Take Back Our Government

Despite all the political noise, voters are making smart moves

The Hutchison spell is at last broken. The people of Knox County have taken back their government. All it took was adopting a charter, winning a term-limits referendum, and overcoming more than a decade of legal wriggling by incumbents unwilling to relinquish their seats.

Incumbency no longer means what it used to, and anti-incumbency fever is catching on all over America. Party-hopper Arlen Specter lost his five-term, Pennsylvania Senate seat in a primary despite raising twice as much money as his opponent, on top of a war chest accumulated during his long career as a darling of bankers, attorneys, and health-care manufacturers. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln tripled her opponent's fund-raising but could not escape a run-off. As one of the Senate's biggest recipients of health-care industry donations, she threatened to derail her own party's reforms and worked to compromise and complicate bills.

The loudest cries of "take back our government" are coming from the right, but it is opponents of health-care reform facing surprising challenges. Sure, the Tea Party put a couple feathers in its hat, but Rand Paul is not running against an incumbent. He is campaigning for the seat occupied by retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, who was given power in 1998 as an experiment to tell whether baseball pitchers are as loony as they seem. They are.

The Tea Party's other big accomplishment was to defeat incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett at Utah's Republican convention. Bennett is a hard right-winger, but the protest movement used his support for the Republican TARP bill against him. It is refreshing that Utah Tea Partiers remember the bail-out was proposed by congressional Republicans and signed by George W. Bush, because mainstream Republicans are engaging in some sort of group hypnosis that pins the blame on President Obama.

It helps to know who took the government if you plan to take it back, and what I see behind Tea Party sloganeering is a lot of confusion and nonsense. They behave as if the theft of our democracy happened recently, but I have watched it unfold and expand for decades, most recently when the Supreme Court granted personhood to corporations, at least for the purpose of funding campaigns. Tea Party whining about America being overrun by socialists as we bail out wealthy capitalists would be hilarious if there were anything funny about high unemployment and gutted retirement funds.

If the Tea Party is serious about taking back our government, they can learn a few lessons from Knox County.

First, those entangled in government's purse strings will provide the most resistance. Hutchison was not powerful because he was liked and admired, but because he controlled jobs and contracts. It was the "constitutional officers" who fought hardest against term limits. The transition from 19 to 11 members on County Commission has been gracious by comparison. This is because the officers had budgets and payrolls to cling to. Corruption is a function not of ideology, but power.

The second lesson is that you must change the rules, often by referendum. The powerful build loopholes into the system, so changing who is in office may not be enough to take back the government. Knox County had to adopt a home-rule charter to get the citizen revolt started.

The rules we need to change now are those governing campaigns and elections, which have become almost exclusively the domain of the wealthy and those with a talent for begging the wealthy—and corporations—for contributions. Public campaign financing, instant-runoff voting, nonpartisan elections, and other reforms could reduce the influence of money over politics. The two parties feel more like hands around our throats than platforms for balancing debate.

We need to find ways to make government feel more like it is of, by, and for the people. Is the Tea Party part of that revolution or just a distraction?