So far, Newt Gingrich has survived numerous anathemas and excommunications from arbiters of conservatism to stand as the "social conservative" alternative to Mitt Romney. Gingrich has been accused of waging "class warfare" and betraying capitalism, yet he is still perceived as the favorite of the most reactionary elements of the Republican base electorate. As I've written recently, the Gingrich challenge throws into question what exactly conservatism means to the GOP base. Conor Friedersdorf, an Atlantic Monthly blogger, believes that Gingrich's appeal to the base transcends ideology. Friedersdorf is no fan of the former Speaker; his latest post rips Gingrich for asserting on a Spanish-language news program that Romney is anti-immigration. However, every new offense against presumed orthodoxy appears to confirm Gingrich's ability to get away with saying seemingly un-conservative things, at least in the South. Friedersdorf attributes this to Gingrich's "expert[ise] at signalling tribal identification with conservatives." Again, the writer really means southern conservatives, or so we must insist until Gingrich wins something elsewhere. How does Gingrich do this? Friedersdorf explains: "[W]hat people like about him is his ability to lash out at the mainstream media, the cultural elite, and President Obama." As Friedersdorf explained earlier: "Gingrich '12 is modeled after the successful tactics of movement conservatism's demagogues. Is there any candidate in memory whose persona so closely resembles an egomaniacal talk-radio host? The rank-and-file in South Carolina accept a would-be president behaving that way because they're used to their "thought leaders" talking like that." His conclusion is that Gingrich would be a triumph of demagogic style over conservative substance, but that judgment assumes a distinction between style and substance, or character and conduct, that Gingrich's supporters may reject. Whether Friedersdorf likes it or not, tribalism may be the essence of "conservatism" for many base Republicans. We needn't call it racism given the base's continued admiration for Herman Cain, but it is an ultimately intolerant idea of what makes a "real" American and has more to do with matters of style and "character" than with policies or philosophies. Gingrich may seem unorthodox to many Republicans, but that may not bother many other Republicans so long as they don't see his heterodoxy as subversive. As long as Gingrich is perceived as "one of us," he'll be cut slack on faith, while someone supposedly "other," whether Romney or Obama, would be suspected of trying to turn us into someone like him.
It arguably boils down to the distinction I like to draw between populists and progressives. The two tendencies may agree on many issues and share plenty of common enemies, but populism is always the utopianism of the here-and-now; its agenda is to perfect the world by the standards of today, while progressivism always seems implicitly to expect people to change, to adopt new standards, before utopia can be achieved. To the reactionary populist, progressivism threatens one's sense of self or self-worth in an intolerable way. Of course, Mitt Romney isn't a progressive, nor am I claiming that Gingrich supporters or Romney detractors see him that way. But he is seen as "other" by many people, either because of his religion or because of his inherited and accumulated wealth. He and Gingrich probably agree on more than they disagree on, but Gingrich will be able to get away with more in many quarters, even when he agrees with Romney. In other quarters, where Gingrich's southern heritage will work against him, the reverse may be true. Friedersdorf appears concerned about the rise of a nationwide tribalism of talk-radio listeners superimposed on the country's traditional geographic or demographic tribal divides. But it may well be tribalism that defeats Gingrich and even Romney in the long run -- not to mention the country. Until no American is seen as "other" and his suggestions as innately subversive, the danger is always there.