Belmont Club


The political trajectory for 2010 has already been determined by events of the last 20 months. Although the final score is yet to be tallied, in all probability the Republican party will make large gains in the lower house and smaller gains in the Senate.  That much is fairly certain. It is much less clear what shape 2011 will assume. Will the disenchantment with Washington spend itself in November, content in sending a signal to the incumbents that voters are not happy campers or will it move to a new phase, one which will use the modest electoral gains to find new leverage for further structural change?

Jeffrey Anderson’s article advocating a Constitutional Amendment to limit spending is an example of the search for an instrument of change which goes beyond electing different officials. Anderson directly addresses the question of how best to reverse the metastatic growth of government by suggesting that spending limits can be written into the Constitution via an amendment. Government would be on an allowance except in certain special circumstances. Andersonwrites, “the amendment would limit the annual increase in federal spending to 2 percent (above inflation). It would grant an exception allowing for unlimited defense spending during a time of congressionally declared war. And it would allow three-quarters of the states (acting upon the request of two-thirds of Congress) to issue a 1-year exception for any reason whatsoever.”

Without passing judgment on his proposal, there’s no harm in pointing out some of the dangerous ground that it must cross. The first is that an Amendment constitutes an almost frontal attack on Big Government.  The Left will see it coming and respond with a Big Show of their own. In keeping with the scale of the strategy, any structural reform that relies on a Consitutional amendment must assemble an enormous force of more than 38 states to cross the political No-Man’s-Land in order to retake the trenches of the New Deal.  If only 37 states get behind it, the effort fails.

Even if it succeeds, a Constitutional Amendment is only words on paper. The Washington bureaucracy has been known to interpret words to their best advantage and may yet find ways to effectively neuter the provision.  For example, lawyers may conveniently recall that the operations in Iraq were authorized by Congress, or that a formal war in Korea still exists.  The words “and lead us not into temptation” were written for a purpose. And when the path to money lies through war strange things may happen.

Shrinking the massive federal bureaucracy is a chicken-and-egg problem.  While it remains gargantuan it retains the appetite to consume vast quantities of money by hook or by crook.  Prescribing a diet via a constitutional amendment solves the legal problem, but it does not solve the practical problem of restraining this monster from pulling up whatever isn’t nailed down to assuage the pangs of its fiscal hunger. Still, some will try. If 2011 is going to be about Constitutional Amendments then it will assume the character of a huge national effort to bring down the giant dinosaur with a single, well-placed shot. It might work. It might even be worth a try. But it would be betting a lot on a single throw of a die. Is it wise to repose every hope for reform in an all or nothing campaign to change the nature of Washington?

How about supplementing it with something else. For a grassroots campaign to prevail against a large, central target like a giant bureaucracy, it must assume  at least in part, the nature of swarming, distributed insurgency. This means that after 2010, activists must try to find ways to effect the significant structural reforms with forces less massive than 38 states.  That number and all it implies is too large a barrier to entry for most practical political efforts. What’s needed is a way to accomplishing something at the two, three and four state level.

The strategists for 2011 can take their cue from the success of the primary strategy in 2010. Rather than forming a Third Party (which is analogous to a single massive effort), organizers in the current year have chosen to contest the candidate selection process within the Republican party primarily at the local level.  This reflected the realization that it was easier to take over or substantially remake the Republican Party than it was to mount a general electoral challenge of the sort a Third Party would serve.  Like every guerrilla movement in history, it attacked the outposts and not the main fort.

The corresponding question is what form should the reform strategy for 2011 take? Is there some way that Big Government can be successfully opposed by many initiatives at a relatively local level? Or must local effort be directed towards creating some huge national battering ram like a Constitutional Amendment?

If the political impetus of the Tea Parties is not to be absorbed and dissipated by the nearly certain electoral gains of 2010 it has to segue into new distributed mode in 2011. The form this will take is yet to be determined. While some have suggested the strategy of continuing to seek structural change a via  constitutional amendment, the high barriers to entry and legalistic nature of the approach pose dangers for this approach.  Since the task of changing government is primarily a political and only secondarily a legal task, it will be necessary to provide a focus around which to organize and mobilize people at a local level. The challenge for the advocates of limited government is to find a swarm strategy which can operate largely at the local level and yet be substantially effective at making structural changes in Federal government. The eventual fate of the Tea Party idea will largely depend on finding this mode. The end must, above all, find the means.