The fight for the Republican presidential nomination is gathering momentum and the big news has been the strong appeal of a xenophobic, loud-mouthed former Nixon speechwriter and television pundit, Pat Buchanan. He has confounded predictions in Lousiana and Iowa and is beginning to be taken half-seriously. Most attention has focused on Buchanan's wooing of the Christian right wing on abortion. But his success is fundamental in another sense not entirely unconnected with pigs' bottoms.
Perhaps I had better explain. As Rupert Cornwell reported earlier this week, small-time rural Iowa, where the Republicans have been campaigning, has been taken over by agri-business, whose bleak pig-rearing sheds (or "hog confinement units") loom across countryside that was once covered by family farms.
The triumph of the multinational food corporations has not only threatened farming communities; it has also produced huge, stinking lakes of ... well, pig shit. At least one of these "anaerobic lagoons" has burst, pouring torrents of excrement into the Iowa river. And this has become something of a symbol of what is happening to middle America itself.
The despoliation of the American countryside is not confined to Iowa. The destruction of forests in Montana by "rape and run" logging companies; the impact of strip-mining on the Appalachian mountains and their communities; the degradation of topsoil across the "breadbasket" prairies of middle America - these are only some of the better-known examples. In each case, small-town, farm-based communities have been uprooted.
The myth of a sturdy, self-sufficient country people has been hugely important to modern America - from a thousand westerns to films such as Witness, set among the technology-rejecting Amish. The Iowa campaigning had been seen as a classic example of American democracy in action, as candidates went hand-wringing through small towns, delivering the same hoarse speech to sceptical farming folk. But that America, that democracy, has gone. Three years ago, the US Census Bureau stopped counting the number of Americans who live on farms. A population which had numbered 32 million until the Twenties and still stood at 23m in 1950, had fallen to 4.6m by 1991 and is now less than 2 per cent of the population.
Along with the retreat from the land - which is, after all, a worldwide phenomenon - traditional blue-collar America has suffered badly from global competition and new technology. Today, less than 17 per cent of the US workforce is in factories. Though America has been more successful than Europe in creating jobs, the underlying unemployment rate has been rising, decade by decade.
At the same time, American politics is increasingly regarded as a game played with corporate dollars and bottomless cynicism. Thus far, the campaign for the Republican candidacy has been dominated by negative television advertisements and childishly easy "solutions" to America's problems, of which the Forbes campaign's flat tax is the best known.
That Steve Forbes was not able to use his personal fortune to do better than fourth place in Iowa is some consolation. But even beyond the campaign trail, this has become a political system which runs on legal bribery and favours. The economic insecurity of farmers, blue-collar workers and others is not comforted by knowledge of the lobbying, hand-outs and kickbacks which provide the fuel for politics-as-usual.
As a result, almost every candidate is desperate to pretend that he or she is not a Washington insider; they are all pandering, with greater or lesser success, to the new populism.
But not Buchanan. He is not pandering; he loves it. He is a right-winger, but also a genuine outsider. He hammers Wall Street, promises to stop the export of American jobs and runs the least well-funded of the main Republican campaigns. He is a protectionist, an America First-er, a defender of small farmers against hog confinement units. And this won him a good second place behind the veteran and famous Bob Dole in Iowa.
We should be clear about Buchanan, this brilliant, gabby populist who sneers at foreigners, bankers and homosexuals. His hostility to abortion is a threat to civil liberty. He is clearly charismatic and funny and has a vivid, Norman Tebbit-like turn of phrase. Last time round he described his delirious enjoyment in attacking George Bush as making him feel like "a pig on mud". But Buchanan is the enemy.
He is, though, tapping into a deep oppositional instinct about the way the world is going that is not limited to the right and not limited to America. Globalisation comes with a high price-tag. The North American Free Trade agreement was attacked furiously by trade unions, environmentalists, rightwingers and community leaders. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was opposed by a large part of French society. For many uneasy people, the protectionist rhetoric of Sir Jimmy Goldsmith and friends chimes with the mood of the times.
Thus far, political establishments have kept the lid on what might be called the global opposition. They do not take it quite seriously. The old liberal verities of free trade, specialisation and market values are embraced by almost all mainstream politicians and parties - Tony Blair's new Labour and the Clinton Democrats, as well as the Tories and Republicans.
But politics thrives on opposition and abhors vacuums; so it would be logical if globalism was faced by more robust opponents. We have had Ross Perot and Silvio Berlusconi, and the rightwingers of France and Germany. At a different level, we have had the new politics of communitarianism and environmental protest. Now we have Buchanan, a salt-tongued and moralising protectionist.
What next? Wendell Berry, the Kentucky tobacco farmer and poet who has become one of the most eloquent critics of globalisation, argued recently that conventional political affiliations were being replaced by a two- party system which "divides over the fundamental issue of community. One of these parties holds that community has no value; the other that it does. One is the party of the global economy; the other I would call simply the party of local community."
Berry would, I feel sure, loathe Buchanan and his mean politics of victimisation and rant. But the anti-big government, anti-big business mood which Berry, along with writers such as Christopher Lasch and John Grey, has described, is partly what is helping propel Buchanan through middle America. Voters think they face a system which is scarcely democratic but which has been bought and bent - and which is lathering them in pig shit.
For mainstream politicians this is the biggest challenge of all. The new populists are exploiting a genuine and widespread unease about the disappearance of economic and political power from local communities and traditional democratic systems. If mainstream politicians do not develop a political economy which offers people a stronger sense of belonging, then one day they will be elbowed aside.
The electoral process may have many faults, limitations and inanities - particularly in the US of the Nineties. But it remains the great barometer, the essential early-warning system. And just now the glass is dropping.Reuse content