What just happened in this week’s primaries? Something ruptured, in the smallest state of all, and it seemed like no one saw it coming. It was like an act of nature. Human nature.

People have been saying with increasing urgency lately that ’someone had better do something’ about the multiple crises we’re facing as a nation. But no longer trusting anyone in Washington to have the integrity or will to do the difficult for the common good. So people are taking it in their own hands.

The tide turned when Washington crossed Delaware. Suddenly – literally overnight – big media are all using the term “insurgents” in political reporting.

For the Tea Party, upstart Christine O’Donnell’s decisive victory over veteran Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary was a crowning triumph, a symbol of the voter dissatisfaction that shrouds the crucial midterm elections in November…

Although O’Donnell won with a small percentage of votes in one of the nation’s smallest states, her victory reverberated across the nation and widened a chasm separating conservative insurgents and their Tea Party allies on one side, and mainstream Republicans and centrists on the other.

“It’s official: There is now a civil war within the Republican Party,” said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. “The good news for Republicans is the Tea Party is capturing the anti-establishment energy in America. The bad news is that includes the Republican establishment.”

So thus erupted the full force of the energy building within and behind the Tea Party in America. Putting everyone on alert, while sending them scrambling for answers or just plain talking points.

The Family Research Council announced this morning that O’Donnell will join a long list of prominent conservatives speaking at the Values Voter Summit this weekend…

FRC Chairman Tony Perkins praised O’Donnell in a statement “for valiantly defending faith, family and freedom throughout this campaign.”

“Christine O’Donnell has spoken out on behalf of the average person in her state who has been burdened by excessive tax and regulatory policies,” he said. “She has tapped into the deep-seated mistrust that voters have toward big government. As in so many other states, the citizens are angered at the slow and steady loss of individual freedoms due to the massive overreach of government.”

This has been fascinating. I’ve held off opining on it one way or another, all week, listening and watching and trying to figure out what we’re in the midst of right now. For years, I’ve asked experts in government and political science and history I’ve interviewed on radio and for print….isn’t it time for a third party in America? But always the answer was ‘no, we’re a two-party nation’, and an attempt at a third breakaway political movement would probably not survive, and would hurt one of the other two parties dramatically.

But, again…no one had this figured out. Because no one is controlling this movement. Peggy Noonan says…it’s about time.

But at this moment we are witnessing a shift that will likely have some enduring political impact. Another way of saying that: The past few years, a lot of people in politics have wondered about the possibility of a third party. Would it be possible to organize one? While they were wondering, a virtual third party was being born. And nobody organized it.

Here is Jonathan Rauch in National Journal on the Tea Party’s innovative, broad-based network: “In the expansive dominion of the Tea Party Patriots, which extends to thousands of local groups and literally countless activists,” there is no chain of command, no hierarchy. Individuals “move the movement.” Popular issues gain traction and are emphasized, unpopular ones die. “In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on such a large scale.” Here are pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen in the Washington Examiner: “The Tea Party has become one of the most powerful and extraordinary movements in American political history.” “It is as popular as both the Democratic and Republican parties.”

And she has the best thesis I’ve seen yet on what it is and why it is and what it means. Though….few have offered a coherent thesis yet. So this is as good as any.

I see two central reasons for the Tea Party’s rise. The first is the yardstick, and the second is the clock. First, the yardstick. Imagine that over at the 36-inch end you’ve got pure liberal thinking—more and larger government programs, a bigger government that costs more in the many ways that cost can be calculated. Over at the other end you’ve got conservative thinking—a government that is growing smaller and less demanding and is less expensive. You assume that when the two major parties are negotiating bills in Washington, they sort of lay down the yardstick and begin negotiations at the 18-inch line. Each party pulls in the direction it wants, and the dominant party moves the government a few inches in their direction.

But that’s not how it’s worked out, which is why the people are restless.

It’s as if something inexorable in our political reality—with those who think in liberal terms dominating the establishment, the media, the academy—has always tilted the starting point in negotiations away from 18 inches, and always toward liberalism, toward the 36-inch point…

For conservatives on the ground, it has often felt as if Democrats (and moderate Republicans) were always saying, “We should spend a trillion dollars,” and the Republican Party would respond, “No, too costly. How about $700 billion?” Conservatives on the ground are thinking, “How about nothing? How about we don’t spend more money but finally start cutting.”

What they want is representatives who’ll begin the negotiations at 18 inches and tug the final bill toward 5 inches. And they believe Tea Party candidates will do that.

The second thing is the clock. Here is a great virtue of the Tea Party: They know what time it is. It’s getting late. If we don’t get the size and cost of government in line now, we won’t be able to. We’re teetering on the brink of some vast, dark new world—states and cities on the brink of bankruptcy, the federal government too. The issue isn’t “big spending” anymore. It’s ruinous spending that they fear will end America as we know it, as they promised it to their children.

So there’s a sense that dramatic action is needed, and a sense of profound urgency. Add drama to urgency and you get the victory of a Tea Party-backed candidate.

And thus we have the week that was. And it has the feel of having only just begun.

The glut of breathless catch-up news analysis, from the establishment left and right, is being generated from a visceral survival instinct, self-serving in its spin, though sincerely so.

For years, I’ve mused over what a coalition government would be like in America, with representatives of different ideological worldviews having, by necessity, to work together and speak for their party and thus have a voice. We’re probably closer to that now, in theory if not in fact. But who knows where these political winds will blow.

Nobody knows how all this will play out, but we are seeing something big—something homegrown, broad-based and independent. In part it is a rising up of those who truly believe America is imperiled and truly mean to save her. The dangers, both present and potential, are obvious. A movement like this can help a nation by acting as a corrective, or it can descend into a corrosive populism that celebrates unknowingness as authenticity…

And now, it has raised more questions than it has answered. But it has gained gravity. And it is being taken seriously.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....