The particular character of the 2010 model of American populism may be crystallizing around the two most argued-over issues of the moment: the demand for gay marriage and the effort to build the "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York. It's claimed that a majority of Americans oppose both ideas, and it's quite likely that the same Americans form the majority in both cases. In each case, an elite is accused of defying the people's will in the name of political correctness. In the case of the mosque, the majority is presumed entitled to a sensitivity that excludes any Islamic symbolism from supposedly sacred ground. In the case of gay marriage, the majority is presumed entitled to declare homosexual marriage, if not homosexuals themselves, unacceptable. To the extent that you deny either premise, today's populists argue, you oppose democracy. Presumably you prefer the rule of cultural elites as philosopher kings with the unjustifiable power to tell everyone else how to live or how to think.
Of course, seeing some people cry for democracy at this time is funny. Usually what I get from them is the reminder that the U.S.A. is not a democracy but a republic, and that the majority can't always get its way. But now we hear that homosexuals have only those rights that the voters, not the Constitution, suffer them to enjoy; and on the subject of the mosque we get complete mystification, and an insistence on sensitivity to sensitivity that is usually laughed out of the room when a minority sensitivity demands sensitivity from the rest of us. When Muslims themselves demand sensitivity to their scruples and taboos from the culture at large, they are sneered at before they have a chance to discredit their cause with threats of violence. But when the alleged majority brandishes its own raw sensitivity, than democracy itself, it seems, demands that everyone respect it even when, intellectually, it just isn't respectable.
Unfortunately, I suspect that a growing feeling of thwarted sovereignty provoked by these two controversies and others may make the difference that puts reactionaries over the top in the fall elections. Even the President fears this, I suspect; hence his weaselly backtracking this weekend from an affirmation of Muslims' right to build a mosque where they please to a statement leaving the "wisdom" of building near Ground Zero open to question. While Mayor Bloomberg remains resolute in support of the mosque, I think it's only a matter of time before the White House leans on him to lean on Cordoba House to end the matter. That'll be too bad. I don't like Islam but I try to dislike all forms of irrationality equally, and Islamophobia is just as irrational as what it hates. Populism in 2010 takes its stand on the side of irrationality and the right of the majority to govern, in some respects at least, according to whim. Freedom as we understand it today restrains us from saying that the majority has no right to be irrational, but it doesn't oblige us to defer to irrationality, either. Real freedom may require us to do the opposite.