to fit the mold to a T.
Who on the right is is strongly admired by the Tea Party, but not truly of the Tea Party? Who is looking to curry their favor, but retain their independence? Who has the kind of personal charisma — not the kind that attracts everyone, but polarizes them into either strongly liking or disliking them — that captures political fancy? Who has clearly-stated principles, yet remains ambiguous enough about a lot of issues that people can see and hear what they wish? Who seems to be more driven by emotion than intellect, who seems most about a mood and attitude than anything else?
Most importantly, who is most often compared — and contrasted — with President Obama, by both sides, in an attempt by one side to denigrate the other?
Who the hell else could it be but Mama Grizzly herself, Sarah Palin?
It’s way, way too early to predict who will be the Republican challenger in 2012. It’s way too early to even know if Palin will be a candidate. But I do feel comfortable in saying that the candidate who best embodies the “Palin spirit” as it exists today will have a hell of a lot of popular support — in utter disregard for the Republican establishment.