Elites Beware: Eric Cantor’s Defeat May Signal a Populist Revolution

Democrats and Republicans need to ask themselves:’What side of the barricades am I on?’

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivers a concession speech in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the GOP primary to tea party candidate Dave Brat. 
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
June 11, 2014, 7:09 a.m.

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.”

RE­LATED: “The Death of Net Neut­ral­ity Could Spark a Pop­u­list Re­volt”

What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
2 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
2 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
3 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
3 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
3 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.