WEST CHESTER, Pa. — Expecting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to win his GOP primary in Virginia, I spent Election Day in Pennsylvania — interviewing angry Republicans, Democrats, and independents about the rise of political populism.
I was in the wrong state, but I had the right topic. Cantor's defeat has less to do with immigration reform than it does with an uneven movement that should frighten conservative and liberal political elites to their shallow cores.
Americans see a grim future for themselves, their children, and their country. They believe their political leaders are selfish, greedy, and short-sighted — unable and/or unwilling to shield most people from wrenching economic and social change. For many, the Republican Party is becoming too extreme, while the Democratic Party — specifically, President Obama — raised and dashed their hopes for true reform.
Worse of all, the typical American doesn't know how to channel his or her anger. Heaven help Washington if they do.
"America is for the greedy, for those who've made their buck or grabbed their power. It's not for us," said Helen Conover of Oxford, Pa. She was eating with two other Chester County employees, Jennifer Guy and Kim Kercher, at the Penn's Table diner. Conover was the table's optimist.
"This country's doomed," Guy said. Kercher nodded her head and told me that she's close to losing her house to a mortgage company and can't get help from Washington. For years, their county salaries haven't kept pace with the cost of living. "The rich get richer. The poor get benefits. The middle class pays for it all," Kercher said.
Guy said she's an independent voter. Conover and Kercher are registered Republicans. All three voted for Obama in 2008, hoping that he could start changing the culture of Washington. Now, they consider the president ineffective, if only partly to blame for his failure.
"He hit a brick wall," Conover said. "The Republican Party is not going to let him change anything."
I replied, "But it's your party."
"No," Conover bristled, "it's not my party. I don't have a party." She paused, took a small bite of her sandwich and added, "An American Party is what I have."
An American Party — what does that mean? For months, I've heard that phrase or similar antiestablishment sentiment from voters in Michigan, Arkansas, South Carolina, and elsewhere — whites and nonwhites; voters who are poor and rich and from the shrinking middle-class; Democrats, Republicans, and independents. "We need American leaders, not Republican and Democratic leaders," a construction worker in Little Rock, Ark., told me last month. Down the street from Penn's Table, barber Stefanos Bouikidis held scissors in his right hand while throwing both hands in the air. "How are things going to change with corporate America running everything?"
At West Chester's popular D.K. Diner, a military veteran who served five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan said the only solution may be a revolution against political elites. "We may need to drag politicians out and shoot them like they did in Cuba," said a grim-faced Frederick Derry two days after a Las Vegas couple allegedly shot two police officers. The attackers draped their bodies with a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, according to ABC News, pinned a swastika on them and a note that read, "The revolution has begun."
A violent revolution is unconscionable. But what may be in the air is a peaceful populist revolt — a bottom-up, tech-fueled assault on 20th-century political institutions. In a memo to his fellow Democrats, former Clinton White House political director Doug Sosnik writes persuasively about "an increasing populist push" across the political spectrum.
At the core of Americans' anger and alienation is the belief that the American Dream is no longer attainable. Previous generations held fast to the promise that anyone who worked hard and played by the rules could get ahead, regardless of their circumstances. But increasingly, Americans have concluded that the rules aren't fair and that the system has been rigged to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few at the expense of the many. And now the government is simply not working for anyone.
Americans' long-brewing discontent shows clear signs of reaching a boiling point. And when it happens, the country will judge its politicians through a new filter — one that asks, "Which side of the barricade are you on? Is it the side of the out-of-touch political class that clings to the status quo by protecting those at the top and their own political agendas, or is it the side that is fighting for the kind of change that will make the government work for the people — all the people?"
Which side of the barricade are you on? Populists from the right and the left — from the tea party and libertarian-leaning Rand Paul to economic populist Elizabeth Warren — are positioning themselves among the insurgents. Sosnik pointed to six areas of consensus that eventually may unite the divergent populist forces:
- A pullback from the rest of the world, with more of an inward focus.
- A desire to go after big banks and other large financial institutions.
- Elimination of corporate welfare.
- Reducing special deals for the rich.
- Pushing back on the violation of the public's privacy by the government and big business.
- Reducing the size of government.
In Washington, Cantor's defeat is being chalked up to the tea party's intolerance toward immigration reform. While he paid a price for flirting with a White House compromise, Cantor's greater sin was inauthenticity — brazenly flip-flopping on the issue. Typical politician. Worse, voters sensed that Cantor was more interested in becoming House speaker than in representing their interests. He spent more money at steakhouses than rival David Brat spent on his entire campaign. Typical politician.
"Dollars don't vote," Brat told Cantor's constituents, "You do."
Let this be the lesson taken from Cantor's loss. He is not the only political leader to lose touch with voters. In fact, according to every indication, the entire political class has lost touch. There is ample polling to suggest that a majority of Americans voters don't feel rooted in, or represented by, either the Republican or Democratic parties. Change or lose power, folks.
At Penn's Table, Guy, Kercher, and Conover nodded their heads firmly at the mention of each of Sosnik's bullet points. They're populists, not optimists.
"I don't see how it can happen," Kercher said of a unification of barricade-busters. "You keep waiting for everybody else to do something about it because you're just keeping your head above water. I can't take the time to worry about it, because if I lose my job, I'm homeless."
She paused and laughed sarcastically. "Of course, then maybe I could get some help from the government."
Conover is a bit more hopeful, despite her doubts about the emergence of a Right-Left populist alliance. "Do I think the three sects will come together and align against the establishment? No. They're too focused on their beliefs," she said. "Do I think there might be some group or some person who might tap into our frustration and, unlike the president, actually change things? Yes. Yes, I do."
Why the hope? Because she won't consider the alternative — voter apathy and the status quo. Nodding to Guy, her pessimistic friend, Conover chucked, "That would be doom."