A republic, if you can keep it.

— Benjamin Franklin, on being asked  what the American Revolution had achieved.

Shut up and put your money where your mouth is.

That’s what you get for waking up in Vegas.

— Katy Perry

With five primaries and caucuses done, with party favourite Mitt Romney leading, and with the next four contests before Super Tuesday favouring him, the 2012 race for the Republican nomination is beginning to slip quietly away from the top of the news agenda.

The first bracket of contests has delivered more than its fair share of thrills and spills, from the near-victory, and then retroactive victory, of Rick Santorum in the Iowa poll, to Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina victory following a strong debate performance — followed by his spectacular collapse in Florida, and a return to the notion that the contest would be a tiresome slog to a pre-ordained nomination.

By the time the contests began, the candidates had already been campaigning for two months solid, and we had already seen the rise and fall of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Bachmann departed de facto after New Hampshire, Perry hung around to no good purpose, all the way into South Carolina, and Jon Huntsman, the ghost of Rockefeller Republicanism, also met his demise there. There have now been 19 full debates, and though there has been no great test of policy pronouncements — one longs for a Jeremy Paxman or a Red Kez in these things, to tear into the figures — what has been tested to destruction is the projection of idea and image, above all.

Americans have always had a strong line in self-regard and the vision thing, and even those more material politicians who have had no great investment in it — Clinton and Nixon are two who spring to mind — have had to find some way to speak to it. Barack Obama has tried several versions, tapping first into the civil rights notion of America as an unfulfilled and uncompleted promise. He has now abandoned that for a more traditional version of exceptionalism, and a commitment to that new and distinctive movement, “anti-declinism”. “America’s best days are before us” he now thunders, adding, as inevitable corollary, that there is no other future imaginable for “the greatest country in the world”. Obama is one of the least effusive and tub-thumping of politicians to take such a line, but even his modest version of it puts him outside of the order of G20 centrist technocrats among whom he feels most at home.

Yet compared to the o-gy of exceptionalism, manifest destiny, providentialism and grace-mongering being peddled by the Republican candidates, Obama is Howard Zinn on bad acid. No election in modern times has ever been suffused with such a notion of theological politics, that matters on Earth are a mere shadow play of war in a transcendental realm, and that — as a consequence — this election is not merely a referendum on mildly different methods to arrange “who gets what when how” (or politics, as we call it), but is instead an existential struggle. Mitt Romney, a lifelong political gadfly, speaks of President Obama wanting to “fundamentally change the character of this country to turn it into a European-style social welfare state. Well that’s not working in Europe and it won’t work here”.

Newt Gingrich, whose push on these matters has forced Romney to ramp up his rhetoric in this area, speaks of “the most important election of our lifetime because if we lose this, we will lose our last chance to restore a republic of laws based on the vision of our founding fathers, to being a community-organising project led by a Saul Alinsky-style radical.” Rick Santorum in turn obliges Gingrich to put a whiff of religiosity into this by leaning heavily on the notion contained within the Declaration of Independence that we are imbued “by our Creator” with inalienable rights — and giving the strong impression that he believes that the current administration is proof that Satan is abroad in the current administration. Only Ron Paul avoids such rhetoric, by and large — ironic, since he numbers among his supporters more apocalyptics and survivalists than all the rest put together.

This collective departure for the stratosphere is determined by the very form of American history, of course. In one respect, its exceptionalism is nothing more than descriptive accuracy — it is the one surviving nation to found itself on an abstract philosophical document. Hilariously, it is the one place founded as an experiment by a cabal of radical intellectuals, who then imposed their vision on a people who were often indifferent and frequently hostile to it.

The US was founded neither at Lexington, nor Concord, nor Philadelphia, but in the classrooms of Harvard College in the 1750s, where a half-dozen students — Samuel Adams the most famous of them — evolved a more abstract notion of rights, determined to complete the revolution that had been stalled in England in 1688, and then went out and found the petty grievances that could fill it out.

So the revolution was an abstract idea, and an enlightenment myth of a people — the white, British-descended population of the 13 colonies. That strange founding has put a wobble in American politics that has demanded fealty from jobbing politicians ever since. But here is the really curious thing about it — the US, at its most powerful and confident, cheerfully ignores the constitution, as in, for example, the manifestly unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase of 1803, or FDR’s enumeration of the four freedoms, two of which — freedom from want, and freedom from fear — are plainly socialistic. It is only when its identity comes into question, when it is at a crossroads, that a section of its population feel the need to reaffirm its identity as a quasi-divine event.

That faction, frequently scattered, leaderless, lost in its private obsession, now constitutes the right-wing of the Republican Party, producing audience and performers for this malarkey. They have, in the past half-dozen years, crowded out all other versions of a right-wing politics, the culmination of a process that has been going on for decades. It has been a curious passage — the process began in the New Deal years when FDR genuinely was trying to make an “end run” around the constitution — or its interpretation by the Supreme Court he had inherited — in order to extend the New Deal.But in the ’40s and ’50s, it transferred its energies, as the more liberal court FDR had made handed down a series of decisions that, for the first time in 150 years actually applied the constitution to everyday social life — banning prayer in schools, religious instruction, Jim Crow laws, censorship laws, and ultimately striking down bans on abortion in Roe versus Wade.

