Nobody knows how all this will play out, but we are seeing is something big—something homegrown, broad-based and independent. In part it is a rising up of those who truly believe America is imperiled and truly mean to save her. The dangers, both present and potential, are obvious. A movement like this can help a nation by helping to correct it, or it can descend into a corrosive populism that celebrates unknowingness as authenticity, that confuses showiness with seriousness and vulgarity with true conviction. Parts could become swept by a desire just to tear down, to destroy. But establishments exist for a reason. It is true that the party establishment is compromised, and by many things, but one of them is experience. They’ve lived through a lot, seen a lot, know the national terrain. They know how things work. They know the history. I wonder if Tea Party members know how fragile are the institutions that help keep the country together.
One difference so far between the Tea Party and the great wave of conservatives that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 is that latter was a true coalition—not only North and South, East and West but right-wingers, intellectuals who were former leftists, and former Democrats. When they won presidential landslides in 1980, ’84 and ’88, they brought the center with them. That in the end is how you win. Will the center join arms or work with the Tea Party? That’s a great question of 2012.