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People Power

A wake-up call for America's political elites.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Congress returns this week, and here's hoping that its members, Democrats in particular, learned a little something from this summer's town hall meetings. The lesson to be drawn from these occasionally
raucous events is that America is on the verge of--or already knee-deep in--one of those moments that periodically roil the country and rearrange our preconceived notions about public life. And not a moment too soon.

Popular outbursts serve as a check on, and corrective to, our elites' behavior. The people know things the elites forget or don't want to remember. The political class is supposed to serve the people, not the other way around. As Gerald Ford said after assuming the presidency on August 9, 1974, "Here the people rule."

For a while now, the message from Washington has been that we know what's good for the public, whether the public likes it or not. One after another, both parties have attempted to foist a series of grand reforms on a skeptical populace--in areas ranging from Social Security and immigration to energy and health care. Politicians have made decisions affecting millions of lives without accountability and oversight. The upshot has been more government, more debt, and--coming soon to a 1040 form near you--more taxes. No wonder the public is anxious.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the public views American elites with suspicion and disdain. Ordinary Americans have a point when they assign blame for the current mess to Wall Street CEOs, federal regulators, corrupt politicians, and gullible reporters. When Americans look at the economic landscape, they see dismal growth, high unemployment, and large deficits. But when they listen to the president and Congress, they hear that "stimulus"--borrowing ever more from tomorrow to spend today--will work like some kind of magic cure. They hear that this perilous moment is the time to build a "new foundation" with even more expenditures and taxes through "cap-and-trade" and Obamacare. It's as if spending and debt are no problem; as if it's fine that the federal government--which failed in its fundamental duties to build guardrails for the financial system--owns large chunks of that system; as if the political, financial, and think-tank elites have proven themselves worthy of the public's trust.

Two issues are at the center of the present discontent. The first is the state of public finances. The activists and other concerned citizens who showed up at the first tea parties last spring weren't protesting Obamacare (yet). They were protesting Obama's bailouts, budgets, and deficits. Obama's expansion of the state is an offense to liberty, but also to equity. People understand that as the government grows, they will have less opportunity to dispose of their income as they see fit. So the deficit is more than a number or a "structural imbalance." It's a symbol of unrestrained and irresponsible governance.

The second thing that is motivating the new public outcry is a sense of estrangement from political decisionmaking. The worry that Obamacare will result in fewer personal choices and more government fiat is legitimate. That's what Obamacare is set up to do. The debate is not merely a matter of which inputs will produce--voilà!--the desired outcomes, as the Obamacrats think. It's about freedom and responsibility. It's about a family's ability to control its fate, an individual's ability to shape his nation's future.

Rather than examine the reasoning and emotions behind the public expressions of concern, however, the president and his allies in Congress and the media have dismissed the opposition as crazy, misinformed, cynical, and artificial. To the contrary: In 1985, Irving Kristol wrote that the public activism of the Reagan era "is no kind of blind rebellion against good constitutional government. It is rather an effort to bring our governing elites to their senses." That's a fair description, it seems to us, of the public activism on display at town hall meetings across the country over the last month.

As for the elites, especially the liberal elite: They remain deaf, dumb, and blind.

--Matthew Continetti