Just a few weeks out from the most boring midterm elections in recent memory, and with nearly two full years to go before we choose the next president, many Americans are ready to take a break from politics. But not everyone, of course. More than 100 conservative activists spent this past Saturday at a New Hampshire college meeting room poring over PowerPoints about defeating Common Core, ObamaCare, and what they see as a massive, decades-long power grab by the federal government.
This was "Practical Federalism," a forum whose sponsors included local religious right and Tea Party groups, right-wing media powerhouse Breitbart, and the Koch Brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity. The crowd wasn't party bigwigs, prospective candidates for major office, or slick corporate funders. It was made up of people like an activist mom who pulled her kids out of the public schools long ago but still lobbies the local school board weekly about how her tax dollars are being spent, a guy who plans forums to introduce presidential candidates to his neighbors when they made their obligatory visits to New Hampshire, and local representatives from other parts of the country who came to share lessons learned from their own battles against Big Government.
The forum was the first of three that the American Principles Project—a group founded in 2009 to unite libertarian-oriented conservatives with their cousins on the religious right—plans to hold in states that are important to the 2016 election, like New Hampshire, which hosts the nation's first presidential primary. (The others will be in Iowa and South Carolina this spring.) Kate Bryan, APP's director of communications, said the focus on federalism—the notion that the country should return to something more like the loose umbrella organization envisioned by the Founding Fathers—came out of the campaign against the Common Core, an initiative to set educational standards across the US that is a frequent target of conservative criticism. Bryan said her group has seen parents with little previous interest in politics get drawn into the fight over the new standards out of frustration with the homework they saw their children bringing home.
"It's very much a mom-led movement," she said.
Jason Nelson, a state representative from Oklahoma, told the forum audience about his work helping to pull that state out of Common Core. He said parents are furious about "fuzzy math"—in other words, teaching multiple methods to tackle an arithmetic problem. Nelson said he had to fight to create state standards focusing on the "standard algorithm"—the kind of problem, with carrying and borrowing, that most of us remember from elementary school.
"That's what people expect," he said. "It's what parents understand. When you go into physics and engineering it's what they expect to you understand."
According to activists at the New Hampshire forum, Common Core is a symbol of a lot of what's wrong with the state of politics in the US today. According to their argument, many on the American left and center simply assume that centralized systems—for figuring out the most effective way of teaching math, or making sure people can afford to see a doctor, and so on—are a necessary response to complicated international labor markets, powerful hospitals and insurance companies, and other facts of modern life. On the hard right, however, there are different assumptions—these activists believe centralized state power exists in opposition not to corporate power but to individual freedom, and it will inevitably mess things up, through greed or simple incompetence.
Beyond Common Core, or ObamaCare, the Practical Federalism speakers have grander ambitions for rolling back the power of Big Government. Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative and president of the American Lands Council, called for the transfer of millions of acres of federal land in the West to the states. The idea is that mining and drilling could help the country become energy-independent and provide a domestic supply of rare-earth minerals—resources necessary military equipment and consumer electronics—that we now buy from China.
Notably, Ivory didn't mention the multinational companies that would make this plan work. Instead, he said the federal government inevitably misuses resources that local people would handle better on their own—for example, by letting forest fires rage in the West.
"We're burning protected species in the name of protecting them," Ivory said.
At its heart, the idea behind Practical Federalism is a return to the vision of the Founding Fathers. That was the subject of an address by Georgia State Senator William Ligon.
"Our founders firmly rejected the idea of an all-powerful central government," he said.
But Ligon warned that we're getting closer to that kind of government—Leviathan, in right-wing terminology. It's not just a question of recent developments—federal courts overruling states on same-sex marriage, for example, or Obama's executive order on immigration, or any number of other current conservative bugaboos. To Ligon, it goes back to the end of the gold standard, which gave the federal government more control over money, and to the 17th Amendment, which reduced state power by letting the people directly elect U.S. senators.
"Before this election, I would have said we're lurching toward Leviathan in the next 10 years," he said. "Now I have a little hope. Nevertheless, we need a decision by the American people. We must decide how we will live."
And, if the event was a success, the activists in attendance left with a renewed sense of urgency in working to topple Big Government. But who are the activists fighting for a more conservative future? Here's a sampling of the New Hampshire residents who spent Saturday drawing up battle plans at the forum.
Eyring is the founder of the Southern New Hampshire chapter of Glenn Beck's group the 9-12 Project. In 2012, he met with most of the presidential candidates and worked with other local organizations to create a matrix of candidates' positions on various issues. In the end, he supported Ron Paul. "He was the only guy that kept referring to the constitutional rule of law," he said.
Looking at the midterm elections, Eyring's excited about some state-level results. But, at the federal level, he says, "they're all corrupt… I shouldn't say all of them, but an absolutely vast majority. Republican and Democrat, they think we're stupid, and to an extent our silence justifies that opinion."
Eyring thinks more voters need to get organized and involved, something he did by running for, and winning, a seat on his local school board. "I believe in this representative form of government, but it's unfortunate that not many people do," he said. "There's always hope, but the longer we keep going in this direction, the tougher it is."
Holmes said she taught in Christian schools for years, but these days she's working as a substitute teacher in a New Hampshire public school system.
She first got interested in politics 20 years ago, when a court ruling forced New Hampshire to adjust its school funding mechanism, spreading property tax revenues more evenly to rich and poor districts around the state. "That was the first time I saw judges step in where it wasn't their business," she said.
This year, Holmes was thrilled with the "red tsunami" she saw sweep across the country, but disappointed it didn't reach as far as the senate and governor's races in New Hampshire.
She said she wants to resist the federal government any way she can. She and her husband are now going without insurance, and she hopes others will follow their lead as a sort of civil disobedience against Obamacare.
A consultant to manufacturing companies and a columnist for the New Hampshire Business Review, Bourque said he's "very depressed" about the midterm elections, and not just because the Republicans didn't fare as well in New Hampshire as they did in the rest of the country. "We really didn't have a choice," he said. "[Republican senatorial candidate] Scott Brown and [Democratic incumbent] Jeanne Shaheen, they're almost twins… if the Republican Party's going to become liberal, sayonara."
When he works with local companies, Bourque said, he does his best to help them keep jobs in the country instead of sending them to China. When they can't, he believes policies like Obamacare that raise labor costs are to blame, along with schools that aren't good enough at training a high-performing workforce.
But he thinks there are deeper issues at work as well.
"Capitalism depends on a Judeo-Christian ethic," he said. "If you did something dishonorable, you wouldn't be welcome at the country club anymore." Otherwise, "instead of being the system that gives you a higher standard of living than anyone else, it becomes the system that enslaves you."