The Permanent Nongoverning Minority

The 2010 elections showed that unpredictable grassroots politics are here to stay.

Two weeks before Republicans took control of the House and eroded the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, I was backstage at the Fox Business Network* watching the great libertarian host John Stossel fence with longtime Democratic political strategist and former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. Trippi made an analogy between the Tea Party movement of 2010 and the grassroots-fed Dean insurgency of 2004. The crowd groaned in disbelief, but Trippi was right.

American politics is now at a stage where every two years the political establishment gets rocked anew by the sight of alienated citizens banding together in a decentralized manner to alter national politics in unexpected ways. There is emerging a permanent, though highly fluid, nongoverning minority of independents and disaffected party members who will unite to punish incumbents when the alienation becomes too acute to bear. Wherever you see a strong American political tradition being ignored and even flouted by both major parties, you see the kindling for the fire next time. It won’t always produce the desired results for freedom-loving people, but it makes the two party system profoundly uncomfortable. That can only be a good thing. 

Howard Dean, despite his national reputation as a leftist firebrand, didn’t start that way. As Vermont’s governor, he balanced budgets and supported gun rights. He also supported U.S. military interventions unflaggingly until Iraq.

But in 2003–04 America, especially on the left, an anti-interventionist tradition was having its face smashed into current events on a daily basis. When Dean based his campaign on opposition to the war, he tapped into passion desperate for a release. And with the emergence of the political Internet, an ignored subsection of the political spectrum—the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Dean called it, cribbing Ralph Nader’s phrase from 2000—had at its fingertips the world’s most revolutionary political organizing tool. It’s no wonder that, even though Dean won only two 2004 primaries, Democrats tapped him to run their party in 2005.

What was the grassroots revolt of 2006? Some of it was Deaniac overlap: The same people who were fed up with professional Democrats’ wishy-washy capitulation on war nursed a longer set of grievances about free trade, basic comportment in the battle against Republicans, and coziness with corporations. (Listing the ways exposure to the new “netroots” had changed his political outlook, Dean told supporters in 2004 that “corporations have an outsized advantage and an outsized influence.”) Democrats wanted their representatives to dig their heels in and fight, which is precisely what the new Nancy Pelosi–led majority in the House of Representatives did, gumming up the works on Social Security reform.

But that 2006 midterm was also animated by a separate revolt: of independents and libertarians. Independents, the only reliably growing bloc of voters in the U.S. (up from 19 percent in 1970 to around 30 percent in 2010), voted Democrat over Republican in 2006 by 57 percent to 39 percent, a sharp increase from the slight 49-to-46 advantage from just two years prior. Libertarian-leaning voters, according to research by David Boaz and David Kirby of the Cato Institute, became less solidly Republican (59 percent in 2006, compared to 70 percent in 2002). These groups were more likely to resent George W. Bush’s flouting of the limited-government tradition in American politics than they were to support the Deaniacs’ desire for single-payer health insurance, but they joined the left in jumping on the great national pendulum to punish the ruling party.

The 2008 election was once again determined in large part by a constituency fed up with being ignored: the anti-war vote. But this time, Republicans as well as Democrats entered the fold. How unlikely was the anti-war insurgency of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)? This unlikely: For all but the last 10 days of 2007, the famed Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) trading system for predicting major-party presidential nominees picked as the clear Republican favorite the famous ex-mayor of New York, hawkish Rudy Giuliani. But when it came time for people to actually vote in the primaries and caucuses, Giuliani was beaten in at least 45 states by a libertarian obstetrician whose name never once showed up on IEM’s 2008 election trading board yet who ended up with the fourth-highest delegate total. Paul’s rEVOLution mobilized the Internet in ways even Joe Trippi found inspiring, introducing the term money bomb into the political lexicon.

Meanwhile, the coronation of Hillary Rodham Clinton was ruined largely on the strength of Obama’s railing against the Iraq war. For the first time since the 1970s, the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party was represented by the Democratic nominee. With disaffected independents continuing to pitch in, a liberal president enjoyed large congressional majorities for the first time in 32 years. Predictably, they misread the moment.

