Last weekend, when Washington was being hit by its worst-ever snow storm, the Tea Party Movement was holding its first national meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. I watched parts of the convention on television and became concerned by what I saw and heard. After reviewing two sets of national polls, released this Friday, my concern was heightened.
Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave the keynote address. While some media pundits dismiss her, poking fun at her lack of knowledge and verbal gaffes, I believe she must be taken seriously. She is a dangerous populist, who delights her following with crude appeals to patriotism, anger at Washington, resentment at all things "foreign" and her penchant for ridiculing, as "out of touch elites," a wide array of opponents.
She may not know history or geography, but to her enthralled base she speaks the truth. Palin has touched the exposed nerve of anger and alienation of some elements of the white middle class. And, in this context, attacks against her only serve to reinforce her supporters' feelings of being aggrieved.
Former Congressman and 2008 presidential candidate Tom Tancredo also addressed the convention. Some will recall the splash he created a few years back when he advocated bombing the holy places in Mecca and Medina if the US were attacked again by terrorists. Giving the meeting's opening address, he was in prime form accusing President Obama "and his left wing allies" of "looking at every opportunity to destroy the Constitution before we have a chance to save it" and telling the cheering crowd that "this is our country", urging them "to take it back".
In one especially disturbing passage, Tancredo played his anti-immigrant, anti-foreign card, charging that "people who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White house. His name is Barack Hussein Obama".
It may make some feel better to dismiss all this as the bizarre rantings of a disgruntled minority. I think not. The polls show the strength of this current within the Republican Party. While only 35 per cent of Republicans consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party Movement, 60pc agree with its views. And more than one-half of all Republicans believe the group will make their party stronger.
They may be a minority, but they are angry, feel threatened, and have demonstrated their ability to organise their anger into a disruptive and, at times, violent force - as they did last summer in breaking up healthcare reform Town Hall meetings across the US.
And despite being a minority, they have a "star" in Palin and strong media voices like Rush Limbaugh, Fox TV's Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. With the Republican Party rudderless, at the moment, this current has become the de facto leadership of the opposition to the White House. The Tea Party's danger, then, is not so much that it will become the majority, but that it will continue to intimidate more moderate voices in the Republican Party.
This is not a new phenomenon. Such movements frequently arise in periods of social dislocation and economic distress. They prey on the fears of the middle class with appeals to patriotism, and warnings against elites and foreigners - creating in the minds of their supporters a life/death struggle of "us" versus "them". Appeals to anger using chauvinism, xenophobia and racism are their trademarks. We've seen similar efforts rise up in recent times with Jšrg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Nick Griffin in the UK - and it has now come to America.
So excuse me if I don't join those who dismiss Palin or her Tea Party crowd or take consolation in the polls showing that 71pc of Americans feel she is not qualified to be president. I'm frightened by the 26pc who think she is qualified (including 42pc of all Republicans). The crowds that cheer her on or respond with delight to Tancredo's bigoted remarks shouldn't be dismissed. They are reason to be concerned, very concerned.