In the six months since my book “Capitol Punishment” hit the shelves, I have found myself in a political Wonderland of sorts. My old days as an insider lobbyist found me engaged in dealings with the powerbrokers of our nation’s capital. Since my return from prison, and my rethinking of my past, I find myself in different company. While I am no less conservative than in the past, I have been gratified that the cause of my present focus – ending the stranglehold of special interests in Washington – is supported not just by my ideological compadres, but also by those with whom I have fought for decades. Indeed, some of the reform activists who attacked me vociferously during my days as a lobbyist and during the scandal that brought me low have become active allies in working to transform our system. Sure, we don’t agree on many things, but we do agree that the ability of lobbyists and special interests to purchase influence, which is later converted to their financial benefit, is bad for our nation – whether it is being done by big labor or big business, or anyone.
During my odyssey from K Street to Main Street, particularly during my stay in federal prison, I had the benefit of hearing from many fellow citizens. Some wrote to express outrage at what they thought I did. Others to express support for me in my journey through the valley of pain. Many wrote about their frustration with our government, and the control of special interests and lobbyists. In the long months between the 2008 presidential election and my eventual release from prison in mid 2010, I saw a remarkable transformation in these missives. Scores of these largely non-political Americans wrote to me that they had decided to become active and were forming what they were calling local activist groups. Soon, CNBC Business News editor Rick Santelli’s commentary helped name these local groups the tea party.
They were as decentralized as they hoped our federal government would become, and these local activists started rallying to protest what they disdained. They flooded normally staid congressional district town meetings, often emotionally venting to the hapless member of Congress. They held rallies. They became a citizens’ army. To paraphrase Robert the Bruce’s leper father from the film “Braveheart,” a commoner-led rebellion had begun. The rebellion brought Republican control of the House and a record number of newly elected members. It was not just the Democrats who felt the wrath of the tea-party faithful. In the 2010 elections, establishment Republicans were felled across the fruited plain. Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Utah, Delaware and Alaska all saw tea-party-supported candidates take nominations from status quo Republicans. While not all these candidates won their general election contests, even the normally supercilious national media paused in their collective sneer to credit these citizen activists with changing the landscape of American politics. In two years, they retilted the American political playing field to the right.
In reaction to the mass uprising dubbed the tea party, the left spawned a counter movement, called Occupy Wall Street. This was a movement born in anger and activism, as was the tea-party movement, but, notwithstanding mass media propaganda efforts to the contrary, they could not have been more diverse. In appearance, tea-party activists are usually neatly groomed. Not so Occupy. Tea partiers usually retired to their homes at the end of the day’s activism. Many Occupiers slept in public parks. In fact, the raison d’etre of the Occupy movement was to occupy places that did not belong to them. Both groups have manifestos, though they are vastly different. Tea partiers want the government out of their lives. Occupiers want the government to redistribute America’s wealth. There are many differences, but the biggest difference is the only one that really matters. Occupy Wall Street started as a protest movement and remains one. The tea party started as a protest movement, morphed into an electoral movement and changed America.
We live in a nation that respects the ballot box. Americans think protest is interesting, for a while, but we have little patience for prolonged civil disobedience. That’s true especially when those being disobedient don’t merely want basic civil rights but rather to requisition wealth from those who earned it. Class envy, sadly, has a place in our politics, but fortunately we are not Europe – and that place is limited. For example, it is unlikely in the extreme that America will ever elect a candidate calling for a 75 percent tax rate, as France just did. Class envy is not what this nation is about. This nation stands for rugged individualism and encouraging Americans to dream that impossible dream, and then get to work making it happen.
Change in America happens through our politics, not through street demonstrations. We are not Greece or Libya. The tea party understood this and went to work electing members of Congress. Occupy decided to remain in the street theater. They might seem a more compelling evening news story, and certainly a more visually interesting one, but they are not a meaningful movement because there are no members of Congress from the Occupy movement. There are scores from the tea party. And there are going to be more.
Even in the face of countless media reports of the demise of the tea party, it continues to be resurgent, having most recently taken down Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. In his fourth congressional decade, Lugar seemed invulnerable. But, that forever-dying tea-party movement somehow decimated the senior Republican’s electoral base and defeated him soundly in the Republican primary. Mainstream media proclamations to the contrary, we have yet to see the last Republican establishment moderate swept from office by tea-party activists. Nor have we seen the first elected official swept into office due to the support of the Occupy movement. Yet, if you tune in to almost any network other than Fox, somehow the tea party is passé and Occupy is our future.
What a country.