By Ralph Benko
It was only a living room conversation. But: this living room conversation, earlier in the month, was between two clashing political titans: the co-founder of MoveOn.org, Joan Blades, and the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, the largest and most authentic of the Tea Party groups, Mark Meckler. Neither represented their respective organizations; they were there in their personal capacities only. Tabula rasa, all to the good.
A great rapport, without compromising principles, developed. Will this prove of importance? One can but consider the observation of the great quantum physicist Niels Bohr: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
The meeting between Blades and Meckler just possibly might prove to have explosive long-term political impact. Why? The Washington elites have been, to their own profit, throttling America’s ability to achieve an equitable prosperity. Washington, economically, is thriving. Seven of the 10 most prosperous counties in America, out of 3,000+, surround the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, America, at large, struggles. Something is very wrong with this picture. And America knows it. Yet so long as humanitarian populists remain divided, between left and right, Washington conquers America. If the humanitarian populists of the left and of the right can find grounds to make principled common cause America may finally lift the siege that Washington levies upon us.
The humanitarian populist forces? MoveOn.org now, credibly, counts 7 million members. Full disclosure: this columnist is one of them. Furthermore (don’t delete me from your lists, Justin Rubin, I’ll just sneak back in under a nom de guerre!), this columnist may be MoveOn’s single dissident member, outnumbered, but undaunted, by 6,999,999 Progressive associates. MoveOn, arguably, >shudder<, was critical to the election, and re-election, of Barack Obama to the presidency. So, why belong? Notwithstanding the policy proposals from which I dissent, MoveOn presents as a majestic example of citizen engagement and a harbinger of the future.
The Tea Party Patriots is the closest thing that MoveOn has to a counterpart on the right. MoveOn delivered the White House to the Democrats, and the Tea Party proved instrumental in returning control of the House of Representatives to a conservative-leaning GOP in 2010. This columnist is a proud card-carrying Tea Party Patriot. Despite the calumny spread about the Tea Party by left-leaning media the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Thanks, in part, to the Tea Party conservative Republicans held the House of Representatives — the “People’s House” — in 2012. Conservative prospects for 2014 in the House and Senate, especially with President Obama now egregiously overplaying his hand, are bright indeed.
So … what the heck was MoveOn cofounder Joan Blades doing inviting Tea Party co-founder Mark Meckler to her house for tea and conversation? Further disclosure: both Blades, in the Huffington Post, and Meckler, at Citizens For Self-governance, as well as reporter Joe Garafoli in his San Francisco Chronicle article on the meeting, blamed this columnist for having introduced them to one another.
There was a point to making this introduction. Notwithstanding their considerable social graces, Blades is one of the toughest babes and Meckler one of the toughest dudes in politics today. Don’t be fooled by Blades’ hippie chick persona, bicycling around North Berkeley without entourage when not driving her precocious daughter Robin to cello lessons in her, what, Prius? Ignore Meckler’s suavity. This columnist would choose these two to have at his back in a knife fight.
Last year, Meckler absentmindedly forgot he was carrying his — California permitted — Glock 27 when he was checking in to a flight at La Guardia. Conscientiously turning it over to the airline ticket agent, Meckler found himself busted by the cops, later to be fined a token $250 for not having a New York State gun permit.
But hey Mark? Joan is easily as tough as you. She’s co-founded three million plus entities: Berkeley Systems, MoveOn.org, and the million mom MomsRising.org. Don’t mistake that disarming smile for innocuous. Her newest, ever so innocent-sounding, project, “Living Room Conversations,” is, per Blades, “an intimate co-hosted structured conversation form that is available to individuals and organizations for whatever they want to talk about — open source — intended to be massively reproducible and adaptable.” Understated power, something like Aikido, is Blades’ hallmark.
We are in the middle of a knife fight between Washington and America, metaphorically. But it is not, primarily, a knife fight between the left and the right. It is a fight between humanitarian populists, who care about the people’s wellbeing, and careerist elitists who care mostly about their own power and perqs. Left and right disagree, passionately, about the size and scope of government. (This columnist believes in Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolutely power corrupts absolutely.”)
Irrespective of the disagreement as to size of government the left, right and center all condemn Bad Government, Stupid Government, and Elitist Government. There even are inklings of threshold agreement about some of what constitutes bad, stupid and elitist against which the people, if united, can prevail.
In 1992, political columnist Fred Barnes, then of The New Republic, now of the influential Weekly Standard, picked the book Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, as “the most important political book” of the year. This columnist’s professional colleague Jeffrey Bell, policy director of the American Principles Project, wrote that book. It had a profound and lasting impact on the political discourse, introducing the concepts of populism and elitism as fundamental to modern politics.
So… what is populism and what is elitism? “Populism is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people,” wrote Bell, a former ranking aide both to presidential candidates Reagan and, later, Kemp. Bell channeled this key distinction into the fundamental political culture. Irrespective of their unshakeable policy differences, Blades and Meckler both are, by Bell’s definition, populists. By this columnist’s assessment, they are humanitarian populists.
Blades, in her blog published in HuffPo, wrote:
“I admit that I had butterflies in my stomach last week when I thought about co-hosting a Living Room Conversation about crony capitalism with my friend Mark Meckler, who is a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. Living Room Conversations are intimate structured conversations that invite grassroots progressives and conservatives to build relationships and find common ground on diverse issues. Talking to Mark on the phone over the last couple of years I’ve learned that I really like Mark personally and that we have remarkably different views on many political issues.”
Meckler publishes a blog at Citizens for Self-Governance, an organization, Meckler says, “intended to take power away from DC and the state capitols and return it to the people, at home, where it belongs, regardless of their political persuasion. I happen to believe that ‘the people’ are more conservative than their current governments, and this will lead to more conservative governance. But I’m willing to trust it to the people.” Meckler:
… “’God help the politicians if the tea party and MoveOn.org ever agree on anything.’” Well the time has come for us to find some agreement.” …
“We arrived at Joan’s house in the beautiful Berkeley Hills around 1 p.m. after making the tricky navigation on the tight winding streets in my ridiculously large Ford F350 pickup, which was about as out of place on the streets of Berkeley as a vehicle could be. I even felt a bit bad parking it on Joan’s street, hoping it wouldn’t draw the scorn of her neighbors upon her. After all, it says “Tea Party, the Original American Grassroots Revolution,” in large letters across the tailgate. As you might imagine, it was not exactly in tune with the rest of the bumper stickers in the neighborhood.”
A co-founder of MoveOn engages with a co-founder of the Tea Party movement. If this conversation, begun by two tough, courageous, uncompromising civic spirits, blossoms into significance the days of Washington’s elitists are numbered. Policies of equitable prosperity, thwarted by Washington, trembling to be born, may prove to be not so far off after all. “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
Ralph Benko, an economics policy expert living and working in Washington, DC, served on detail as deputy general counsel to an Executive Office of the President agency under President Reagan and to a Reagan presidential commission.