Two weeks before Republicans took control of the House and eroded the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, I was backstage at the Fox Business Channel 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of reason. This column first appeared at Reason.com.