How Rising Populism Is Changing the Identities of Both Parties

Rising populism is altering the identities of both parties—and scaring the heck out of the establishment.

People participate in a march to the U.S. Captiol during the "Million Mask March"  November 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Organized by members of Anonymous, WikiLeaks, The Pirate Party, Occupy Wall Street and other hacktivist movements, demonstrators marched on political landmarks and institutions around the world on Guy Fawkes Day. (Left) William Temple dressed in a colonial costume speaks in a news conference to condemn the GOP hosted by the Tea Party at the National Press Club on May 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Mr. Temple said that Speaker of the House John Boehner (D-OH) betrayed the Tea Party's grassroots movement by defaulting on a $100 billion in budget cuts. (Right) 
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

Back in the mid-1990s, Har­vard pro­fess­or Clayton Christensen coined the phrases “dis­rupt­ive tech­no­logy” and “dis­rupt­ive in­nov­a­tion” to de­scribe cer­tain kinds of game-chan­ging de­vel­op­ments in the busi­ness world. Now, in polit­ics, we are see­ing a vari­ation on that theme.

On the left, the Oc­cupy move­ment helped spawned a new pop­u­lism that is re­flec­ted in rising in­terest in Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren’s ideas and fu­ture, with her name in­creas­ingly be­ing ban­died about as a pres­id­en­tial hope­ful des­pite her state­ments ur­ging Hil­lary Clin­ton to run. War­ren is fight­ing banks and oth­er fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tions in a way that is catch­ing on much more no­tice­ably than the late Sen. Paul Well­stone’s tilt­ing at wind­mills. She’s re­cently made for­ays in­to sur­pris­ing places, tout­ing red-state Sen­ate can­did­ates such as Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger in Ken­tucky, and Nat­alie Ten­nant, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee for West Vir­gin­ia’s open Sen­ate seat. Neither would want Pres­id­ent Obama to cam­paign for them, but in­vit­ing a Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat who is con­sid­er­ably more lib­er­al—and more pop­u­list—than the pres­id­ent made sense to them.

This isn’t just a left-wing phe­nomen­on. Pop­u­lism fueled the tea-party move­ment, cur­rently per­son­i­fied by Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who both could be ser­i­ous con­tenders for the 2016 GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion. This de­vel­op­ment is caus­ing con­sterna­tion among old-guard Re­pub­lic­ans, who are much more ac­cus­tomed to fight­ing Demo­crats who rail against the es­tab­lished or­der of things—not fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans.

The Oc­cupy and tea-party move­ments spring from the same source. (Chip So­mod­ev­illa/Getty Im­ages, left; Mark Wilson/Getty Im­ages, right)The new pop­u­list strains spring from the same source: After the fin­an­cial col­lapse in 2008, the Troubled As­set Re­lief Pro­gram, pro­posed and signed in­to law by Re­pub­lic­an Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, but passed by Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­it­ies in Con­gress, triggered both the Oc­cupy and tea-party move­ments. Even though Oc­cupy has mostly dis­sip­ated, the Left’s dis­trust of and an­ger at the fin­an­cial sec­tor—and at big busi­ness in gen­er­al—re­mains alive and well. Sim­il­arly, while the tea party is not as vis­ible as it once was, that’s partly be­cause it has already suc­ceeded in shift­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party to the right. GOP elec­ted of­fi­cials who were long con­sidered pretty con­ser­vat­ive are sus­pect in the new, edgi­er GOP. So are some of the fin­an­cial in­terests that con­ser­vat­ives once faith­fully rep­res­en­ted.

Are Demo­crats still the party of labor? Are Re­pub­lic­ans still the party of busi­ness? It’s been a while since either la­bel fit neatly, but the pop­u­list surge is fur­ther blur­ring party iden­tit­ies and caus­ing both labor and busi­ness to won­der. In cor­por­ate board­rooms and busi­ness con­fer­ences, there’s con­sid­er­able angst over con­ser­vat­ive and tea-party op­pos­i­tion to reau­thor­iz­ing the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, which has be­come an im­port­ant source of fund­ing for over­seas sales by large U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ers. Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment types who al­ways con­sidered them­selves con­ser­vat­ives are now be­ing called mod­er­ates and RI­NOs—Re­pub­lic­ans In Name Only—on con­ser­vat­ive web­sites. 

Those who worked in the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s to bridge the chasm between the busi­ness world and the Demo­crat­ic Party, par­tic­u­larly those in­stru­ment­al in the cre­ation of the Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil, also look with chag­rin at the in­creas­ingly hos­tile tone to­ward busi­ness com­ing from the Left. At the same time, stal­warts in the build­ing and con­struc­tion trade uni­ons won­der about Demo­crats who op­pose the Key­stone pipeline for en­vir­on­ment­al reas­ons. They also fret over the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lack of en­thu­si­asm for in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. Frank­lin Roosevelt, they be­lieve, would be turn­ing over in his grave at the thought that a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent, dur­ing a time of severe eco­nom­ic dis­lo­ca­tion, did not give con­struc­tion pro­jects a big­ger role in ef­forts to jump-start the eco­nomy.

When you com­bine them with broad-based an­ger at Wash­ing­ton, the sim­ul­tan­eously re­in­vig­or­ated pop­u­list move­ments on the left and right are cre­at­ing volat­il­ity in our polit­ic­al sys­tem that has few pre­ced­ents. This is not just giv­ing es­tab­lish­ment­ari­ans head­aches; it’s also play­ing hav­oc with poll­sters and strategists who are see­ing odd voter-turnout pat­terns in primary elec­tions such as the one in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict (a con­trib­ut­ing factor to House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s reelec­tion loss), while in gen­er­al-elec­tion polling, in­de­pend­ent and third-party can­did­ates are pulling lar­ger num­bers than is nor­mally the case. In North Car­o­lina’s Sen­ate race, for in­stance, Liber­tari­an Sean Haugh, who de­liv­ers piz­zas for a liv­ing, may draw votes from Thom Tillis, the Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger, as well as from Demo­crat­ic Sen. Kay Hagan; in four re­cent polls, Haugh has re­gistered 8 per­cent or more. With both sides pound­ing their op­pon­ents mer­ci­lessly with neg­at­ive ad­vert­ising, the “pox on both your houses” sen­ti­ment seems to be gain­ing cur­rency all across the coun­try. 

Voters are in an ugly and angry mood, and they’re be­hav­ing dif­fer­ently as a res­ult. Nobody knows ex­actly what it will ul­ti­mately mean, but “dis­rupt­ive” is cer­tainly a good term for the shift­ing loy­al­ties and align­ments the pop­u­list re­sur­gence may bring.

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