NEW CASTLE, Pa., Feb. 29, 2016 — Anti-establishment sentiments are dominating the discussion of the 2016 election. While more evident on the right with the rise of Donald Trump, they are also apparent on the left, with support for Bernie Sanders.
Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency is often tied to his message of hope and change, yet his short political resume may have played a far more critical role that many recognize. Strong support for self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders seems to demonstrate the same anti-establishment sentiments among Democrats, which likely helped propel then-first term Sen. Obama to the presidency over establishment-favorite Hillary Clinton.
For Democrats, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders have personified the very notion of anti-establishment. Where the right has targeted government overreach and spending, the left sees special interests and their undue influence on the government that comes at the expense of the American people as the most pressing threat.
Because the right and left have conflicting views on who qualifies as an anti-establishment candidate, Republicans have been able to galvanize anti-government support against President Obama since before his first day in office by framing him as a political insider.
Although so-called tea party candidates were able to capitalize on the backlash against Obama’s victories and failure to live up to inflated expectations in 2010, backlash against their efforts to impede government helped demoralize impassioned voters in 2012 while pushing moderate-leaning Republicans back toward the party establishment. In 2010 and 2012, voter apathy among Democrats helped deliver victories to the Republicans.
This emerging pattern of enthusiasm followed by reality-induced disappointment and apathy on opposing sides of the aisle has been a major theme over the past few election cycles. Consequently, its impact on elections and the rise of Washington outsiders is important.
Such recurring patterns suggest that the American people as a whole share similar dissatisfaction with the political system and their choices in candidates. Although it is tempting to simply say the American people are just anti-establishment or anti-incumbent, that is not the message they are sending.
Despite successfully framing himself as a tea party candidate in 2012 and using it to attack Mark Rubio as a political insider in 2016, Ted Cruz’s legal and public service career make him a true political insider. Although the once favored first-term Republican senator has been superseded by Donald Trump in the GOP primary, Cruz’s credentials made him compatible with both the anti-establishment tea party movement and the political establishment.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s billionaire status makes him an elitist who would normally be despised by anti-elitist groups, yet his lack of political credentials, unpolished statements and unpredictable nature seem to authenticate him as an anti-establishment candidate.
It seems there is little consistency in what candidates anti-establishment movements are willing to support. Of course, this assumes anti-establishment movements are actually anti-establishment movements and not something more.
Trump’s emergence in the political world may represent an evolution in the political thought of Republican voters. Instead of seeking non-establishment candidates as movements as the tea party did, Republican voters may actually be looking for candidates who are anti-special interest, which is more akin to what the Democrats seek.
Although they maintain striking differences in their governing philosophies, there seems to be a convergence in how Republican and Democratic voters select elected officials.
The emerging dynamic demonstrates a rejection of the party establishments as well as of the overall political establishment in what appears to be an uncoordinated effort to purge government. Voters are not simply seeking the removal of deeply entrenched political leaders. In other words, they are revolting against the entire political industry and seeking elected officials who have not and will not succumb to Washington influences.
The American people do not necessarily want bigger or smaller government; they want to overthrow the entire political class. In their voting choices, they are purging government of deeply entrenched political leaders, political money, special interests, dysfunctional bureaucrats, powerful technocrats and all other parties that perpetuate the status quo of a government that no longer seems to serve them. Voters support candidates who they feel will confront these establishment groups instead of appeasing them.