Delaware to planet earth: the grass-roots right is real
Christine O'Donnell's victory in the Republican primary for the state of Delaware last night has sent the US media into a frenzy today.
O'Donnell is a religious conservative who was backed by the Teaparty movement. She got Sarah Palin to send a personal telephone message to voters, but was was opposed by the Republican Party itself: that is, the party machine actually campaigned against one of its own potential candidates, with O'Donnell's former campaign chief hitting the phones to denounce her as "not really a conservative".
The upshot is: in a state they could have won by fielding a mainstream candidate, Republican voters turned out in large numbers to choose someone the media are branding as "extreme" - giving the Democrats a much better chance of holding the seat. It's being seen as - and is - a microcosm of what's going on inside conservatism in America. It is moving to the right, as the Teaparty movement ousts one traditional conservative after another, and - say analysts - making an Obama second term a lot more likely.
The Teaparty movement was born out of the rightwing populist-led protests against the original plan to bail out Wall Street, the TARP, in October 2008. As the bailout morphed into a $787bn fiscal stimulus, the demands of the movement coalesced around an agenda of tax cuts, lower public spending and a balanced budget (America's national debt is $13.5 trillion). Then it moved on again to migration, abortion, gun-control and challenges to US Federal law.
The US media's original response, as with all plebeian movements beyond Washington, was to ignore the Teaparty. Liberal commentators and comedian Jon Stewart relentlessly made fun of the overwhelmingly white, over 45s who attended the rallies, with some suggesting the whole movement was "Astroturf" - ie fake grass roots.
However, one outlet relentlessly covered (the liberals allege promoted) the movement: Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. Fox's commentator Glenn Beck openly identified himself with the movement and unleashed weekly tirades against its main enemy: President Obama.
After last night, and after a string of victories against more traditionalist conservatives in the Republican primaries, the liberal wing of America is no longer laughing at the Teaparty - and the "Brooks Brothers" wing of Republicanism also looks a little straight faced this morning. No one is anymore talking about Astroturf, because these were votes, not rallies.
What we can take away from these events, so far, is as follows: Sarah Palin has become the undisputed power-broker of Republicanism. While the centre-right old guard will now launch a serious rearguard action, the momentum is with the fiscal and religious right. On the more traditional right wing of the Republican Party a lot of people now face a choice: do they go in with the Teaparty, feed off its momentum, or not. Carly Fiorina, former boss of Hewlett Packard, was by no means politically in the same ball park as Palin, yet she won by managing to tick enough boxes with Palin. Palin withstood criticism from her own supporters over backing Fiorina - which is what powerbrokers do.
For Democrats and the left, who accuse the whole Teaparty agenda as being a front for racism, the O'Donnell victory is a signal moment.
On the one hand certain party strategists will be, as Neil Kinnock once put it, "licking their chops" at the prospect of fighting an out-and-out rightist GOP in 2012. On the other, there is perplexion and discomfort that it is the right that has harnessed populist outrage at the rigours of the recession, not the left.
As I have said before, there are clear signs that the outcome of the economic crisis that began in 2007 will be shaped by the political cycle, which is moving in the opposite direction to the way it moved in 1929-32. And nowhere more so than in America.
If the Republicans, as expected, take control of the House of Representatives in January, that blocks any further fiscal stimulus; it leaves economic policy in the hands of the Federal Reserve, whose boss says there is not much more he can effectively do. Meanwhile there is no let-up to the mass expressions of anger I have written about here before. America, under the impact of relentless downturn, real-estate collapse and budget deficits is in danger of losing its way in the world.
As I'm travelling here, in the Midwest, I am constantly seeing roadworks paid for by the stimulus, and visiting projects boosted by it. But it is sticking plaster without a return to sustainable economic growth - and as the days turn into years - (it's two years to the day since Lehman collapsed) - patience is running thin. It's the closed storefronts, mothballed businesses and repossessed homes that are driving political radicalisation.
I'll be reporting in depth about the economics of this when I get back (I'm preparing a series of reports for Newsnight from the mid-West) - but for now one more point about O'Donnell.
The Teaparty movement is mobilising the Republican mass base as never before. That means she could win. If she does, in the face of active opposition from her own party, it will take away the last comfort blanket for Democrat politicians. Many, including their supporters in the media, have tended to assume that a Palin-led GOP ticket could not beat Barack Obama in 2012; that Republicanism would fragment in the process. They have tended to dismiss the Teaparty, together with Obama's poor poll results, as a part of the political cycle. They have looked at the long-term demographics of America - which are becoming younger, more multi-ethnic, more educated - and believed the tide was flowing their way.
Of O'Donnell were to win in Delaware all those calcualtions go out of the window.
As an outsider, I think a lot of people in the USA, including the media, are missing is that the economics of the situation are new. The American Dream of self-advancement through property ownership, long hours, small business is taking a lot of punishment in this recession - as are the so-called "middle class", who in British terms are the "respectable working class". Here such people are seeing their healthcare plans eroded, their lifestyles eaten away by debt-repayments and job insecurity.
To global business types who know places like China, India, Scandinavia or Singapore first hand, the USA has long since ceased to feel like the most dynamic economy on earth. But now, and this is crucial, it's ceasing to feel like that for Americans. That's what's at the root of the seismic politics of the Teaparty movement.