The most obvious lessons of the defeat of gun control and the push for illegal alien amnesty is that politicians don't matter. People do.
The Tea Party invested its energy into electing the right people, but as Rick Scott and Marco Rubio showed us, there may be no such thing as the right people. Politicians are in the business of selling out. The difference between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist was that Rubio hadn't really been tested.
But that doesn't mean politics is hopeless. It means politicians are hopeless. People however can still force politicians to do the right thing.
The NRA won its fight against gun control even though all the odds, political, financial and emotional, were stacked against it. Politicians had every reason to defect and evolve into a new understanding. And some did. But the ground held because enough of them knew that the NRA was in it for the long term and they would have to deal with it long after Bloomberg had moved on.
In 2012, amnesty and gun control both appeared to be equally unacceptable and were shunned by Republican politicians. If anything they shunned amnesty even harder than gun control. But one election loss later and most of the stalwarts, including Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan have jumped on the amnesty train.
Victor Davis Hanson observes that, "in these divided times ideology and politics can easily trump considerations about character." But accepting that character doesn't matter may just be practical politics.
There may be leaders of good character out there who firmly resolve to do the right thing and never waver from their course, but they are the exception and the political system is designed to weed them out.
The self-motivated politician who never wavers is a lot to ask of any man. Even Churchill eventually buckled to Stalin. What can one expect of the senator from Idaho or Virginia?
Politics is not about politicians. It's about people. Politicians are just the brokers in the political process. The real lesson of the Tea Party is not that you can intervene in a primary for the most conservative candidate and then sit back while he does the right thing, it's that the only way to get the right thing done is to have an organization that is constantly involved in the political process.
Prohibition, an insane policy, was largely rammed through by a clever and relentless organization that built alliances and forced the issue down the throats of politicians who didn't agree with it. The same tactics have been used for a variety of causes, including, most recently, gay marriage. In each case, most politicians who did not agree with a cause, came around on it because it was smart politics.
The politician who evolves concedes that he is up for grabs. Evolutionary announcements should be met with contempt, but they also signal that a politician who flips can be made to flop back again. Treating him as if he were an intelligent thinking individual with principles may be a mistake. It may be easier to assume that he has neither principles nor character and that he will go whichever way seems easiest. And the trick then is to reshape his environment so that he evolves into another shape.
For all the complaints that we need leaders, leaders may be the one thing that we do not need. The sort of people that we associate with leaders tend to be self-willed men with their own agendas. Christie and Bloomberg are both leaders, but their version of leadership is to pursue their private agendas without any accountability or regard for anyone else. What we need are not leaders, but organizations that are better at holding politicians accountable.
The professional politician excels at pretending to have principles and then selling them out. Finding an honest one is like trying to buy a Rolex watch at a folding card table near Times Square. You may get the real deal, but the odds are that you will be ripped off because the people you are dealing with are trained con artists. They have pulled the same scam a thousand times. They are better at reading you than you are at reading them.
What politicians really do is move money around. They push pork for their friends and supporters who then reward them by making sure that they get reelected. It's a simple financial transaction and any principles can only get in the way of it. They are salesmen for government spending and like all salesmen, they need a pitch strategy because "I'm going to give 10 million dollars of your money to the people who contribute to my campaign and organize groups that support me" is not a winner.
We may have reached the point where it's smarter to ignore the pitch strategy, the stories, the speaking style, the declaration of principles, the Heritage approved reading list, and reduce everything back to a simple business transaction free of any hero worship or commitments.
It's not smart for small government conservatives to believe in politicians anyway. If politicians were worth believing in, then one of the main arguments against small government trickles away. If there were a breed of politicians that weren't hungry for power and able to find the balance between rights and regulations, why shouldn't we trust them to run things? Such a breed of philosopher-kings doesn't exist. And will never exist.
Most people, of all factions, rightly hold politicians in contempt and are suspicious of governments. The Tea Party would have done better to keep its distance from politicians, instead of allowing too many of them to wrap themselves in the Tea Party brand. Too much energy was wasted in getting behind politicians, instead of getting on top of them.
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"was the old Roman question. Who watches the watchmen? Politicians are a poor accountability method. They aren't going to hold themselves accountable. Trying to play Diogenes hunting for an honest politician in Washington D.C. is an even bigger waste of time. There are hardly any and they may not be the ones you think are.
Politicians are tools. They were meant to be wielded by the people. A good politician understands that he is being held accountable. A bad politician doesn't. Politicians don't pay attention to people. They pay attention to organizations. The only way to lock in good behavior by a politician is to lock them into an organization that is capable of rewarding or punishing him.
The organization can't just be money. There is an entire political class built around activism that consumes money and does nothing. The 2012 campaign should have been an education in that.
The left isn't just successful because it has billionaires, but because it successfully organizes people. The successful organization of people is the difference between 2010 and 2012. If 2014 and 2016 are going to be any different, it will come down to building organizations that can transform the process.
Single-issue organizations like the NRA can be very effective. So can larger scale organizations. Many of them exist, but what they really require is ground level organizing. Money is cheap. People are hard to come by.
If conservative policies are going to win out, the decentralized conservative presence of the internet is going to have to be more directly leveraged in the real world. The people already exist. Bringing them into play in a structured way is what is missing.
The 2010 elections showed what is possible when the people get involved. And the 2012 elections showed what happens when the political class leaves the people behind. Sometimes the people class can win on its own, but even when it does, its victory, like all political class agendas, is a prelude to another sellout.
Principles can't come from politicians because politics is now largely an economic transaction. They can only come from people who do not benefit from those government class transactions. The left has built a shadow government of organizations, but it has done so while linking those organizations to small, but sizable numbers of organizers and activists, who can rally the base. The right will have to duplicate its accomplishments if it doesn't want to see the politicians that it wastes money and energy electing constantly "evolve" to the left.
Some readers have complained that this blog is too hostile or negative toward Republican politicians. If anything it's not nearly negative enough. Cheerleading for favorite politicians is a waste of time. The solutions will not come from messiahs in suits. It will come when the number of conservative issues that politicians come to see as the third rail expands beyond gun control. It will come when the professional political infrastructure is contained by a conservative activist infrastructure that is as least as effective and powerful as its counterpart on the left.
It will come when we stop believing in electing the right man and accept that the honest politician is the one who stays bought. It may not be romantic or idealistic, but it is far more practical than waiting for the next Marco Rubio to come around.