Over at The American Conservative, Larison uses the NY Times/CBS News poll to argue that the Tea Partiers aren’t populists but rather “base” conservatives. He echoes Peter Beinart, who points out the differences between the Tea Partiers and the followers of William Jennings Bryan. As far as the data go, they’re right. Tea Party supporters appear to be better educated, wealthier, and more likely to call themselves conservative than the general population.
Does that mean that they can’t also be populists? I’m not sure. On the one hand, populism can refer a particular tradition of redistributionist, anti-corporate, usually agrarian political ideas. Most Tea Partiers reject that tradition. On the other hand, populism can describe a conception of the appropriate relation between governors and governed in a representative democracy. On this view, policy should be much more closely tied to public opinion, or to direct popular decision, than to the judgment of legislative or bureaucratic elites.
Many of the Tea Partiers, it seems to me, are populists in the latter sense. If you prefer, call them plebiscitarians rather than populists. Thing is, white, male, married conservatives over the age of 45 are not a majority in this country, or even a majority of voters. I suspect that this frustrating reality is the source of the racial and cultural anxieties beneath the surface of the small-government rhetoric.
UPDATE: Larison responds with a typically thoughtful post. I agree with much of it. But I don’t think that undermines the argument I made above, because we’re actually making slightly different points. To be clear, I’m suggesting that the Tea Partiers tend to regard themselves as plebscitarians. Larison, on the other hand, points out that they really aren’t–or at least that their majoritarianism seems conditional on getting their way.
But both these things can true. Given the incoherence on policy that many Tea Partiers demonstrate (especially in regard to entitlement and defense spending), there’s no reason that they shouldn’t also be incoherent in their self-conception.
So where I disagree with Larison is his claim that “Conservatives actually know very well that they do not speak for a majority in this country, and they are also well aware that changes that would allow for more direct, plebiscitary democracy, whether in presidential elections or in passing legislation, would work to the detriment of their smaller states and their overall political interests.” That assumes a level of cynicism that may be cultivated by a Mitt Romney, but probably not many rank-and-file conservatives, who either don’t know this, or suffer from such extreme cognitive dissonance that it doesn’t effect their thinking.