The True ‘Person of the Year’: the American Activist

Note from Erick: Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the organizations I think actually does a good and effective job of harnessing grassroots energy for free markets and free people.

It’s more than clear who the real Person of the Year is: the grassroots American activist.

Just listen to the pervasive phrases in the country’s lexicon for 2009 – from “tea party” to “Hands off my health care” and “Listen to me.”

Without a doubt, everyday Americans concerned about the future of their country have had more of an impact this year than any politician, Fed chairman, or celebrity.

They’ve also done something politicians and celebrities aren’t very familiar with – they’ve made big personal sacrifices. They’ve taken time off work and away from families, driven long distances, and spent their own hard-earned money to attend rallies. They’ve given of their time to stay informed on legislation in Washington and to write and call their members of Congress. They’ve put their names to a cause, signing petitions and letters to the editor.

And it’s made a difference unlike anything I’ve seen in 25 years in politics.

If you’ll recall, the original “deadline” for Congress to pass a health care reform bill was back in the summer. The Democratic leadership was keen on passing something before they sent lawmakers home to their districts for the August recess. But something happened – lawmakers started hearing from concerned constituents.

Then came the August Revolution.

The usually lazy month when members of Congress hold town hall meetings erupted into a firestorm of citizen engagement. At first, legislators were surprised to see people showing up to their town halls; soon, members were canceling meetings because they didn’t want to face their own constituents.

The response from congressional leaders was shocking. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared protestors “un-American,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid condemned them as “evil-mongers.” Of course, these supremely out-of-touch responses from Washington only fueled the grassroots fire.

Both the cap-and-trade energy tax and a Washington health care takeover were on the agenda earlier in 2009. The Democrats have a majority in both houses of Congress – what was to stop them from passing President Obama’s big government priorities?

It was the sheer determination and passion of America’s citizens. I saw hundreds of folks at a time come out to early morning events – as early as 7 a.m. – to learn about what was going on in Washington and to sign petitions and meet others in their communities who shared their concerns. Whether it was Americans for Prosperity’s Hot Air Tour, with our hot air balloon drawing attention to the cost of global warming-based energy taxes, or our “Hands off my health care” bus tour, it was simply amazing to see the force thousands of people brought to the issues in nearly every state of the union.

There were the father and son in Gillette, Wyoming, who wore matching caps bearing their small business’s name. The father looked me in the eye and said, “We’re here because this cap-and-trade bill will kill our family business.”

There was the refinery worker in El Dorado, Arkansas, who brought his three kids to their first political event because “it’s such an important time” and the elderly lady at a Norton, Virginia, event who said, “It’s like they want us to feel guilty for wanting to keep our health care.”

One lady in Sikeston, Missouri, is putting 40 hours a week into building a local tea party organization because she “couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something.” She’s not alone.

This year will go down in history as the year that the new “tea party” movement arose. Americans responded to a challenge to their freedoms the way they’ve always responded. Without waiting for some national leader to emerge and without waiting for orders from Washington, they stood up on their own and fought for their freedoms.

Sometimes these tireless activists ask me if doing their part is really making a difference. CNN and Rasmussen polls show a majority of Americans oppose the current health care bill. That shift in opinion came because people paid attention and got their neighbors to pay attention, too.

But more than that, I tell them to look at Washington. The genuine uprising among constituents has pushed cap-and-trade off the congressional agenda for the year, and pushed back the deadline for a health care bill from August to Christmas.

That kind of influence deserves recognition.