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America in Peril
By Eric O¶Keefe Remarks prepared for delivery at the Tea Party Patriots Summit, Phoenix, Arizona, February 25, 2011.
Thank you so much. In 1842, a New Hampshire school teacher named Mellen Chamberlain sought out one of last surviving participants in the Battle of Concord²a genuine Minute Man²to ask him about that historic experience. The man¶s namewas Levi Preston.
Levi Preston was 91 years old at the time, but he possessed a remarkable memory. Chamberlain asked Preston why he had fought the British. His answers weren¶t what Chamberlain expected. He did not speak, for example, of the ³intolerable oppressions´ of British rule that Chamberlain had heard so much about. ³Oppressions?´ Preston said. ³I didn¶t feel them.´ ³Well,´ Chamberlain said, ³were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?´ ³I never saw one of those stamps,´ Preston said. ³I never paid a penny for one of them.´ ³Well, what about the tea tax?´
³Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.´ ³Then I suppose you had been reading Locke on the principles of liberty?´ ³Never heard of µim,´ Preston said. ³We only read the Bible and the Almanac.´ ³Well, then,´ Chamberlain asked, ³why did you fight?´ And here¶s where Preston summed up the crisis of his time. ³Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. Those people did not believe we should.´ Levi Prestonexpressed exactly the situation we face in America today.
We just want to govern ourselves. Unfortunately, some people today don¶t think we should.
In fact, they don¶t think we should have any real say at all in the decisions that affect our lives.
We are here to remind them, with all due respect, that they are mistaken.
I will speak a little more about the crisis we face today in a moment.
But first, I want to say a few more words more about that first American Revolution. What does Levi Preston mean when he says ³We always had governed ourselves.´ He meant exactly what he said. American self-governance began with The Mayflower Compact of 1620. The independent attitude of the Pilgrims and the British policy of ³benign neglect´ allowed a new kind of governing to grow and flourish²one seen to this day only in America. As Chamberlain wrote: ³The attitude of the colonists was not that of slaves seeking liberty, but of freemen ± freemen for five generations ± resisting political servitude.´ American exceptionalism was grounded in this early self-governance, and it was a historic success from early on. America grew quickly. Americans lived longer than Europeans ± life expectancy in 1750 was: 26 years in France; 37 years in Britain; and 52 years in America. Americans grew in other ways, too. The average American fighter in the Revolution was two inches taller than the average redcoat. The Old World ways of serfdom starvation had been left behind. And those early Americans knew what they were missing ± they loved their new way of living, and they associated it, wisely enough, with way they governed themselves. At the start of the Revolution the American colonies were the freest and most prosperous land in the world. It was not the tiny tax on tea that triggered the Revolution ± it was what stood behind that tax ± the British government¶s
declaration that it had the right to bind the colonies and people of America ³in all cases whatsoever,´ even though we had no representation in Parliament. No taxation without representation! The first American Revolution was fought over ³Who Decides?´
Make no mistake. Irevere George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and John Adams. The greatness of the Founding Fathers cannot be denied. But let¶s not forget this: America was created by people like Levi Preston--by ordinary people²people just like us.
We¶re taught that the Founding Fathers roused a reluctant people to embrace the cause of independence. But as every historian today will admit, it wasthe people² people just like Levi Preston²who made the revolution.
The Founders, great as they were, were often ³followers out front.´
The great names we recognize today²Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Adams²were responding, as it were, to events ³on the ground.´ They were doing the best they could to cope with developments that were beyond their control and at times even frightening.
One final point about thatfirst American Revolution before I move on to the crisis of our own time:
Every 4th of July, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, and I¶m all for it. But before Thomas Jefferson ever wrote a word of his Declaration, the people of the various colonies had not only drafted but enacted at least 90 of these declarations on their own.
Almost two years earlier, moreover, the people of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey had already kicked out their British overlords.
The point is this: The people, not their leaders, made the revolution and, in so doing, met the crisis of their time.
And the people today²meaning you and me²will meet the crisis of ours. ### Now you and I know how the establishment mainstream media covers Tea Party rallies. They say they don¶t like our tone.
They say that we are should show more restraint in the way we express ourselves and more respect for those they consider our superiors²for those, that is, who, in Levi Preston¶s words, don¶t think we should govern ourselves. They do not understand the source of our passion. These critics, remember, live inside the Washington Beltway. They are perfectly happy with the current state of affairs.That¶s because they are its beneficiaries!
And fat cats have never liked to be criticized, have they?
From the comfortable confines of the Washington Beltway, these Ruling Elites² for that is what they are²simply cannot comprehend why citizens who do not have K Street officesare angry.
The proper term for thisemotion is righteous indignation.