The stirrings of the Tea Party movement can be seen in those 2006 and 2008 results. The “Republican wing of the Republican Party”—the Goldwater/Reagan tradition that sees a direct correlation between smaller government and increased prosperity—had been on the run within the GOP since the late 1990s. A “compassionate conservatism” of jacked-up education spending and new Medicare entitlements replaced any quasi-revolutionary talk of removing federal agencies. The anti-war wing of the party was dismissed by National Review as “unpatriotic conservatives.” Spending and regulation grew at rates not seen since the dark days of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

When President Bush panicked on live television in September 2008, ushering in an era of bailout economics as unpopular as it has been ineffective, the backlash was inevitable, even if the exact form it would take was unpredictable. In our new era, you can smother an American political strain only for so long. 

In the process of this temporary political swarming, previously apolitical forces can sometimes display even more urgency for change than longstanding activists in their subject area. That’s what happened in California with Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization measure that went down 54 percent to 46 percent. The initiative sprang not from traditional drug policy organizations but from a medical marijuana dispensary owner in Oakland named Richard Lee. Legalization groups initially tried to talk Lee out of it, warning him that the state wasn’t ready for so radical a step. Major drug policy donors such as George Soros and Peter Lewis came through with money only in the last weeks of the campaign. Attending the annual conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in September, I was stunned that a fair amount of the conference’s time was dedicated to convincing a room full of pot advocates that Prop. 19 was a good thing.

Time will tell whether Richard Lee was right to force the issue. But by connecting with a long-ignored political strain in America—the emerging majority of people who think that the drug war is a failure and that the government has no business getting between an adult and his marijuana—he altered the political calculus for 2012. Legalization initiatives will almost certainly be on the ballots in California, Colorado, and Nevada, and possibly in several other states as well.

Democrats stinging from a lack of enthusiasm within their base surely have noticed that California stood nearly alone in resisting the Republican tide. Before the election, I asked Joe Trippi, who was in the process of helping get Jerry Brown (a Prop. 19 foe) elected California governor, whether it was true that Prop. 19 turnout was helping him win. He said, “Oh, yeah.” With two pro- legalization Republicans (Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson) haunting the 2012 presidential field, the next swarm of independents and alienated partisans could push politics in interesting new directions indeed. 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.

* Correction: was originally and inaccurately described as "Fox Business Channel."

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  • Extended Warren T||

    The more political chaos the better.

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

    I agree - break out the guillotines!

  • SIV||

    Piano wire is cheaper. Stand 'em on a block of ice like the dinner party scene in Ilsa

  • ||

    I don't think I've ever read such a profound column. I only wish Mr. Welch could have written thousands of more words on this subject so that he could spread this wisdom.

  • ||

    The more unpredictable politicians find the electorate to be, the better. Keep those fuckers scared and on their toes.

  • ||

    It might be working. The governator is declaring a fiscal emergency in CA and wants almost $10B in cuts. Yeah, statists will moan, but he'll probably gain as many fans as he loses.

  • Bucky||

    that's cause they could sell all the bonds in the latest offering. we don't want your stinkin' paper.

  • Extended Warren T||

    @choir
    Cuts in spending don't mean shit by itself. Cut spending and cut taxes. It's the taxes that wreck the economy followed by the raft of stupid, mercantilist regulations and lastly an unstable currency. Those things gotta go.

    In fact, take off and nuke 'em from orbit.

  • ||

    I agree with you, but I don't think Mr. Welch is saying what your saying do you? I gather he is angry for losing the reefer election in California.

  • Geotpf||

    For all but the last 10 days of 2007, the famed Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) trading system for predicting major-party presidential nominees picked as the clear Republican favorite the famous ex-mayor of New York, hawkish Rudy Giuliani. But when it came time for people to actually vote in the primaries and caucuses, Giuliani was beaten in at least 45 states by a libertarian obstetrician whose name never once showed up on IEM’s 2008 election trading board yet who ended up with the fourth-highest delegate total.

    This was because people overvalued Rudy, not because they undervalued Paul. Paul still lost by a huge margin.

    Frankly, although it seems like the folks on the fringes are driving the show, it really is the mushy middle who does so. Other than making sure the base actual votes and gives money, the extremes are useless-the middle is where the votes are, because they are the ones who voted for a straight Democratic ticket in 08 but a Republican for Congress this year.

