A public flogging of Patrick Ruffini
In entering an important online debate recently, GOP web celeb Patrick Ruffini horrifyingly takes the elitist position. He implicitly disses the Tea Parties, the very Tea Party which, in a recent Rasmussen poll, beat the Republican Party 23% to 18%, with a plurality of independents preferring the Tea Party.
Ruffini is basking in the glow of credit as the online campaign aide to Bob McDonnell’s recent Virginia gubernatorial race. McDonnell’s victory was wonderful, of course, but his landslide 1,163,523 vote victory was statistically indistinguishable from the non-Ruffini-assisted victory of the even more staunchly conservative Ken Cuccinelli in the state’s attorney general race (to which, full disclosure, this writer contributed funds), 1,123,816 votes.
But Ruffini’s now coming down squarely on the side of elitism is no small matter. In so doing he makes himself the poster child, and in part directly culpable, for the current woes of an elitist GOP estranged from its base.
One of the great themes in American history is that of the fight between the elitists and the populists. Within the last few weeks there has been a fascinating — and important — debate among commentators as to why Obama did not follow through on his populist “It’s about us” theme from campaigning to governing. The Obama administration appears to be attempting (without notable success) to reduce its vaunted 13 million citizens, activists, contributors and volunteers who helped propel him to victory to … listserv minion status.
The debate was kicked off by TechPresident.com’s Micah Sifry’s important column, The Obama Disconnect and was carried forward by The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott — between them generating fascinating posts and ripostes. It was a conversation in which this writer also publicly participated.
Then enter Ruffini. (Insert ominous organ chorda.)
Ruffini’s contribution to this debate centered on why movement activists should — must — be reduced to minion status after victory. Ruffini weighed in with A Belated Response to Micah Sifry.
Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss Sifry’s ideal of autonomous, almost leaderless political movements as essentially incompatible with the work of government.
The job of a campaign is not to transform the ethos of governance.
Now, what happens when the campaign goes away? What happens when the enthusiasm inevitably ebbs and the hard work of governing begins? The immediate benefits of a bottom-up strategy become less clear. You revert to traditional instincts, where powerful obstacles stand in the way of getting things done — even amongst your base, and the wielding of massive political machinery cannot be left to amateurs.
“Cannot be left to amateurs?” This is pretty conventional Political Insider thinking, as it happens. What makes Ruffini’s apostasy shocking is his departure from a short but notable career of cheerleading for a bottom up, open-source ethos in politics. We now see that to Ruffini “bottom up” is a great, one could say Machiavellian, campaign tactic, “… not simply a noble, unconventional, damn-the-consequences move. It’s pretty darn profitable, generating more signups, more activity, and more money to feed the top-down parts of the campaign.”
And what makes it doubly shocking is how exceptionally candid is Ruffini’s contempt for the grassroots activists. Most political operatives maintain at least a polite pretense of respect for the grassroots and the activists.
This is not a new fight. It is one that goes to the very heart of the American identity and is one that populists have had to fight for from the very beginning. In the constitutional convention of 1787, our founding fathers took sides and the fight could hardly have been more vivid. The aristocratic Gouverneur Morris moved to restrict the right to vote to property holders, equating working people with children. “Children,” said Morris, “do not vote. Why? because they want prudence, because they have no will of their own. The ignorant & the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest.” Morris was passionately countered by, among others, George Mason, James Madison and by the iconic populist Benjamin Franklin, who said: “It is of great consequence that we shd. not depress the virtue & public spirit of our common people; of which they displayed a great deal during the war, and which contributed principally to the favorable issue of it.”
The vote on this issue went, lopsidedly, to the forces of populism.
It is submitted that elitism, not liberalism (or, from a Leftist’s point of view, conservatism), is the mortal threat to America. There are elitists, as well as populists, of both the Left and the Right. And a populist liberal will find more common cause with a populist conservative than with an elitist liberal.
