From time to time in this column, I predict that the United States is entering an era of great political disruption, a bottom-up revolution on the scale of what upended the music, television, movie, media, and retail industries. Fueled by the radical connectivity of the Internet, abrupt new actors in those fields dismantled the status quo, shifted power downward, and created an explosion of options for consumers.
Consider what just one change wrought. You can now choose any musician's song from any album, download it instantly and from virtually anywhere on earth for less than the price of a candy bar, and store it on a device with thousands of other tracks from just as many different singers. That's power.
I ask you, how long until Americans recognized they're no less equipped to disrupt politics and government? How soon before we stop settling for an inferior product in Washington and at statehouses? When do we demand more and better from the Democratic and Republican parties—or create new political organizations that usurp the old?
I don't know the answers. I do believe it's a matter of when, not if. Because, while we may be a presidential cycle or two away from the Great Disruption, you can already spot green shoots of populism emerging from an otherwise bleak midterm landscape.
Unsatisfied consumers: Disruption thrives when the status quo is not serving the needs of a changing public. Netflix, Amazon, and Buzzfeed wouldn't exist if people had been satisfied with the way the entertainment, retail, and media industries were operating. The same American public that forced change on those industries is equally, if not more, annoyed with the political system.
A majority of Americans hold a negative view of the GOP, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey. The Democratic Party's image is underwater, meaning that more people disapprove than approve of the party. The percentage of Americans identifying themselves as independents is rising steadily, from 31 percent in 2004 to 44 percent in September, according to a Gallup study cited by Democratic consultant Doug Sosnik.
"Americans' long-brewing discontent shows clear signs of reaching a boiling point," Sosnik wrote a year ago. "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?' "
While many independents will vote Democratic or Republican, they're doing so out of a lack of choice. Last year, NBC/Esquire commissioned a nonpartisan analysis of the electorate and determined that a full majority, 51 percent, make up a "New American Center," voters whose attitudes and ideologies leave them without a natural home inside either the GOP or the Democratic Party. These voters share common values that run counter to the polarized, zero-sum ways of the two major parties.
Exacerbating this disconnect between the parties and the people is the public's sour mood. Huge majorities of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. They 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.
Ambitious disruptors: A handful of politicians are looking over the horizon and offering themselves as an alternative to the GOP and the Democratic Party. Independent candidate Greg Orman threatens to unseat GOP Sen. Pat Roberts in heavily Republican Kansas. Republican-turned-independent Larry Pressler has put the South Dakota race into play. A libertarian pizza delivery man may gobble up enough voters to determine the Senate race in North Carolina. In Alaska, Democrats are backing an independent Republican for governor.
In governor's races, nearly a dozen incumbents are in various levels of danger; their challengers seizing the mantle of change.
Still, this year's elections won't result in a wave of newly elected independents, nor will a record number of incumbents lose their jobs. The Old Guard will conclude that the status quo is safe. But the Old Guard is a ship of fools, living on borrowed time. They remind me of smug newspaper publishers, music moguls, and bookstore-chain operators who were abruptly disrupted out of business.
"Look beneath the surface, and you'll see this is more of an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment year than people realize," said Joe Trippi, who helped bring modern technology to the political system while running a 2004 Democratic presidential campaign for Howard Dean. "Change is coming. Big change."
Young disruptors: The ranks of the congressional candidates include a dozen or so millennials, people who came of age after 9/11. They include Elise Stefanik, 30, a Republican who helped me research a 2006 book about leadership when she was a Harvard undergraduate. Nick Troiano, 25, is running as an independent in Pennsylvania. "If I win, it will send a signal to Washington that you'd better watch out, that there's a huge generation of millennials poised to disrupt politics as usual," Troiano told me in April.
Even if the Old Guard defeats Stefanik, Troiano, and every other young candidate in November, they can't stop the changes millennials would make to the system. This generation of Americans is relatively civic-minded, pragmatic, tolerant, diverse, and less interested in ideology than results. The only thing that can stop millennials from disrupting the system is the generation itself; young Americans are deeply disillusioned with politics and government, and their inclination to solve problems outside of traditional institutions could create a severe brain drain in Washington.
Conventional wisdom argues against even the remote possibility of an independent presidential bid; against the dismantling of old party structures and the creation of new ones; and against any structural reform to government. I get it. There are thousands of reasons why you might place your bets on the status quo.
I'll put my money on the people. Trippi is right. Change is coming.
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