The ‘Scarlet P’

What’s behind the political upheaval? Ideology, populism, and a hatred of you-know-who.

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Charlie Cook
Sept. 14, 2015, 8 p.m.

Nor­mally, the hopes and fears of the two ma­jor polit­ic­al parties are roughly sym­met­ric. If one party is wor­ried or pess­im­ist­ic, the oth­er party is usu­ally hope­ful or op­tim­ist­ic. There are oc­ca­sion­al ex­cep­tions—say, if one side is in­creas­ingly op­tim­ist­ic about an elec­tion while the op­pos­i­tion is in deni­al or even de­lu­sion­al; they should be wor­ried but aren’t.

None of that is the case now. This is one of the few times when the lead­ers, top strategists, and es­tab­lish­ments of both parties are pan­icky, and for good reas­on. Demo­crats are un­der­stand­ably wor­ried that their long-time front-run­ner for the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, Hil­lary Clin­ton, is fall­ing be­hind Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont in the cru­cial states of Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Na­tion­ally, Sanders’s sup­port is grow­ing while, in vir­tu­ally every opin­ion poll you look at, Clin­ton’s num­bers are soften­ing if not sink­ing like a stone. Her leads against pos­sible Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents, once strong, are now gone.

At the same time, it would be daunt­ing to find a party lead­er or a strategist not on Sanders’s payroll who thinks the self-de­scribed Demo­crat­ic so­cial­ist is a plaus­ible vic­tor in a gen­er­al elec­tion. Clin­ton isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily the only Demo­crat who could win a pres­id­en­tial race in 2016, but the can­did­ate who now has the mo­mentum isn’t a good bet to cap­ture 217 elect­or­al votes.

Con­versely, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and strategists are equally pet­ri­fied at the pro­spect of either Don­ald Trump or Ben Car­son as their nom­in­ee. The two non­politi­cians are run­ning first and second in just about every poll, and every can­did­ate who has a real­ist­ic chance to win a gen­er­al elec­tion is far be­hind, in single di­gits or just above.

Some of the best minds in both parties are now ques­tion­ing their own com­pet­ence, won­der­ing wheth­er they are los­ing their touch, hav­ing missed an up­heav­al in Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

What ex­plains it? I would point to three things, in com­bin­a­tion: ideo­logy, pop­u­lism, and an angry-out­sider, anti­es­tab­lish­ment dy­nam­ic.

It isn’t news that the Demo­crat­ic Party is mov­ing to the left while the Re­pub­lic­an Party is mov­ing to the right. Still, con­sider how much more lib­er­al the Demo­crat­ic Party is today than in 2001, when Bill (and Hil­lary) Clin­ton left the White House. Sym­met­ric­ally, the Re­pub­lic­an Party has be­come far more con­ser­vat­ive than when George W. Bush’s ten­ure ended in 2009. Not only has each party’s cen­ter of grav­ity moved to­ward the ex­treme; the ideo­lo­gic­al spans of parties no longer over­lap. Vote rat­ings for mem­bers of Con­gress show that not a single Demo­crat is more con­ser­vat­ive than any Re­pub­lic­an (and, ne­ces­sar­ily, vice versa—no Re­pub­lic­an is more lib­er­al than any Demo­crat).

Even among voters, lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans and con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats are vir­tu­ally ex­tinct, while mod­er­ates have lost their voice and in­flu­ence. Some of these es­tranged par­tis­ans have giv­en up and now identi­fy as in­de­pend­ents. Oth­ers re­main nom­in­ally in their party but are no longer act­iv­ists, wheth­er as can­did­ates, donors, pre­cinct cap­tains, or door-to-door can­vass­ers. As the two parties have be­come ideo­lo­gic­ally more co­hes­ive, cent­rist or mod­er­ate can­did­ates—of the sort that both parties’ es­tab­lish­ments have tra­di­tion­ally em­braced—are bound to lose in primary elec­tions, if they run at all.

A second factor that is fuel­ing this up­heav­al in Amer­ic­an polit­ics is the pop­u­lism on the rise with­in each party and na­tion­wide. Strong feel­ings are bub­bling up from be­low. Just as the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment led to the can­on­iz­a­tion of Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts and the suc­cess of Sanders in her stead, the grass­roots tea-party move­ment made pos­sible the surge of Trump and Car­son—in­ter­est­ingly, a bil­lion­aire and a re­tired neurosur­geon. In both parties, big in­sti­tu­tions are now sus­pect and wield less clout.

Over­shad­ow­ing everything is the an­ger to­ward Wash­ing­ton and ca­reer politi­cians that has pro­foundly af­fected the races on both sides. Most acutely, it has hurt Clin­ton and Jeb Bush, the dyn­ast­ic can­did­ates. We now have a “Scar­let P”—call­ing someone a politi­cian has be­come as slan­der­ous a slur as there is. Among voters in both parties, the pre­vail­ing emo­tion seems to be: How could a Trump, a Car­son, or a Sanders do worse than politi­cians of the past? While Sanders has been in elect­ive of­fice for all but two of the past 34 years—as may­or of Bur­l­ing­ton, as a con­gress­man, and now as a sen­at­or—he is seen as something dif­fer­ent from a politi­cian. Be­ing im­pol­it­ic helps.

Where all of this is go­ing and which side should be more pet­ri­fied is ab­so­lutely un­know­able. We are at a point where a know­ledge of polit­ic­al his­tory and an un­der­stand­ing of what usu­ally hap­pens in a giv­en situ­ation are use­less. The ex­pect­a­tion has been that these in­sur­gents will soar high and then col­lapse, like Howard Dean, Michele Bach­mann, and Her­man Cain be­fore them. That re­mains a de­cent guess, but it is only a guess. Nobody really knows any­thing.

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