The Apostasy: “Drop Dead, Tea Partiers!”

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’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 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, 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 (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, 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.

Boston Tea Party, July 4, 2009 / Ralph Benko

Boston Tea Party, July 4, 2009 / Ralph Benko


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 and in book form from and finer bookstores everywhere.

Ralph Benko

Ralph Benko is a principal of Capital City Partners, of Washington DC. He is also 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.

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About Ralph Benko

Ralph Benko is a principal of Capital City Partners, of Washington DC. He is also 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.
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  • BAMF

    Nailed it! Nice job, Mr. Benko. Now extend! How do we publically destroy the likes of Ruffini once and for all, as retribution for the sins of his ilk, and burn that example into the fabric of America so that we populists don’t have to arise from our slumber every 25 years to put down "The Man?" In fact, that has worked against us; they have certainly made substantial inroads over the last 25 years as they have done each time since our founding that we are complacent. We need a perpetual, pure maintenance “Contract with Republicans” (including poison pills) or we should burn down the party and trample them under the heels of the Tea Party Movement. Liberals we can beat; but these elites are insidious. Betting on the diligence of the informed populace has failed us and our revolutions are too civilized and short lived. More drastic measures are needed. Propose a plan.

  • John Hanson

    I don't have a popularist solution for the elitist problem, but Mr. Benko certainly identifies the problem brilliantly. We need to bring popularist democrats and republicans together as a voting bloc to kick out all the incumbents. The tea partiers are probably our best hope of doing that. What a powerful message replacing 435 congressmen and 1/3 of the Senators next fall would send to the elitists. The GOOOH organization is aiming to do just that…replace the bums with citizens like those who evoked President Reagan's musings about "the very uncommon individuals" riding by in cars.

  • JDM

    Ruffini can kiss my tea partying @ss. Sacks of crap like that moron are the reason the GOP is in the crap pile it is. People of the attitude that they're somehow better suited to lead the country because of who they are as opposed to the ideals they represent is why I'll never vote "R" again just because of the letter. If only we could go to the polls and vote Ruffini's mouth shut………

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  • Patrick Ruffini


    Well, it was certainly interesting to wake up to this, since it's a pretty big distortion of what I've actually written about the Tea Party movement. Instead of taking a tangentially relevant post about OFA, why don't we consider my recent posts on the party-vs-movement debate within the GOP?

    My posts should be pretty clear on this, but most recently I've warned about the dangers of the GOP establishment in DC interpreting a 2010 victory as a vote of confidence in them when the GOP momentum is largely a factor of grassroots enthusiasm represented by the Tea Party movement. This is a huge problem looming on the horizon.

    To believe in the premise of your argument against me is believe the propaganda from the Obama campaign that they were an actual bottom-up movement. I've never believed that, and they have simply reverted to form in the White House is not surprising and something that forms the crux of my post. The Obama campaign used bottom-up language and opened up the tactics of online organizing to a huge base of supporters, but they were not a bottom-up organization. Now that they're in power, they are no longer even pretending that they are.

    Now, you confuse this analysis for praise of this modus operandi. I'm not praising it but stating it is a fact on the ground inherent to the dynamics of governing on both the right and the left. The / OFA activists are not in the negotiating room with Obama and Harry Reid, and so they get screwed. I also think the right got screwed on Medicare Part D and the bailouts in the last Administration.

    There will always be a party and there will always be a movement, and there will always be tension between the two. A vibrant movement is essential to holding the party accountable and ensuring it does the right thing. I'm not sure how you've missed this in all that I've written about this over the last year, but there it is.

  • clay barham

    Ayn Rand expressed views of people and how they function, both as herd members and individuals, showing a preference for individual freedom. America was founded on individual freedom, simply because there was no other choice at the time to follow the Old World herd model. Our Founding Fathers gave us a definition of what Americans created, then a system to keep it going. We had three constitutions to define the limits of the national system, as we kept our individual governance close, starting between the ears and in the heart up to the County level that was supposed to be no further than a days horseback ride. In the 21st century, our elected representatives took an Oath to keep what was established, yet turned on it immediately and trashed it in order to reintroduce the Old World system rejected almost 400 years ago, by force just over 200 years ago. They moved government away from the individual to a distant city and founded it as the center of organized crime, as if it were just an extension of Haiti. Then, they picked our pockets and destroyed our economy.

  • Patrick Ruffini

    All hail Ruffini the blowhard!!

  • Darvin Dowdy

    Haven't had a chance to read Ruffini's response yet "but" I will say that the view of contemporary GOP insiders/strategists/consultants/advisers is that the concept of populism is like, "oooh! Cooties!". They're taught that in PolySci class basically and they just mimic what they've been taught. Never stopping to think that, hey, populism<populace<the population<the electorate<the Conservative Voting Base . How long will the Base just sit there and let the GOP HIerarchy/Estab continue to slap them around and poke them in the eye? If you have a good friend who begins to abuse you like that, how long before you stop being their friend? And that, in essence is how the TP movement started.
    The GOP and even Movement Conservatives had best do some deep self-analysis/introspection. They've been tragically wrong for about 2 decades and its finally caught up w/them. Darvin Dowdy

  • nmbr1son

    I can't say that I'm up on Ruffini, but I will follow the story much closer.

    One thing I can say without doubt is that the elites from both parties have done serious damage to their own causes. Liberal elites look down their noses at traditional Democrats (blue collar) and marginalized them, thereby allowing the far Left define the party's trajectory towards socialism.

    Rockerfeller Republicans did the same to the 'family value' conservatives and dismissing them as 'bohunks' and radical Christians. We see the personification of this slight in the Tea Party movement. One of two things (IMHO) will happen: Tea Partiers will have to fight for the Republican Party (again) or splinter into a 3rd party, which will not help anyone – except the Dems. They will win by default.

    Time to take out the Reagan playbook and right the Republican ship.

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