  • Steve||

    The tyranny of those who don't know how to make up there minds?

  • Barack Obama||

    Matt, I know you like your drugs, but we need to put you in a cage for using them. Just trust me on this one - it's better for you to be in prison than for you to be using drugs.

  • Chony to the Max||

    No, you're confused. It's the CONSERVATIVES who are anti-drug, not the PROGRESSIVES.

  • Suki||

    Without "let me be clear" you make no sense.

  • johnl||

    The eternal optimist!

  • Barack Obama||

    Let me be clear.

    That was meant for me, wasn't it?

  • ||

    Make no mistake.

  • ||

    When the winner takes all, a miss is as good as a mile. There is no 2nd place in politics. The minority may be vocal. They may even be permanent. But the minority is utterly powerless to effect change.

    Marijuana legalization lost. Therefore it isn't legal. Doesn't matter if it should have won, or got really close but not quite. It didn't. End of story.

    There is plenty of political strain, sure. But those feeling it, lack any leverage to do anything about it. In this game, results is all that matters.

  • ||

    That's what they said about Reagan in 76

  • Cytotoxic||

    Are you going to use up that entire Kleenex box?

  • Bucky||

    Oh Pooh! They never said they loved anymore!

  • ||

    Is it just me or has this November and December been the two longest months in a long long long time.

    I WANT MY GRIDLOCK NOW!!!!

  • johnl||

    Reason writers on the air. John and Ken are saying that someone from Reason will be on after 5 to talk about the highspeed train to nowhere. Suppose this means TC in about 10 minutes.

  • Almanian, Wurstmeister||

    Just trying out my new handle...it suits me

  • Bestmeister||

    Me too...

  • MlR||

    "As Matt Welch explains in our January issue, there is emerging a permanent, though highly fluid, nongoverning minority of independents and disaffected party members who will unite to punish incumbents when the alienation becomes too acute to bear."

    No there isn't.

  • Bucky||

    i heard of them... aren't they calling themselves "No Labels"

  • Max||

    "Wherever you see a strong American political tradition being ignored and even flouted by both major parties, you see the kindling for the fire next time."

    Yeah, like the strong American political tradition of not electing black men to be president. Maybe next election the strong American political tradition of electing morons will kick in.

  • Extended Warren T||

    So you're running then?

  • JoshINHB||

    What's wrong with the current moron?

  • ||

    And so Max comes out and calls the people that voted Obama into office racists.

    Next week in the epic story of Max he will blame the recession on taxes being too low.

  • Black and Moron..||

    are not mutually exclusive, MaxTwit.

  • Extended Warren T||

    MaxTwit sounds like the setting most of the Balloon Juicers and Matty Y's crowd are set at.

  • Chony to the Max||

    The Howard Dean supporters were intelligent people who rightly criticized our moron president for his conduct that was of Don-Quixote like proportions.

    The Tea-Partiers are racist zealots who want to hasten our country's decline back into the stone ages. It is impossible to dislike our president because of policy. No sane person is against improving health care, strengthening our money supply to improve our economy and instituting a peaceful foreign policy.

    But, you conservative 'tarditarians will never understand the difference.

  • 35N4P2BYY||

    That works for Chony sock puppeting, not nearly enough slobberin, profanity laced, ad hominems for a proper Max sock-puppet.

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  • wubai||

    How about mbt kisumu sandals this one: there are X driving deaths a year- what % of driving deaths (or serious injuries) involve alcohol, or other intoxicating substances? kisumu 2 People are pretty darn good drivers when they are not impaired.

  • jiusuan||

    good

  • رش مبيدات||

    For all but the last 10 days of 2007, the famed Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) trading system for predicting major-party presidential nominees picked as the clear Republican favorite the famous ex-mayor of New York, hawkish Rudy Giuliani. But when it came time for people to actually vote in the primaries and caucuses, Giuliani was beaten in at least 45 states by a libertarian obstetrician whose name never once showed up on IEM’s 2008 election trading board yet who ended up with the fourth-highest delegate total.
    شركة تنظيف فلل بالرياض
    This was because people overvalued Rudy, not because they undervalued Paul. Paul still lost by a huge margin.

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