The Levi Prestons of our time feel we have reached a crisis, because we have.
The nature of this crisis is readily apparent: We have lost control of our lives because we have lost control of our government.
And we must reclaim it!
And this I cannot stress this too emphatically: The fight we face today is not between Republicans and Democrats. It is noteven between conservatives and liberals. It is not, moreover, between the heads of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, or between the official spokespersons of the conservative and progressive movements.
Those are phony wars that needlessly sow hatred between neighbors who should be working together for a common cause. And those who would have us fight these phony wars against each other know exactly what they are doing: They hope we will deplete our energies so they can continue to centralize power.
Well, we have news for them.
We will not burn ourselves out in such futileundertakings, because we know where the real struggle lies. ###
The real struggle before us today is being waged on four fronts.
The first of these four fronts is between the ordinary citizens²including many Levi Prestons throughout this hall tonight²and the Ruling Elite.
This Ruling Elite²by dint of education, connections, fame, wealth or knack for sheer self-promotion²have convinced themselves that they should make decisions for the rest of us. They are mistaken.
In fact, they are deluded.
They will learn soon enough thatwe intend to restore genuine self-rule to this republic, and it is on the second of these fronts where we must make our stand. ### This second front is between the voters and incumbent politicians. Consider these facts: In November 2010, the approval rating of Congress, Gallup tells us, had dropped to 17 percent, an all-time low. But in that same month, no less than 87 percent of congressional incumbents were re-elected. How can this be? Here¶s how: Incumbents are not held accountable for their actions.
Most congressional districts today are one-party districts.
Because most districts are one-party districts, the November elections were decided months before, in the primaries.
But in most primary elections, these same unpopular incumbents run unopposed!
In 2010, 62 percent of U.S. House incumbents had no primary opponents. The numbers at the state level²for state legislators²are even worse.
In 2010, according to Ballotpedia, 80 percent of state legislators had no primary opponents.
Finally, only 10 percent of voters turn out for any given party primary. Theoretically, therefore, then 10 percent²or, that is, the 14 percent who identify themselves as Tea Party Patriots²could direct the political system.
The way to fix this situation seems fairly obvious: We must recruit candidates to run against incumbents in primaries, and we must persuade those who believe as we do to vote in those primaries.
We must use our powers of persuasion to re-ignite in this country a new commitment to civic involvement that is broad, non-partisan, rooted in the principlesof the first American Revolution²and unstoppable.
Only in this way, will webreak the corrupt cycle of incumbency that, left unopposed, will destroy what remains of self-rule in this great Republic.
All we have been debating in this country for decades is the shallowquestion ofwhat will be decided. It is time to return to the profound question, and that iswho decides. ### The third front of this struggle is between the states and the federal government in Washington D.C. The time has come for the states to reclaim their rightful place in our constitutional system as envisioned by the Framers.
This much is beyond dispute. The federal government, havingseized too much control, is out of control.
The federal government intrudes into every aspect of our lives, it runs huge deficits, and it makes promises it cannot possibly keep. The federal government has created unfunded liabilities of over $100 trillion, which is more than $300,000 for every one of you²and for every other man, woman and child in the United States.
You know how we got here. Decades of bipartisan boondoggles. Then a batch of bailouts backed by the Ruling Elites of Wall Street and Washington. We, the people, were forced to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to paper over the mistakes of the Ruling Elite. But that was not enough for them ± they had to pile on more spending, in a binge that can only be called pathological. Still they will not stop, because they live in America¶s last boomtown ± the Beltway Bubble of Washington, D.C.
I sincerely believe²thinking back to the Founding Fathers²that even Alexander Hamilton would be appalled by our current level of debt. (Thomas Jefferson would faint.)
Washington, D.C., enjoys a monopoly on political power, and no monopoly in the history of mankind has ever reformed itself from within.
The federal government needs an external competitor. That competitor is the states, acting individually and in partnership, to rein in the federal Leviathan and reclaim their rightful powers under the Constitution as designed by its Framers.
A very promising way to pursue this is through the establishment of interstate compacts. Article 1, Section 10, of the Constitutionallows for just such arrangements, provided they receive congressional consent.
There are more than 200 such compacts in force today, and I look forward to the time when they are many more. But our current financial and political crisis points to health care as the biggest challenge. Ours is a nation of 308 million people.
There need not be²there cannot be²a single health care system responsible for a people as diverse as ours who live as far away from one another as Wasilla, Alaska, [PAUSE] and Honolulu, Hawaii.
