As we approach the primaries on Tuesday, we get the sense that this is a tectonic moment in American politics, one in which the Little Platoons—to borrow Burke’s fireproof label for the most exigent practitioners of grassroots politics—will make a statement of angry intent. Out with you, they will say to some charlatans and big-time bums; you have an opportunity to represent us, they will say to others by contrast, expressing a pitiless politics of probation.
This political “cleansing,” which can be as brutal and cathartic as that word suggests, should be particularly compelling on this occasion: All American politics, however granular or local, is now seen as a movie trailer for National November. That is when President Obama will face his first formal electoral confrontation with the American people since he ran for office in 2008. And Obama, who does electoral politics far, far better than he does the politics of policy, will find a certain relief in the ballot-box formality, for he will be judged by irrefutable numbers and results, a contrast to the innuendo and bloviating that is the staple of political commentary at the present time (this column, surely, included).
You cannot fire effectively at the real enemy unless the marksmanship against your own kind is precise.
The voters’ judgment is likely to be cruel. But what are we to make of the politics out there? First, we should recognize that there is considerable ferment, a serious churning of political attitudes and loyalty. The Tea Party movement is waging an “Us Versus Them” war, but those who are “Them” are, for the moment, primarily Republican, as Utah’s ousted senator, Bob Bennett, has discovered. Democrats are “Them,” too, but a second-order “Them” to be addressed after kindred-but-wussy Republicans are dispatched to the ideological abattoir.
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One may not, personally, subscribe to Arizona’s hard-line illegal-immigrant verification law (and I certainly do not), but one cannot dismiss the right of American citizens, in Arizona and elsewhere, to demand that Washington perform the duties that it is obliged, legally, to perform. The over-centralized American state—at least in matters that matter to Americans, such as immigration—is being challenged aggressively across the country. Some years ago, V.S. Naipaul wrote a book about India, describing a new assertiveness among citizens who were claiming their share of political and civic attention. He called it “A Million Mutinies Now.” That title could apply equally to America, as a description of the demands that Americans who are not of the Beltway are making of those who would govern them de haut en bas. There are political mutinies happening all across America: America is an archipelago of political insurrection.
This is a mostly Republican churn, for the moment, and this cannot be surprising. The Democrats have just given us a revolution in the form of Barack Obama, and there had, inevitably, to be an insurrectionary riposte from the right. What is so bracing is that the cannons of this insurrection have been trained first, and fratricidally, at the Republican Party. Those who are training the cannons know exactly what they are doing. You cannot fire effectively at the real enemy unless the marksmanship against your own kind is precise.
And this precision, come November, will be trained at a Democratic target.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)