As the US midterm election campaign grinds towards what looks like a heavy kicking for the Democrats and a breakthrough for the "Tea Party" (whatever that actually is: - I'll come back to that in a moment), I'm somewhat depressed that the Republicans are so resurgent, but not actually that surprised.
In retrospect the euphoria that accompanied the Obama victory two years ago was overdone. I can understand why people (including myself) went over the top like that: after the stealing of the 2000 election by the election thief and war criminal George W Bush, and then the major league disappointment of 2004 when the likeable John Kerry went down to a narrow defeat, there was so much worry that those f***ing Republicans would pull it off again. And indeed in early September 2008 I remember being very worried; Obama's campaign against McCain (rather than against Hilary Clinton) took ages to get going because the Democratic primaries were so protracted, he was behind in the polls and he wasn't getting traction. Then the banking system collapsed, McCain gave the impression of being a senile lunatic, and Obama romped home.
Or did he? Not really. He won by 6 percentage points - the US electoral college system makes that LOOK like a big margin of victory but it isn't really. There have been huge electoral victories in US presidential victories before - for example Reagan vs Mondale in 1984, or Nixon vs McGovern in 1972. By contrast, 2008 was a respectable win but it wasn't a wipeout. And it was largely driven by the economy imploding at just the right time for the Democrats.
This meant that there was still a sizeable body of opinion marshalled against Obama. The economic stimulus plan which got through Congress in 2009 stopped the economy imploding completely but was too small and not enough focused on infrastructure investment to get unemployment down below 10 percent - which has created an impression that the stimulus in some way caused the slump. This is economically and historically incoherent but it is the message that has been pumped out by Fox News and the other right wing outlets that control huge swathes of the US media.
This has been compounded by Obama's failure to get anything through the Senate bar the most brutally compromised healthcare bill - still an impressive achievement compared with anything his predecessors managed, but the bill is a largely inadequate measure which stops short of full healthcare coverage for the population, let alone the establishment of a publicly funded US Health Service (which would be the optimal solution). The need for a 60-40 "supermajority" to overcome filibusters in the Senate has meant that from January 2009 onwards, when the Democrats had precisely 60 senators, Obama was dependent on every single one of those playing ball - or on help from the Republicans. Neither of those happened. The right-wing of the Democrat party has obstructed him on many issues and his efforts to reach out for a bipartisan approach to problems have failed because the Republicans would rather be completely obstructionist and refuse to cooperate on anything.
I would wager that very few Democrat voters put their cross in the box in November 2008 for this - another holding pattern presidency a la Carter or Clinton. The problem of getting elected on a "change" ticket is that there is a danger people might actually expect you to provide some change. And overall, Obama hasn't.
There is also the small matter of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars going to the banking sector, which brought the economy to the brink of destruction in 2008. Voters see high unemployment and mortgage foreclosures for the ordinary working person and an unreformed government-sponsored casino in the financial sector. A complete betrayal of any 'progressive' political perspective, in other words.
In these circumstances, is it any wonder that voters turn to the Tea Party - which is really just a more intense version of the anti-Washington, anti-big government rhetoric used by Sarah Palin in 2008? I'm not going to try to defend the Tea Party's ideology as it isn't really coherent. There are a few libertarians in the movement with a genuinely worked out policy platform (Rand Paul, who is the Republican candidate for the Senate in Kentucky), is a good example): I don't agree with Paul on pretty much any issue but he does have a coherent ideological stance. But most of the Tea Party candidates are pretty much incoherent on most policy issues - Christine O'Donnell, for instance. And there is an essential incoherence about the whole policy position, which claims to be anti-big government but is largely financed by wealthy individuals and corporations who are the major beneficiaries of the way the US government is currently run to favour big corporate interests.
Intellectually speaking, the whole Tea Party shtick collapses after a moment's thought about who really runs America. But it is an obvious consequence of the complete dysfunctionality of a system which claims to be one of the world's strongest and best run democracies but is actually one of its weakest and most corrupt. The Tea Party may be the start of the final phase of the American experiment, ushering in a period of genuine totalitarianism. I would say that is not the most likely outcome however. I think that it is more likely to be absorbed into the mainstream Republican party pushing it even further to the Right, and making the prospects of a successful Republican challenge to Obama in 2012 pretty remote.
Meanwhile, Obama will struggle on, almost certainly securing re-election in 2012 but delivering pretty much nothing in his remaining 6 years in office. Why? Because the current US political system makes it impossible to deliver anything unless you are prepared to work with the grain of what entrenched big business interests, and particularly the financial sector, want. That is why George W Bush was so comfortable in the job. And that is why the next Republican president won't be Rand Paul, but will be a corporate-friendly mogul.