It is with this in mind that we have created the Health Care Compact Alliance, to restore responsibility for health care back to the citizens. The Health Care Compact is an interstate compact removing health care regulation from the federal government, and keeping health care dollars in the states. Our health care problems did not begin with the 2,400 page bill from Congress. The
federal government had already created an unsustainable system. So killing that colossal bill is not enough. Under the Health Care Compact the federal government is pushed out of all health care regulation and funding except for Veterans Affairs. Medicare, Medicaid, the FDA ± all of those arenas and more would become the responsibility of the states, and the people. What about funding? The Health Care Compact directs all federal health care dollars to the states, based on last year¶s spending. But without the bureaucracy and regulations crippling the system today. In coming years, we the people, in the states, will earn every dollar to be spent on health care. What do we gain by sending it to Washington? What value does the Ruling Elite add? Do we trust unelected bureaucrats on dozens of commissions to make the life and death decisions for our neighbors, for our families? The status quo is not an option. We cannot allow the Ruling Elite to ration care as they see fit. We must push them out of health care and restore citizen control of this vital area.
Citizen activists around the nation, even as we speak, are working with their state legislatures to pass the Health Care Compact in their states.
Then, as a group, they will go to Congress to demand the required consent. Legislators who resist will be held accountable. We will recruit and support primary challengers, and we will defeat incumbents at the ballot box.
And health care is only the beginning.
We will adopt a similar strategy with other issues. And we will notstop until we govern ourselves again, as those who fought the first American Revolution originally intended. ### Now the fourth and final front in this struggle must take place in the heartsand minds of the American people. One of the most encouraging characteristics of Tea Party Patriots is your refusal to give in to cynicism and despair. That alone sets you apart from some of our more jaded fellow citizens²and certainly far above those careerists in Washington who seek to keep you in your place.
But we should not be surprised by how discouraged some of our friends and neighbors have become. We should not look down on them for it. They are our fellow Americans, and they are our future allies.
The Ruling Elite, by consolidatingpower in Washington, excludes ordinary citizens from the decisions that affect their lives.
No wonder they become disaffected and, when it comes to political action, they drop out.
It is time to re-engage our friends and neighbors, for the key to true self governance is widespread civic engagement. So«if we are to succeed in this effort,we must reach out far beyond the confines of the Phoenix Convention Center.
We must take our own message of hope and change to people who otherwise would not see themselves as our allies. As you know, I stand before you as the chairman and CEO of the Sam Adams Alliance, and I want to say a few words about the great Sam Adams as we think about how we will build this movement.
Sam Adams, though extremely well read, was no aristocrat like Washington or Jefferson. He did not come from the upper class. He was a brewer and a failed one at that.
But it was Sam Adams²before Jefferson, before Washington, before Franklin, before Patrick Henry or Thomas Paine²who decided the colonies could govern themselves without British oversight, and who worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality.
Adams was also a superb communicator. He could convey the ideas of self-rule as well as anyone in the colonies. This he did most notably through the Committees of Correspondence, which he organized. Adams is portrayed as a rabble rouser. One of those out-of-control, over-the-top, say-anything-to-destroy-your-opponent talk-show hosts, you might say. This is unfair, and we should know the realSam Adams²just as we know thefirst American Revolution while we wage the second.
Here I will defer to someone who knew Sam Adams very well. This was his cousin John Adams. Although Sam was ³staunch and stiff and strict and rigid and inflexible in the cause,´ John said, he was always for ³softness and delicacy and prudence where they will do.´
Sam Adams knew that winning others to the cause of independence took patience and tact. Just because someone doesn¶t agree with usyet does not make himour enemy.
Adams was engaged in serious political action, not mere political protest. And serious political action has less need for the weapons of attack, sarcasm and ridicule than it does for the art of persuasion.
This is not to suggest for one moment that we are any less serious about our cause than those who speak in less civil tones. I believe, in fact, that the opposite is the case. The more confident we are in our ideas, the less need we have for engaging in personal attacks.
There is no cause more important than rebuilding the muscles of the American body politic.
Our basic framework²our civic skeleton²is still in decent working order.
But the muscles must be restored, as they can and will be through exercise and success. ###
I began by talking about Levi Preston and the American Revolution, and I¶d like to end on the same note.
Tea Party Patriotism exemplifies the spirit of the American Revolution, and you should never forget that, no matter what anyone else might say.
Yours is the spirit of Levi Preston. ³We always had governed ourselves,´ that old Minute Man said, ³and we always meant to.´ We are still a free people, and we are determined to remain a free people. The Sam Adams Alliance and the Health Care Compact Alliance support you in your efforts to make sure our freedoms are secured for generations to come.
It is a great honor to be part of this movement, for you are joiningwhat the historian Paul Johnson called ³the greatest of all human adventures,´ which is the ongoing³creation of the United States of America.´
You have our heartfelt support, andI am certain, as we go forward together, that Levi Preston will bless us in our efforts.