This process was a social catastrophe for religious groups, the white south, etc, for it teased open the contradiction inherent in the constitution — a myth created by slave-holding white people, nevertheless appealing to a notion of abstract right — and decided in favour of the abstract rather than the concrete. Conservative America did two things in relation to this: first, it evolved a doctrine of constitutional originalism, which argued that the meaning of the document was obvious, and any variance on it was the result of activist judges. Secondly, armed with that, it built a parallel culture, of evangelical churches split from mainline Protestantism and “faith” universities — those such as Bob Jones University, which banned inter-racial dating for decades.

These connected with the Right establishment — journals such as National Review — to create an entire self-contained intellectual climate. Twenty-five years or so ago, it made the final step, with an explicit commitment to home schooling. Five per cent of US students are now home schooled — in the South it’s closer to 10. Among this political-cultural subgroup it’s near 15-20. When you quiz volunteers for Santorum, or Gingrich in the South, and their team leaders, you will find the figure heading up towards a third. In technical terms home schooling is often excellent and better than public school — but it sells a rigid idea of revealed truth that these students then take with them to their religious university. By the time they get out, they are smart, honed, efficient, focused — and under no illusions that they are living in Occupied America, Satan being the occupier. Their life’s work is to contest that from within. Their energy is tireless. Their hold on the Republican Right is now absolute.

So, if glancing in on the primaries from time to time, you wonder how a President who is, without compunction, eliminating al-Qaeda through drone warfare, and imposing a centre-right private mandate health plan, can be seen as a communist changing the divinely ordained nature of the US, then that’s your answer.

It helps that he’s black, because he thereby incarnates the contradiction of the American ethnos — that its myth of founding promises universal brother/sisterhood, but is based on excluding a whole people that were also there. That is the political equivalent of the incest revelation in Chinatown “she’s my daughter … she’s my sister … she’s my daughter and my sister” … “He’s my President … he’s black … he’s my President and he’s black …”. No wonder these folk are freaking out.

No wonder also that, as their candidates ramp up the exceptionalist rhetoric about the greatness, specialness of America, etc, for the benefits of their base, the start to alienate whole sections of the country. For as America has become an atomised, hyper-individualised society, so too the form in which its constitution and founding has become understood has become hyper-individualised also. Eighteenth century America was an agrarian village society in the north, a slave society in the south — both, in their very different ways, far more collectivist than they are now made out to be.

The religious Right explicitly abhors any form of communitas, agape, that is not grounded in a literal version of the gospels. So it can easily combine a total atomisation of social life — the mall, the freeway, cable TV with Jesus on it — with constitutional fideism. By this back construction, Ben Franklin was an avid reader of Atlas Shrugged, and Sam Adams — too poor to own his own coat when he went to the first continental congress — was about to jump into Orlando sub-prime futures. Hence they cannot talk about America without abhorring the most mild and sensible arrangements for progressive taxation, assisting the poor, etc. Hence, every candidate must outdo themselves in a worship of the rich, of power.

Hence, within this bubble, reality testing becomes impossible — and so their favoured candidate can come out with a string of gaffes that has him sounding not like an oil tycoon, not like a slumlord, not even like Montgomery Burns, but like Steve Carell from The Office — “I like firing people” “I didn’t make much ($350,000 pa) from public speaking” “I’m not concerned about the very poor”.

If the Republicans have lost this election — and there’s a long way to go — they lost it in this past fortnight. Forget this desperate notion that this bruising, goring primary has made the candidates better. Obama got better, focused, cooler as Hillary attacked him from the left, i.e. from her own base. Romney has got gigglier, more erratic, less real as he was attacked — from the left, as a vulture capitalist, from the deep and contradictory pit of Republican populism. He only got better because he hired the best debate coach in the game — a man he has now fired.

The polls show that he has lost two to three points in key swing states such as Ohio and Michigan in the past fortnight. The people he’s lost? Nixon/Reagan Democrats, people, to quote the Boss, with a “union card and a wedding suit”. Socially conservative, willing to vote Republican, but proud to be union, not ashamed that they are not a leveraged GOP Max Headroom character, with nine figures in the bank account.

They were the crowd in Vegas yesterday, in the deeply strange atrium of the Luxor, watching the Super Bowl, willing to cop to the Clint Eastwood car ad saying it’s only half-time in America — but wanting, like anyone, a bucket of margaritas, a win on the slots, and a hooker in a room carved out of a pyramid. Good people. People, this fortnight, Obama got back. That lead, if he can keep it, would be a crisis for the Right. And that, if he can keep it, is a republic. Get up and shake the glitter off your clothes now, this is what you get for waking up in Vegas.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey