Jonathan Raban's "At the Tea Party" in the New York Review of Books (courtesy Matthew L.) is generally excellent but especially relevant to me. Anyone who has undergone an ideological conversion at some point in life – particularly the right-to-left kind – will empathize with the author's discomfort and inner conflict throughout the piece. I am familiar with the lonely feeling of being in a crowded room and realizing that everyone around you is absolutely out of their goddamn mind. And I strongly suspect that a lot of conservatives look at the carnival freakshow that is the Tea Party and know exactly what that feels like.

The conservative movement has always had an image problem. Previously (pre-Gingrich and "Contract with America" era) the problem was that "conservative" conjured up images of old, well-heeled white men in a country club sipping 40 year scotch in cashmere sweaters. The ideological faces of the movement were people like Safire and Buckley, pretentious stuffed shirts who fancied themselves intellectuals. True, there was a lunatic fringe – Father Coughlin, the Birchers, McCarthy – but mainstream conservatism tried to keep it at arm's length. Now the driving intellectual force of the movement is a gaggle of AM radio nutbars; Father Coughlin is back but this time the elected officials are groveling at his feet. And the new image of the average conservative has less to do with country clubs than with trailer parks, NASCAR infields, and barely literate adults in histrionics and stupid hats.

Raban does fail to note that the Tea Party Convention, with its $600 registration fee and multi-weekday format, does not provide an accurate cross-section of the movement. Of course the attendees will be retirees with money to throw around. Who else would have the time or money to blow on such a circus? But even in this overwhelmingly homogeneous group he notes a clear dividing line between, for lack of a better term, the sane and the batshit crazy. There are people in the audience who exchange silent grimaces with their spouse or friends when Tom Tancredo goes on his anti-immigration tirade and proposes a "civics literacy test" for voting or when Joseph Farah of World Nut Daily gives his boilerplate "God is American, and where's the birth certificate?" sermon. Half the room cheers like mad, getting the bile-fueled entertainment for which they came, and the other half wonders "Who are these people and what the hell am I doing here?"

Educated conservatives realize, for example, that 25% of the electorate is going to be Latino in a couple of decades and Tancredoism will guarantee indefinite minority status for the GOP. They realize that the insane birth certificate crap is just the update version of, as Lee Atwater (Reagan's version of Karl Rove) said:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger"

Conservative or not, any reasonably intelligent person knows exactly what the "birther" crap is – and more importantly, how damaging it is to the cause. Raban highlights the serious schism between people who do and do not get that. I don't know where conservatism goes from here, but I know where a lot of individual conservatives are going if the Glenn Beck legions manage to consume the GOP entirely.