When Time Magazine named Ben Bernanke its “Person of the Year” for 2009, its editors set off a lot of headscratching — and not just because most of the Bernanke actions Time highlighted came in 2008 rather than 2009. The economy may not have utterly crashed, but it certainly moved in the wrong direction all year long. Over 3 million private-sector jobs have been lost in the last year, and some argue, as does Steve Forbes in his new book How Capitalism Will Save Us, that the Fed creates more problems than it solves.
If Ben Bernanke wasn’t the person or class of people who had the most impact on 2009, who was? Two of Time’s runners-up for the honor seem almost entirely ludicrous. Usain Bolt? The Chinese Worker? Why not pick Michael Jackson or Tiger Woods? Bolt, who broke a world record in sprinting, was so singularly dull as a public figure that HBO’s Bryant Gumbel discussed on camera how frustrating it was to interview him.
If we’re talking about movers and shakers, the person or class of people who had the most impact on 2009, we need to look elsewhere than track stars and manufacturing employees. In no particular order, here are my list of runners-up:
- “Neda” and the Green Revolution demonstrators – Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Iranian mullahcracy, they would have garnered an easy win for this honor in 2009. This week’s demonstrations show that they’re not finished yet, either. Neda, a young woman who demonstrated for a return to modernity and human rights in Iran, got shot by a cowardly Basiji thug acting on behalf of the ruling mullahs. Her death, captured on video and released through YouTube, galvanized the movement and provided international outrage on her behalf. Not for any small reason is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei keeping the jet fueled these days.
- Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – Obviously, this would not have been a laudatory choice, but a recognition of an embarrassing reality. Barack Obama, who came in several places below his own chief of staff on Time’s list of influential people in 2009 after winning PoY in 2008, has more or less abdicated his office to Congress. As a result, Pelosi and Reid have taken on much more power and influence, and are now dictating the domestic agenda of American politics. Just a couple of years ago, people worried about a “unitary executive,” thanks to a fundamental lack of understanding of the concept. Now we wonder about a disappearing executive, thanks to a fundamental understanding of the man who occupies the office of the Presidency now.
- Sarah Palin – Love or hate her, agree or disagree, she set the American political world on fire again in 2009. From questionable decisions like quitting her office as Governor of Alaska to a triumphant tour for her memoirs, and especially in rallying the faithful and shaking up the establishment of both parties from her Facebook platform, Palin has made herself into force with which to be reckoned in 2009 after a losing bid on the GOP ticket last November. Even Ed Schultz on MS-NBC recognized her impact in his year-end assessment.
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad/Ali Khamenei – This is not the flip side of the Green Revolution entry. The two Iranian leaders managed to keep the entire world off balance while they continued to pursue nuclear weapons and fund terrorism throughout the region. They haven’t even been particularly subtle about it, and have played the West for fools for yet another year. Does anyone recall that today is yet another deadline for Iran to answer yet another Western offer to verify that their nuclear program is peaceful? They have exploited tensions between Europe and the US, and NATO and Russia, and China and the West, in order to stall for time all year long. I’d pick them for 2009, but considering all of the players and their continuing status in 2010, I’m pretty sure we’ll get an opportunity to pick A’jad and Khamenei next year … unless we can pick the Green Revolution instead.
- Nicolas Sarkozy – When did France suddenly look so decisive and muscular, especially compared to the US? When the French picked Sarkozy to lead them. Not only did Sarkozy shock many observers by agreeing to supply more combat forces for Afghanistan, he scolded his counterparts in Europe for their weakness in not following suit. Sarkozy has pressed for action on Iran, and made clear his frustration for his new American partner Barack Obama, who has done little to advance the cause of the West.
- General Stanley McChrystal – Perhaps the reluctant candidate. Obama appointed McChrystal to head the Afghanistan mission because of his COIN background and skills, and McChrystal assumed it was because Obama wanted him to actually apply those skills and experience to win the war. McChrystal sent his recommendations back to the White House, which set off a four-month journey of discovery — discovery that Obama didn’t really understand COIN, didn’t understand resourcing, and certainly didn’t understand that he needed to make a decision on McChrystal’s recommendations quickly in order for it to be useful. The nation spent four months debating Afghanistan thanks to a routine report on resourcing that Obama had demanded in the first place.
But my selection for the Person of the Year is, I believe, rather obvious — which makes its exclusion from Time’s lists even more glaring. The Person of the Year was the Tea Party Activist. No one had a greater, obvious, and unexpected impact on the world than the perhaps-millions of people who suddenly rediscovered citizen activism and accountability from elected officials. Not only did they turn out for barely-organized protests around the country in April and July, they showed up at rallies at ad-hoc events, and they flooded town-hall meetings. Their advent frightened the powerful so much that some refused to show their faces in public in a season when fund-raising and handshaking are as traditional as pennant races in baseball.
What did they accomplish? No one can argue that they deflected at least one and possibly two massive government reorganizations of American industry. Without the Tea Party rallies and especially the town-hall turnouts, Congress almost certainly would have passed ObamaCare in July or September at the latest — and with a public option firmly embedded. The House passed cap-and-trade in a rush in the first week of July, but by year’s end, Democrats demanded that Obama shelve the effort. Four Democrats have already announced their retirement in the House, and another switched parties to join the minority, a nearly unprecedented step.
Tea Party activists trumped a President and two of the people on the list above. They reminded Americans that a participatory democracy means that ordinary people have to actually participate — and that when they do, they can actually change the political direction of the nation. Whether or not one agrees with the political stance of the Tea Party activists, no one can doubt that this lesson is long overdue for both the citizenry and the political class that so often only represents them in name only.
Update: HA reader Brian reminds me that Neda was shot in the chest; I’ve edited the passage above.