Lefty academics convene in Berkeley to try to make sense of the Tea Party movement.
When they try to label and categorize the politics of these new, conservative radicals, they convince one another but don't break through to the rest of the country. Over lunch, Charles Postel, an award-winning historian of populism and a professor at SFSU, talks about an interview he taped for a PBS program, in which he debated the Tea Party with the National Review's resident historian, Richard Brookhiser. Postel tried to explain that the more out-of-nowhere ideas of the Tea Party, such as repealing the 17th Amendment, were inspired by the John Birch Society. Brookhiser wouldn't have that.
"He blew up!" sighs Postel. "He was saying the Birchers haven't done anything in 40 years!"
"They have a fully staffed office!" laughs Chip Berlet, a well-traveled political researcher with a cane propping him up before his scheduled March 2011 knee surgery. "They were at CPAC!"
"It got so bad that they just didn't use that part of the tape," says Postel. He and Berlet move on and discuss whether the right can actually be "populist." Meanwhile, political anthropologist Madeline Landau shares her own theory of how the right-wing populists took over.
"The second that the major financial institutions would not loan money was in my view the critical moment," says Landau. "All Obama needed to do was say to Wall Street, if you do not do this I'm going to create some regional banks."
Most of the scholars take a darker view, and provide more evidence that Obama was always going to be running uphill. Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, presents data on the increasing partisanship of Republicans, who are more and more likely to despise Democratic presidents and deny them space to govern.
"The feeling thermometer scale goes from 0 to 100," says Abramowitz, pointing to a chart with a collapsing line. "Over time, you can see that Democratic presidential candidates getting less and less. By the last time period, you can see that the average rating is around 27 degrees. That's downright freezing."
But there's a tussle here. Was Obama's downfall inevitable? Was the rise of the Tea Party? "We need social citizenship," says Lisa Disch, a professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Michigan. "We don't need Democrats kowtowing to the language of the market—although I don't think Obama is kowtowing. He believes in it."
That puts the blame on Obama, but a moment later, Disch argues that the Senate and the Republican Party used the Tea Party's anger to undercut any progressive agenda Obama might have had. "You're not allowed to just say no to everything the president wants," she says, venting. "The Tea Party movement gives them the illusion they're speaking for the majority when they aren't."
The research, the race theory, the scholarly speculation—all of this is a good start, but it doesn't soothe academics who expect the Republicans to win a bunch of elections in 10 days. While they try to understand the movement, while they pass on New Yorker articles about the Kochs and the Birchers, the movement keeps on beating them.
"I wonder if we're likely to see a Timothy McVeigh situation," says Nicholas Robert, an attendee originally from Australia, who basically wonders if any Tea Partiers can be arrested. "It seems to be that we're being very polite. I wonder if there are any legal mechanisms—one that comes to mind are the provisions used to crush the Wobblies."
He gets no sympathy from the academics. "I think that's a dangerous road to go down," says Berlet.
Abramowitz finds me and whispers into my ear. "In Berkeley," he says, "you're seeing the other side of polarization."
Correction, Oct. 26, 2010: This article originally misquoted Rick Perlstein as saying, "... everyone has an opinion of about what they're hearing. ..." ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Sarah Palin by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.