On the Left, the populist 5 million member MoveOn.org formed out of a frustration of middle-class, suburbanite progressives with the Democrats’ unwillingness to stand up to the Republicans over the impeachment of President Clinton and the gearing up of the war on Iraq by President Bush. Populist leaning SEIU president Andy Stern is on record as saying, “How we got to be the party of government, and not of small business, I just don’t get.” Micah Sifry, of http://personaldemocracyforum.com, may be one of the truest populists in American history.
On the Right, the most notable populist impulse today arises within the Tea Party movement, most broadly represented by http://teapartypatriots.org (to which this writer belongs), furious with the GOP’s conniving at the spending orgy. Millions of philosophically aligned mostly middle class Americans whose activist high point, so far, may have been the million plus person march on Washington last September 12th.
This populist uprising, famously called by Tapscott “the Middle America Rebellion of 2009,” is sick and tired of the political elites engaging in a never-ending orgy of debt-fueled spending. This movement is made up of people who are fed up with the privilege and the impunity with which the political elites conduct themselves. And with the smugness with which they look down on us ordinary working people.
If the populists of the Left and Right ever make common cause — and there are abundant principled grounds to do so, with, perhaps, the Left taking on Big Government and the Right taking on Big Business — critical mass will be attained. On that day, if such a day ever comes, there will be a political transformation of historic proportions.
Political visionary, and former Reagan aide (and business partner of this writer), Jeffrey Bell originally redefined populism and elitism for the 20th (and 21st) century in his classic 1992 work published by Regnery, Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality.
Therein he redefined populism as “optimism about ordinary people’s ability to manage their own affairs, relative to the ability of an elite to do so for them.” Elitism, of course, is the converse of this. Bell’s book had a disproportionate impact on the political discourse, bringing the epithet of “elitism” to the fore. But somehow, Bell’s refined definition of populism is only now entering the conversation. Perhaps its time finally has arrived.
America’s political future now hangs in the balance. The fight is not so much one between Left and Right, although that matters. But what matters most is the attitude of the political elites towards the regular people.
Reagan understood this perfectly. Reagan once observed:
I wonder about the people in those cars, who they are, what they do, what they are thinking about as they head for the warmth of home & family. Come to think of it I’ve met them–oh–maybe not those particular individuals but I still feel I know them. Some of our social planners refer to them as ‘the masses’… They are not ‘the masses,’ or as the elitists would have it, ‘the common man.’ They are very uncommon. Individuals each with his own hopes & dreams, plans & problems and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any other place on earth.”
Paul Collier, of Freedomist.com, who found and shared this observation by Reagan, points out the poignancy of how … this very quote was used by a much younger Patrick Ruffini, perhaps before he had chosen, or changed, sides, in Ruffini’s own review, at Amazon, of Reagan, In His Own Hand…..
The elitists of the GOP, like the current Patrick Ruffini, wish to dismiss us as “amateurs.” There is another, older, nobler word for who we are, Patrick.
This is how Reagan saw us. This is who we are. And, as such, we very much can be trusted — more than the discredited political elites — with the “massive political machinery” of government. We do not need you or your friends, Patrick, Republicans or Democrats, to take power from us, to take power over us, or to make our decisions for us.
Thanks to Sifry, Tapscott, and, yes, Ruffini (caught slipping the GOP some political cyanide) the heart of the agony of the Republican Party, and of the United States itself, now is distilled and made lucid. It boils down to a fight for the authenticity of the party and for the legitimacy of the government.
As an astute observer of the political scene recently observed, The real problem is that there is too much political machinery. If there were less, it wouldn’t matter so much who ran it.
At base, it’s an old fight between populists and elitists. Each time gravely underrepresented, the forces of populism have prevailed.
And, in large measure thanks to the Tea Parties, and to populists both Republican and Democratic, the people again shall prevail.
Ralph Benko, who served as co-emcee of the July 4th Boston Tea Party, is a principal of Capital City Partners, of Washington DC. He is the author of The Websters’ Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World for policy and advocacy groups to use the Web powerfully. It is available as a free eBook from www.thewebstersdictionary.com and in book form from Amazon.com and finer bookstores everywhere.