Less than two years ago, the American historian, Simon Schama, began The American Future: A History with the melodramatic lines: I can tell you, give a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there: 7.15 pm. Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodore Roosevelt High. Schama then went on to describe the presidential primaries in the nondescript town of Des Moines in Iowa and the silent upsurge that saw an unknown Senator Barack Obama edge past his better known Democratic Party rivals in Precinct 53.
It didnt take a genius, much less a media analyst, he wrote gushingly, to figure out what was going on in Iowa: a populist rejection of political business-as-usual: of the dominant orthodoxies.
I was asleep in the early hours of Wednesday when CNN flashed the Massachusetts Moment: jubilant Republicans in, of all places, Boston, celebrating former male model Scott Browns surprise victory over his Democratic rival in a seat held by the iconic Kennedy family since 1952. Unlike Schama, I missed another moment of change. Was it a populist revolt against another dominant orthodoxy? Or was it the trigger of a counter-revolution against the audacity of hype?
Political buffs are forever enthralled by byelections. They are a bit like a capsuled dress rehearsal of another big day; and they are meant to follow a predetermined script and not spring unexpected surprises. The fun begins when the lines get terribly muddled and all hell breaks loose. The phlegmatic fall back on hoary clichés the wake up call and pull up your socks being all-time favourites and the more excitable reactions take the form of abstruse over-generalizations, and the writing of obituaries that often turn out to be woefully premature.
The post-mortem of the Massachusetts Moment has been along both lines. No one, not even the starry-eyed panel that awarded President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize for showing potential, could have underplayed the significance of a Democratic defeat in the pocket borough of liberalism. Massachusetts provided three Democratic presidential candidates in the past 50 years. It was also the only state to vote against Richard Nixon in the one-sided election of 1972 a contrariness celebrated by the Watergate era bumper sticker, Dont blame me, Im from Massachusetts.
Massachusetts was to the Democrats what Amethi and Rae Bareli are to the Congress in India and what Ebbw Vale is to the old Labour Party in Britain: the custodian of the faith.
Many the proverbial Namierites in the woodpile will attribute the conversion of a 30-point lead for the Democrats in November to a five-point deficit on election night to the inadequacies of the Democratic candidate and smug over-confidence. They will refer to the enormous damage caused by her ignorance of which team a local sporting hero played for.
No doubt the small picture can often be more revealing than the grand overview, but the point to note is that the upset was caused not because loyal Democrats stayed at home (the usual way of protesting against an imperfect candidate) but because the unattached section voted Republican. More to the point, the winner mounted a single-minded campaign against the presidents trillion-dollar healthcare initiative and garnished it with sweeping asides against the pitfalls of being good to terrorists. If byelections are often a vehicle of single-issue protest, a way of rocking the boat without sinking it, Massachusetts was its perfect illustration. Yet, the sheer magnitude of the swing against the Democratic Party Obama won the state in November 2008 with a 27-point margin suggests that the byelection result could be a pointer to a deeper stirring in American society.
What Schama would undoubtedly have found interesting and indicative of the overall health of a resuscitated democracy is the role of activists from an organization that calls itself the Tea Party Patriots, an allusion to the famous Boston tea party of 1773. Created in early-2009 as a reaction to what it perceived was the Obama administrations growing reliance on government intervention, TPPs mission statement is unambiguous: The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.
Using the disquiet over lavish bailout packages, the mounting fiscal deficit, ObamaCare and the administrations softness towards the enemies of America, the movement created an alternative grassroots conservatism that has steadily chipped away at the liberal sanctimoniousness which propelled the Obama victory in 2008. Its tea parties in some 200 towns have attracted those always uneasy with the underlying permissiveness of the Obama phenomenon but who nevertheless shied away from the neo-conservatism of the Bush-Cheney era.
American conservatism has traditionally been bipartisan and blessed with a self-image of robust common sense, a euphemism for what is painted as the American way by creatures as diverse as Superman, John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A large swathe of the United States of Ameica always nurtured serious misgivings over the politico-cultural dimensions of the Yes we can trumpeters but were intimidated into passivity by the sheer energy of the Obama campaign. Now, and despite the apparent disarray in the Republican Party, these voices are beginning to find a focus.
The Massachusetts victory is calculated to give the opposition to Obama a fillip. It is premature to write off the president and see his declining approval ratings after a year in office as setting the stage for a paralysed presidency. Obama still has vast reserves of goodwill at home and abroad to stage a political recovery. However, he has a problem within the constituency that voted him to power so enthusiastically.
Obama epitomized a yearning for a kinder, gentler, younger, ethnically diverse America. His America implicitly negated many of the assumptions of both conservatism and traditional liberalism. In power, the president has been unable to satisfy those most vocal in his support.
Afghanistan is a case in point. A large section of those who voted for Obama clearly felt that the US should rapidly extricate itself from an unwinnable war. By implication they also believed that a withdrawal would insulate the US from the wrath of the Islamists. The desire to opt out was, however, completely at odds with the military that demanded more troops on the ground. Late last year, the generals got three-fourths of the 40,000 extra troops they had sought but this concession was coupled with the rider that US forces would withdraw by mid-2011, an unrealizable proposition.
The net effect is a muddle. The military resent an impractical deadline that bolsters the Talibans resolve and encourages Pakistani obstreperousness; the peaceniks feel that Obama has been sucked into a system that is inherently at odds with the values they felt he stood for. In 2008, Obamas success rested on both America tiring of the Bush administration and an ambiguity over what he actually stood for. A year later, Bush is history but the mystery of the real Obama persists.
This confusion over what the administration really wants to achieve has set the stage for a backlash, as witnessed in Massachusetts. Obama is not being hounded by a coalition of white supremacists and illiberal Christians the famous Right-wing conspiracy the Clintons once invoked. His problems arise from those who still believe in the greatness of America and cant bear to see it transformed into another namby-pamby Europe, playing second fiddle to a resurgent China.
There is hope for America, despite Obama.