Last Monday, Republicans held a debate at the University of South Florida in preparation for the Florida presidential primary on January 31. The remaining candidates answered conventional questions and launched conventional attacks against one another. What made this event so unconventional however - and so much more interesting than the candidates' usual diatribes on all that is wrong within America - was what happened outside the debate hall.
Those who were barred from attending the debate in person -- all but a small number of older Republican voters who gained access to the event through private means -- had the opportunity to watch the debate in a large tent set up on school grounds by the student union.
The spectacle of a major debate on a university campus was more than enough to draw a sizable crowd. In the midst of a campaign for the next Republican presidential candidate, this event was not to be missed. As one student put it, "I should be in class, but when will this type of thing happen at my school again?" His sentiments seemed to be shared by hundreds of the other wide-eyed young adults in the humid January night.
But what happened on the USF campus was much more than just a televised political debate. It was an example of American politics in action; a microcosm of American democracy in a state of flux. On that night, it was the 'event-outside-the-event' that's worth talking about.
Two groups stole the show, and both say they have every intention of continuing their drive to change American politics. Although they may have different ideas of what they ultimately hope to achieve, both are looking for some accountability - within the media, within government and within the economy.
One group is a formerly fringe movement that has been in existence for decades under the leadership of a Texas congressman who has only recently managed to reach national prominence. The other is an entirely new social movement with a large youth constituency. In less than a year, both have become part of the mainstream political lexicon. I am of course talking about the Ron Paul phenomenon and the 'Occupy' movement.
Paul's people appeared early and in droves, placards and megaphones in hand, ready to demonstrate their allegiance to a man who has been all but ignored by the mainstream media in his drive to be the Republican nominee for president. He also happens to be the largest threat to business-as-usual Republican politics.
James Milton Ray, from Melbourne, Florida, first voted for Ron Paul running as a libertarian candidate in 1988. He has been a supporter since. Although he admits he had to change his party allegiance from 'no party' to the Republican party as a function of Paul's decision to run for the GOP, Paul's consistency on so many unconventional issues throughout the decades - the drive to end the Federal Reserve for example - is enough to have brought Ray out for the debate. But what gets this particular supporter talking is not so much what's different this time around, but how much things are the same. Ray used the media's reaction to Paul's growing popularity to get his point across.
"Here's what the media isn't covering," Ray said. "When he ran for President in 1988 - when you run for President as a Libertarian - it's not like this. You don't get huge crowds and you aren't separated from the electorate and all that."
Now that Paul is at least part of the 'mainstream', people are listening. He gets huge crowds out for his events but is still deemed an 'outsider' by most in the mainstream media. But as someone who has followed Paul's career for many years, Ray's started to see Paul's media coverage - or lack of it - for what it really means for conservativism itself.
"When the media keeps on trying to ignore the only doctor on the stage on medical issues, you are starting to get people like me convinced they are biased - and part of the problem is media bias," Ray said. "The other part of the problem is the media bias watchdogs [who talk] about accuracy in media...all of them [are so ineffective] that there is a hard vacuum being created, and ultimately the vacuum is only being filled by John Stewart or Stephen Colbert."
Another Ron Paul supporter, dressed as Patrick 'Give me liberty or give me death' Henry (fitting for a Paul supporter) said, "Ron Paul is the only one I see who understands the importance of the Constitution really to a T, and the problem of the Federal Reserve Bank."
Like so many other Ron Paul supporters, this individual knew his history. Unprompted, he cited Thomas Jefferson, who feared "that bankers are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies."
Mr. 'Henry' left me with Jefferson's warning that "If the American people ever let a central bank control the issue of our currency...the banks and corporations in that system will deprive the people of their property."
Stark words, but not far off the mark given recent economic history. The 'Great Recession' continues to defy 'conventional' economic wisdom, and Paul has always had American fiscal policy squarely in his sights. Whether or not he's correct, he now has a national audience. It just took the largest financial collapse since the Great Depression to make people listen.
Supporters of all Republican candidates were well represented at this event. Luis Laracuente, a student and Gingrich supporter from Puerto Rico, said that his candidate "is the only guy who can get us out of the situation we are in right now." He spoke of the former speaker's time in office, specifically citing his "Washington experience, or [his knowledge] of how to get things through Congress." Gingrich's ethics violations did not bother Luis, as "the situation we're in right now is no little thing."
