Conventional wisdom is wrong again. There is not one big populist revolt now sweeping across America. Rather, there are three revolts –– one from the right, one from the left and one from angry voters across the board.
The first revolt comes from the right, and it has been percolating for nearly a decade. It is an insurgency targeted against moral compromise and it is being waged within –– and, in some ways, against –– the Republican Party. Powered at the grass roots by the tea party and on Capitol Hill by the Freedom Caucus, this movement has pulled the Republican Party well to the right of where it was just a few years ago.
Conservative ideologues are tired of GOP candidates who don’t deliver on campaign promises, especially cutting government. They loathe moderate Republicans who make deals with Democrats, and they view legislative bargaining as betrayal. They see Barack Obama’s Washington as a foreign capital, much like Moscow or Beijing. Shutting down government is not just a tactic they use to get what they want –– it is what they want.
Going into this election, multiple GOP presidential candidates sought to harness this rebellion, but the one who has emerged as its champion, at least for now, is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In Iowa’s Republican caucuses, for example, Cruz beat Donald Trump by more than 2-to-1 among “very conservative” voters, while Trump beat Cruz by nearly 4-to-1 among moderates.
The second revolt comes from the left, and it is aimed at wealth inequality and corporate corruption. This revolt operates mostly within the Democratic Party, although many disaffected independents — especially younger voters –– find the cause appealing.
While anti-corporate progressives regularly vote for Democrats, they have become frustrated with party leaders who take money from Wall Street billionaires and then shy away from politically risky causes such as redistributing wealth and breaking up banks. They’re animated by their hatred of big money in politics –– especially money spent by rich conservatives such as the Koch brothers. (Their concern about the millions spent by labor unions is more muted.)
These ideological insurgents have pulled the Democratic Party far to the left of where it was when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, and even to the left of where it was when Obama won just eight years ago. To illustrate this shift: A recent national poll found that more Democrats now favor socialism than capitalism.
Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has championed this revolt, which is why many Democrats pushed her to run for president. But when she passed on entering the race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton –– a move she may now regret –– Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders picked up the mantle and has since carried it with unexpected success.
The third revolt is one directed at the political system itself.
While both the left and right share a growing contempt for politics as usual, the impetus for this popular uprising comes mostly from center-right voters upset by government paralysis and incompetence. It is a movement built upon cynicism –– and anger at dodgy politicians, broken institutions and increasingly malicious demands for political correctness. No longer content to just tweak the system, they want to knock it down.
Enter the bulldozer, Donald Trump. In his own inimitable way, the New York real estate developer has loosely become the champion of this third revolt. Recent polls have found that a majority of Republicans view Trump as the one presidential candidate most able to bring needed change to Washington. Whether he’s ultimately successful or not in his first electoral quest, he gives millions of voters what they crave: a nonpolitician who shares their anger and speaks their language.
But unlike the leaders of other change movements, Trump offers himself, and not a laundry list of reform proposals, as the solution. By doing so, he’s asking for a blank check to do whatever he wants as president, and that –– along with his eyebrow-raising bombast and tough positions on immigration and trade –– scares the hell out of traditional reformers.
In distinct ways, each of these movements reflects the loss of public confidence in our political system and, more fundamentally, the eroding legitimacy of American democracy.
When history writes its chapter on the 2016 election, it will record how three revolts roiled our politics. In truth, this may not be the winter of our discontent; it may be the start of something that lasts much longer.
An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a daily newsletter on polling, and he runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan market research firm that has conducted polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV. He is a former Louisiana legislator from New Orleans.