Can You Hear the Thunder?

Published July 1, 2011

I woke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off? I sat and wondered.

– Bob Seger, “Night Moves,” 1976

In November 2008, voters weary of eight years of George W. Bush elected a new president who promised not to raise taxes “by one cent” and “to go line by line through every item in the federal budget and eliminate programs that don’t work and make sure that those that do work, work better and cheaper.”

Ten months later, after the Obama administration broke both promises in spectacular fashion, more than one million Americans marched on Washington DC to take back their country. It was the biggest uprising against high taxes and government bail-outs of economic elites in America since the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791–1794 and Shays’ Rebellion five years earlier, in 1786.

The Tea Party movement is just the thunder. More heavy weather is on the way.

Shays’ Rebellion

You remember Shays’ Rebellion, don’t you?

Started by Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck and lasting from August 29, 1786 to January 1787, Shays’ Rebellion was a popular uprising in Massachusetts led by Revolutionary War veterans protesting high taxes and improper privileges granted by judges to wealthy property owners. And if that doesn’t sound familiar to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

Plough Jogger, one of the rebels, referring to taxes as “rates,” wrote at the time:

I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war, been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and all rates … been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth. … The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.

It was Shays’ Rebellion that prompted Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France at the time, to write a letter to a friend that contained these famous lines: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Historians credit Shays’ Rebellion with precipitating the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which gave birth to the nation’s new constitution.

The Whiskey Rebellion, five years later, was a popular uprising against the first federal tax on a domestic product, proposed by Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury at the time. Since currency was scarce in the frontier, people in Western Pennsylvania, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland often paid each other with whiskey. A tax on whiskey amounted to an income tax on them. Since large distillers were allowed to pay a flat fee instead of a per-gallon tax, Hamilton’s tax favored a few big Eastern corporations over small businesses in the rest of the country.

Once again, Thomas Jefferson was on the right side of this dispute. In 1800 as president he and his Republican Party repealed the hated tax.

Still not ringing a bell?

Obama Rejected

Two years after the election of Barack Obama as president, voters turned out in record numbers to register their opposition to his policies. Republicans gained more seats in the House than in any election since 1938, leaving Democrats with the smallest number of seats in the House since 1946.

Even more impressive and important were Republican gains at the state level. A record number of freshmen state legislators – 1,765 out of 7,300 – were elected. Republicans replaced Democrats in eight governors’ mansions and at least 675 seats in state legislatures. The number of Republican governors rose from 22 to 29, and the number of states with Republican majorities in both houses rose from 14 to 26.

The new Republican governors and state legislators are balancing budgets without raising taxes, by cutting spending. The best of them are blocking implementation of Obamacare by refusing to create state insurance exchanges or accept federal money to build train lines to nowhere, expanding parental choice in education, and removing barriers to the development of the country’s massive energy reserves. They are confronting public-sector labor unions over collective bargaining powers and excessive pension benefits and winning.

The Thunder Down Under

I call the extraordinary political changes taking place in states throughout America “the thunder down under” – with apologies to the Australian male stripper revue with a similar name – because it is taking place underneath the federal government, and it foreshadows a major storm.

In some states, like Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas, the thunder is so loud everyone can hear it and is talking about it. People are taking sides, many of them for the first time, in the historic debate about the proper size and role of government. Public policy changes that would have been unthinkable just two years ago are now being adopted.

Other states are still waitin’ on the thunder, but they can hear it coming. Keep in mind that politicians and their sycophants in the old media will be the last to hear it. They will stick their fingers in their ears and deny it is happening, even when it is drowning out their words.

When they finally take their fingers out of their ears, it will be too late for them to stop the storm.

If It Walks Like a Duck …

The man most responsible for the thunder is not a conservative or libertarian philanthropist, television celebrity, or elected official. It is Barack Obama.

It is not polite to call Barack Obama a socialist … but what else do you call a man who:

  • nationalized the auto industry, the nation’s largest insurance company, and major parts of the banking industry?
  • increased federal government spending by 50 percent between 2008 and 2010, this on top of the already bloated budgets of George W. Bush, who presided over the biggest increase in federal government spending since Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
  • calls for massive redistribution of income through higher taxation to achieve some egalitarian vision of how things ought to be?
  • is shutting down exploration and development of natural resources with the only apparent goal to be putting a chokehold on the country’s businesses?
  • campaigned for and signed legislation designed to destabilize private health insurance markets and eventually produce a single-payer system?

Obama could audition to be the voice of the AFLAC duck. Of course he’s a socialist.

But this is why he can take credit for the sudden outbreak of anti-socialism that is taking place all across the country. Obama stepped out from behind the curtain. He showed the American people what the real goal of socialists is and what sacrifices are required to achieve it. And the American people soundly rejected it.

Obama awakened a sleeping giant, the vast American consensus in favor of individual liberty and limited government. Most people had been lulled to sleep by the slow but gradual economic growth and free-market rhetoric from both major parties. Now they are awake and mad as hell.

It’s Time for Some Rain

Had John McCain been elected president in 2008, many of us would still be sleeping. The great debate about the country’s future would not be taking place.

Barack Obama has given the country a clear choice. The economic pain that he has brought … the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the massive and unsustainable deficits, and the slowest economic recovery of any developed country in the world … has awakened people to the high stakes.

Now it is our turn, like Daniel Shays and the Whiskey Rebellion rebels who followed him, to make a little rain.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute.