The Republicans in the US understand too well the conundrum now facing the Liberals. You can’t run your party if you don’t heed the crazies — but you can’t run the country if you do.

Consider the recent special election for the New York congressional district. The Republicans nominated one Dierdre Scozzafava: a reasonable choice, one might have thought, given that her views on abortion and same s-x marriage mirrored those of the electorate. The conservative grassroots, however, were not impressed. Bloggers and shock jocks dismissed Scozzafava as little more than a traitor and instead ginned up a campaign for the far-right Doug Hoffman, a man who proudly described the loopy talkshow host Glen Beck as his ‘mentor’.

With conservative luminaries like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich scrambling to endorse Hoffman, Scozzafava eventually withdrew — and Hoffman went on to lose to the Democrats a seat that had been Republican since the late 1800s.

It’s a small example of a bigger problem. As Eric Boehlert explains, “the Republican Party is now attached to a political movement — a media-led movement — that cannot win elections.”

The Republic Party base increasingly takes ideological inspiration from Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and Sean Hannity and other culture war demagogues. As the tens of thousands attending the ‘Tea Party’ rallies show, such people can, far more than any traditional Republican, whip the party activists into a frenzy. Yet, because the majority of Americans regard the Limbaugh/Beck brand of conservatism as perfectly lunatic, when it comes to a poll, the populist candidates fail and fail again.

Hence that conundrum named Sarah Palin. Her book’s a bestseller, at every appearance she draws rock star crowds, and there’s no other conservative politician in American with equal name recognition. If she wants the Republican nomination for the next Presidential election, her support in the party will make her very hard to stop.

But her dizzy popularity within Republican circles corresponds with her deep unpopularity outside them. She helped John McCain lose – and she’ll lose if she runs again.

The Australian situation is not the same. There’s no-one marching to Canberra to teabag Kevin Rudd; we don’t have Fox News or Clear Channel radio network denouncing Labor as a communist-fascist death camp conspiracy.

Nonetheless, for some time now, there’s been considerable media support for a populist skepticism around global warming. It’s not just Andrew Bolt, either — The Australian has been for years devoting its opinion pages to overt climate denialists.

Furthermore, these days it’s perfectly possible, even from Australia, to tap directly into the main vein of climate wingnuttery. If you think Miranda Devine correct to call a climate change to be a fraud, well, why not log on to hard-core nutters like Michelle Malkin or Ann Coulter, who will assure you that the whole business is an overt conspiracy cooked up by America-hating leftists?

In the US, the populist tide means that only 34 per cent of Republicans want legislation on climate change compared to 84 per cent of democrats. Here, the polarization is not so overt but it’s trending in the same direction, with seventy per cent of those who vote Labor supporting action against global warming and only 44 per cent of Liberal voters.

And that’s voters, not party members. One would hazard a guess that the proportion of overt skeptics amongst conservative activists is much, much higher, since it’s hard to imagine anyone joining the Liberal Party because of Malcolm Turnbull’s climate pragmatism, whereas an understanding of global warming as a dastardly con job provides exactly the kind of urgency likely to inspire political action.

Hence the deluge of angry phone calls and emails Coalition MPs now claim to have been receiving. The populists have a genuine passion that the moderates entirely lack.

An organization dominated by activists taking direction from media figures who themselves never have to face election – media figures who are, in fact, entirely unaccountable – well, it’s a dilly of a pickle, isn’t it?

Remember, too, the populists view matters in a quite different way to traditional politicians.

In the wake of Doug Hoffman’s loss to the Democrats, the influential wingnut blog Red State declared that, actually, the result represented ‘a huge win’, since it demonstrated to the Republican hierarchy that the rank-and-file could not be taken for granted. One suspects that, here in Australia, the Liberals now have many such huge wins ahead of them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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