I am a child of the ‘60s, a generation that took immodest pride in challenging the orthodoxies of our elders and the power elites of the day. Whether opposing the war in Vietnam, the lingering racism in America, the oppression of women or the persistence of poverty, protesters of that era often marched under the all-purpose slogan of “power to the people.”
Coupled with an upraised fist, “power to the people” became the rallying cry of the radical left, directed first against President Johnson, then Democratic Party liberal candidate Hubert Humphrey and, finally, Republican Richard Nixon.
The tea party movement may be seen as the conservative iteration of the ‘60s “people power” phenomenon. It, too, is engaged in challenging the political orthodoxies of the day and is intent on bringing down errant politicians, regardless of their party affiliation.
Now, nearly half a century after the nation began its Great Lurch Leftward, America is once again engaged in a great political debate over the size and reach of government. The outcome of that debate will largely determine whether the United States remains the revolutionary beacon for individual rights and freedom in the world, or becomes, like so many empires before it, just another vehicle for consolidating and preserving the wealth and power of the privileged.
In seeking a political answer, Americans will have to sort through the posturing of partisan politicians, who are masters at preaching revolutionary change while championing programs that actually preserve the status quo.
For example, in his 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama managed to capture some of the revolutionary zeal of the ‘60s with his campaign slogan “Yes, we can.” Yet two years later, President Obama is governing as perhaps the most determined statist in American history, pushing expanded power and influence for the federal government at every turn and indulging in economic cronyism that might make even Charlie (“What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA”) Wilson blush.
In program after program, the Obama administration has declared its concern for the poor or oppressed, yet has actually sided with the rich and the powerful. The TARP program aided the big banks. The economic stimulus went mainly to state governments and civil servants. The bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler favored entrenched unions. Obamacare favors large insurance companies. New financial regulations favor the big banks.
Though many Americans undoubtedly still identify the Republican Party with big business, it is the liberal Democrats who now receive the most support from interests we describe as “big”: Big business, big labor, the establishment media and Wall Street. And program after program is designed to repay that support with special favors.
The radical Left of the ‘60s has become the very thing it once hated: The nation’s entrenched, elitist powermongers. And that’s precisely what has sparked a new populist uprising: The tea party. Of course, it’s not really a party, but a movement. Like the flower-power phenomenon of the ‘60s, it’s a broad movement, encompassing diverse interests and approaches. But clearly, there is a touchstone that inspires and unifies tea party branches around the country: the singular idea of limited government.
Interestingly, the participants in this new movement who are considered most radical by the ruling elite are those who espouse most passionately what today are known as conservative principles.
The mind rebels at labeling a radical as a conservative, or vice versa. And yet, if one recalls the guiding principles of the American Revolution, which after all are what today’s conservatives want to conserve, the apparent contradiction goes away. The American Revolution stood for liberty, equality for all and constitutional limits on government. In seeking to conserve these ideals, today’s conservatives would preserve that which is truly revolutionary: government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Power to the people, indeed.
Terry Miller is the Heritage Foundation’s Mark A. Kolokotrones fellow in economic freedom.
First appeared in The Washington Times