The Populist Revolt

From Flint to New Hampshire, an angry American public is determined to challenge the status quo.

John Minchillo / AP

The first politician punished for the poisoning of Flint, Michigan, was Dayne Walling, the 42-year-old Democratic mayor who lost reelection in November by fewer than 2,000 votes. When he dug into the numbers, Walling discovered what he considers the source of his demise: 3,000 new voters.

In a predominately African American city, 3,000 Flint residents who did not vote for the nation’s first black president in 2008 or 2012 cast ballots in last year’s mayoral election. What motivated them? The water crisis, of course, but Walling offers another explanation—one deeply embedded in the American body politic and yet related to the lead poisoning.

“Angry, frustrated citizens raised their voice,” he said. “Trump-type voters came out of the woodwork.”

Walling put his finger on the biggest story of the 2016 campaign: the rowdy machinations of voters long frustrated by the political establishment and newly cognizant of their powers to disrupt it.

This 21st-century populism threatens the old order of politics at every level, from an oft-neglected corner of Michigan to the celebrity state of New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump crushed status-quo candidates on Tuesday night.

Exit polls from the first primary of the 2016 cycle suggest that four of 10 voters were self-identified independents. Sanders took 72 percent of such voters in the Democratic primary, while Trump captured 35 percent—both pulling more than twice as much support as their rivals from voters who felt betrayed by their parties and were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government.

Republican primary voters said what they were looking most for in a candidate was somebody who “tells it like it is.” Donald Trump earned two-thirds of their votes. Half of GOP voters said they wanted to back an outsider, and one-third said they were looking for a candidate who would change the political system. Those voters swarmed to Trump.

A third of Democratic voters valued honesty, more than said they wanted a candidate with experience, one who cares about people like them, or who preferred someone who could win the general election. Ninety-one percent of voters looking for political integrity chose Sanders over Hillary Clinton, an icon of the Democratic establishment.

Despite their many differences, populist voters backing both Trump and Sanders want some of the same things: America pulling back from rest of the world to focus on domestic concerns; reducing special deals for the rich; reversing violations of the public’s privacy by the government and big business; fighting corporate welfare; and curbing big banks and other financial institutions.

Both Trump and Sanders are disrupting the way political campaigns are run. Sanders is raising millions of dollars in small donations, rejecting the Big Money and Dark Money that finance Washington. Trump has spent relatively little on television ads, withholding money from the consultant class while his message courses through social media and the ratings- and click-obsessed media.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump abandoned the time-honored practice of sucking up to local reporters and the political elite. He opted to nationalize the campaign, jetting home most nights.

Win or lose, their campaigns suggest that politics and government are finally starting to experience the disruption experienced by almost every other social institution, transforming how people work, shop, play, and even raise their kids in the post-Internet era.

Change is scary for most people, and there’s a lot of it right now: decades of economic downturn and transition; the greatest technological surge since the industrial era; a demographic makeover that will soon render white Americans a minority; and 15 years of war against a metastasizing enemy. Through it all, American leaders and institutions are failing to adapt.

And so voters are asking, “Which side of the barricade are you on?” As Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist who co-authored a book with me about leadership, asked in 2013: “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?”

Trump and Sanders positioned themselves on the side of the people, and won New Hampshire.

A vast majority of Americans believe their country is on the wrong track, they can’t trust any social institution, and they can’t trust one another. Most believe Democratic and Republican leaders care more about themselves than their country. The percentage of self-identified independents is steadily growing.

Forced to choose between two parts of a duopoly, many voters reluctantly side against the most-loathed option, a trend that political scientists call negative partisanship.

I suspect this is bigger than either Trump or Sanders. Unless the political system undergoes major structural reform and is injected with leadership that is transparent, honest, and capable of solving major problems together, the public will continue to demand change. They will grow accustomed to forcing it.

“Here in Flint and everywhere,” Walling told me, “voters are finding new and creative ways to say, ‘Enough!’”

Should Trump or Sanders win and fail to produce change, the anger will boil hotter. Should they lose and the establishment claims victory, the anger may boil over.

If you found it unsettling to watch a reality-TV star and socialist win New Hampshire in 2016, consider how much worse things could become after a few more years of discontent and disconnection. The status quo cannot hold.