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
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”

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