Tyler, a young Rick Santorum supporter from Pasco County, Florida, said that he has supported his candidate because he "was the most conservative, and aligned with everything I believed in." He added that "I've been with him since the beginning and I'm glad to see he's still in the race."
But there was no question that any candidate had nearly as much support at this event as Dr. Paul. And other than Mitt Romney, Paul is the only one who has managed to get on the ballot in every state. His campaign is a force to be reckoned with, but it's no surprise Paul hasn't received the media attention he should be entitled to given his popularity.
Ron Paul supporters have now effectively and decisively shifted the debate within the Republican party into 'uncomfortable' territory. The Constitution? Central banking? American militarism? These are issues squarely outside the realm of sex scandals or 'pork barreling' or a specific candidate's tax receipts - indeed, these are issues that form the foundation of American governance. And they have come squarely under attack by a man who has garnered significant support in all of the first three Republican primaries. He can no longer be considered a 'fringe' candidate.
As the events of the evening unfolded further, a different 'fringe' element of American political culture also had its time in the spotlight. The 'Occupy' protesters made their appearance shortly before the beginning of the debate, and the hoards of young Republicans waiting to watch the debate couldn't help but notice as the boisterous group marched right by them.
Like it or not, the 'Occupy' movement continues to exist despite claims to the contrary, and participants are becoming more sophisticated. Students in general are all too aware of the uncertain and increasingly bleak future ahead. 'Occupy Tampa' used the January 23 debate as a warm-up for what they hope will be a much larger demonstration during the Republican convention in downtown Tampa this August.
Jake Vigness, an active member of 'Occupy Tampa' and 'Occupy USF,' addressed the crowd about an hour prior to their march toward the police barricades.
"Though this debate is taking place on a university campus, there seems to be little room for [us] in the event. This is only fitting, since the student exclusion tonight mirrors the wider political exclusion both in America and worldwide. More and more, exclusion is coming to serve as the base of our entire political configuration," he said.
Although in theory 'Occupy' had the Republican agenda squarely in their sights on this night, there was actually much more at stake: the electoral process itself.
"Yes we still can vote," said Vigness. "But when 94% of elections are determined by those who spend the most money ...and when a multitude of central issues are exempt from the discussion, what do our votes really mean?"
The persistence of the protests signals that the 'Occupy' phenomenon is more than just a passing curiosity for many of its young supporters. Many of the movement's members in Tampa are just old enough to start voicing their disappointment with government for the first time - both with and without the use of the ballot.
Vigness reminded the crowd that "the work of the political class that we elected has become so fundamentally detached from the concerns of the population that Congressional approval ratings have dropped to the single digits."
If Congressional gridlock "isn't enough" to anger the next generation - many of whom will have the beginning of the 'Great Recession' as their first major exposure to the political - "the [Congressional] response to the 2008 financial crisis should tell us everything we need to know," he said.
With a strong police presence around the event, the protestors were peaceful, chanting "Gingrich, Santorum, / those racist jokes we don't support 'em," and "we got sold out / banks got bailed out" as they marched toward police barricades. The protesters made sure that those inside attending the debate heard the chants and saw the flashbulbs as they walked past police into the venue, shouting "All night, all day, Occupy Tampa Bay!"
The ascension of Ron Paul into mainstream political consciousness and the continuing relevance of the 'Occupy' movement represent fundamental challenges to the political establishment. Those assembled on the outside grounds of USF were part of a democratic process very different from the 'democratic debate' unfolding inside the heavily secured student center.
At the beginning of the night, a grinning volunteer for Romney's campaign had quipped that "the circus is in town" before indicating that this would be his last time working on a presidential election. His first was Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign for president over 60 years ago. He was, at the time, just 10. He said that in all these years he's never seen American youth as engaged as they are now. In a relatively short amount of time, they have thrown their collective weight behind two alternatives to the status quo.
Florida Republicans head to the polls on the 31st to nominate their presidential nominee. After three primary contests, dozens of campaign events, and a couple of debates in the Sunshine State, voters have a good idea of what they can expect from the candidates in 2012.
But to truly understand the positions of the people - to appreciate the thoughts of those who will form the very fabric of American political culture in the years to come - one needed to look no further than a few hundred feet outside the walls of the Republican debate on the USF campus.