Furious Newt

I must admit that I was a little surprised at the result of the Republican Primary in South Carolina; not that Romney was unable to attract much more than his usual 25% of the ballot, but rather that the anti-Mitt vote gathered quite so strongly around Gingrich.

Having thought about this for a while, I have come to the conclusion that Newt appeals to the GOP base because of his image an angry man, an angry man who is able to articulate that anger in a way that resonates with a conservative electorate that is frightened and bewildered by the current economic uncertainty. Gingrich is talking their language when he rails against the supposed political and media elite, and he does this so well that his supporters are willing to overlook inconvenient details, like the fact that Newt has spent much of his career as a Washington insider, or that he took millions from Freddie Mac at a time when the company was foreclosing on the mortgages of families all over the country.

The fight will probably get nastier in Florida, but I still think Romney will take the nomination; he has the money, the organisation and the support of the party hierarchy. He’s going to come out of the process damaged though; labelled as a super-rich predatory capitalist who understands little and cares less about the plight of ordinary citizens.

This is music to the ears of the White House of course; Obama’s State of the Union address may not have been the declaration of class war that the right are shouting about, but it’s clear that the Democrats want to fight the campaign on the economic concerns of the squeezed middle class. It’s hard to imagine Romney making much headway on that terrain, so, barring disaster, Obama is looking good for a second term.

So long SOPA

You may have noticed that Second Life Shrink was blacked out earlier this week (along with a few other websites you may have heard of), to register our opposition to the SOPA/PIPA bills currently making their way through the US Congress. Evidently our readers, deprived of their fix of virtual-world analysis, have inundated their Senators and Representatives with messages of protest, for the tide seems to be turning against the legislation. Another triumph for the power of social media!

New Hampshire

So, the New Hampshire Primary turned out more or less as predicted; Romney consolidated his position as front-runner without landing a knock-out blow, Paul maintained his momentum but still isn’t looking like a serious contender, and Santorum did just enough to keep his hopes alive heading into the more conservative territory of South Carolina.

There were a couple of interesting points in the campaign though; the decisive role played by secretive Super PACs, which confirmed that election results are controlled by big money, and the somewhat surprising revelation that Newt Gingrich has discovered that capitalism is evil.

There is a lot of interest in the GOP nomination process on this side of the Atlantic, though much of it stems from the fact that observing the process allows us smug Europeans to feel superior to our dull American cousins; even the Daily Telegraph had a piece this week suggesting that the only way to get elected in the US was by pandering to the stupid vote.

It’s easy to laugh at the likes of Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann, because they are clowns, but it may be unwise. Matt Taibbi made a good point in his profile of Michele Bachmann for Rolling Stone:

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can’t tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don’t learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you’re a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they’re even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

I come from that school of left-wing thought that tends to view politics as a coldly rational business, and I am generally sceptical of any analysis that focuses on individual psychology, rather than impersonal class forces, as an explanation for world events. I believe this approach is broadly correct, but it can perhaps lead to an underestimation of the emotional power of right-wing rhetoric, which can be a dangerous blind-spot. It’s always worth re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written at the time of Barry Goldwater but equally applicable to the likes of Ron Paul, to remind oneself of the threat that reactionary irrationality can pose.

Finally, mention of the Granite State gives me an excuse to link to one of my favourite tracks by Sonic Youth.

Courting the virtual constituency

I had set aside a bit of time this afternoon to look around the grid and see if any of the Republican Presidential candidates had bothered to establish a presence in Second Life, like Hillary Clinton did last time. However after an hour or so spent logging in, then immediately being kicked off the server, my patience with the polished consumer product that is SL ran out and I decided to go off and do something less frustrating.

I’ll be surprised if any of the candidates have an official build anyway. Four years ago relative mainstreamers like Romney or Huntsman might have felt that a virtual world campaign HQ would be just the thing to show they were hip to where the kids were at, but the days when Second Life was synonymous with tech-savvy are long gone. I imagine that the evangelical wing of the GOP, if they have heard of SL at all, will have read about it in one of those tracts telling them that the internet is a tool of Satan, and will see it as another of the many things that consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes that should be illegal.

The exception to this is Ron Paul; his wacky brand of right-populism seems pretty much in tune with the prevailing ideology of Second Life, which, in my experience at least, tends to a mish-mash of libertarianism and objectivism, so he might feel it’s worth trying to engage with the SL electorate. I doubt he’ll be doing any virtual campaigning in person, but I’m sure there will be one or two “Ron Paul for President” resident groups, and maybe even a customised avatar, like the Sarah Palin that came out in 2008.

Back in the real world, the Iowa Caucuses turned out as predicted; Romney failed to enthuse more than 25% of the base, and the social conservatives coalesced around Santorum, for now at least. On to New Hampshire tomorrow, where the pundits are suggesting that Romney will wrap it up as Santorum’s lack of money and organisation begins to tell. There are alternative scenarios – Huntsman might siphon moderate votes away from Romney, or Paul might pull off a surprise – but my feeling is that conventional wisdom will be proved right.

Iowa forecast

The race to the White House kicks off in earnest tomorrow, with the Iowa Caucuses, the first real test of the Republican field.

In any sane universe the GOP would already have picked Jon Huntsman, who is clearly the candidate best placed to woo disaffected Obama supporters, but he isn’t even standing in Iowa, where the socially conservative terrain doesn’t suit his relative moderation. Instead the voters of the Hawkeye State look set to choose either almost-sensible (compared with the rest) Mitt Romney, or whichever wingnut is currently in favour with the party’s influential evangelicals – as we write that’s Rick Santorum, but the darlings of the right have been coming and going with bewildering frequency over the last few months, so it’s probably too early to dismiss the chances of Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, though Michelle Bachmann does look to be out of it.

Away from social issues all the candidates are fairly consistent on the big question of the economy, favouring tax cuts and less regulation for corporate America, disagreeing only on how low the corporate tax rate should be, to the delight of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

The dark horse in the contest is of course Ron Paul, who looks set to secure second place, or perhaps even win. Paul has spoken of his desire to unite the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, and his barely-coherent blend of populism, libertarianism and conspiracy theory does seem to be drawing support from left and right. This is more than a little concerning. We have previously noted that the financial crisis in Europe has the potential to fuel a rise in fascism, and it would appear that a similar process may be operating across the Atlantic, as an economically-squeezed population, disaffected with mainstream politics, looks for a leader who seems to understand their anxieties. There does seem to be some awareness of the danger among US progressives, but the need for an organised party to the left of the Democrats has never been more pressing.

My predictions? Romney to win tomorrow, and to take the nomination. Paul to go all the way to the convention, building a significant movement along the way. Obama to win in November. Then again, this time four years ago I was looking forward to another President Clinton…

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