Americans feel—with a good deal of justification—that the political establishment has been serving them poorly for roughly the last quarter-century. Policy has generally been driven by a need to give instant gratification to the 24-hour news cycle at the expense of solving long-term problems. We’ve run three monetary bubbles, all of which were fun while they lasted; two ended badly, and the establishment is promising the third time is the charm. Abroad we’ve gone from being the Cold War victors to being in retreat on all fronts; there is no country on the planet where we are more respected today than we were 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 25 years ago.
The political debate is viewed by the electorate as an orgy of finger-pointing; but the public knows the truth: They are all to blame. Our system relies on a “throw the bums out” approach. In a two-party system the punishment for bad governance is to be replaced by the other party. This puts a premium on finger-pointing. But it does not necessarily lead to tackling big issues; the new team has just as much incentive to not risk the public’s disfavor as the old team, and the prospect of being booted from office lowers the incentive to follow policies that involve long-term planning and follow-through. So ultimately throwing the bums out doesn’t work because both sides are perceived as bums, selfish and venal.
Consider some recent polls. On the Democratic side, Hillary is showing early signs of being in actual trouble. The numerous scandals and her transparent attempts to campaign as something she’s not are clearly affecting the public mood. There are now two polls in a row that show Bernie Sanders closing the gap with her in New Hampshire. Her lead has dropped from over 40 points to just 10 or 12. A Morning Consult poll a couple of weeks ago showed her leading by 44-32, and it was dismissed as a fluke. It has now been followed by a Suffolk University poll showing her leading 41-31. Sanders doesn’t have to win to destroy Hillary; remember what Eugene McCarthy did to Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire in 1968 despite having come in only a close second.
Okay, these are polls; not an actual vote, and respondents can tell the pollster what they think will send a signal without consequence. And it is quirky New Hampshire. But it’s also Bernie Sanders we are talking about, an avowed socialist who makes Hillary look like a spring chicken. This is a vote against a pillar of the establishment pure and simple. She is from one of America’s two ruling families.
And the candidate from the other ruling family is hardly doing better. In the Real Clear Politics average of the last five national polls of the Republican cattle show, it’s Bush 10.8; Walker 10.6; Rubio 10.0; Carson 9.4; Huckabee 8.6; Paul 8.2; Cruz 7.0. The remainder are scattered (as if the top tier is not). The fact that Jeb Bush is barely in double digits would have been unthinkable six months ago; that six other candidates would be within 4 points of him is virtually surreal.
The establishment as a whole isn’t running away with it either. Walker and Rubio are vaguely establishment in their policies, but at least sport something other than ruling-class pedigrees. Combined with Bush they have 31.4 percent. Carson, Huckabee, and Cruz come from the right and have 25 percent. Paul offers a libertarian flavor and, if added to the right, would bring that combined vote up to that of the more establishment candidates. Yes, it’s early—but the anti-establishment tone of the Republican electorate is as pronounced as on the Democratic side.
Antiestablishment is not necessarily a coherent solution. Donald Trump, running at 3.6 percent, employs anti-establishment rhetoric, but how can that be credible? Then there is the incumbent, elected by promoting his superficially nonestablishment pedigree (and we’re not talking about being editor of the Harvard Law Review). He beat lots of ruling-class pillars along the way: first Hillary, then McCain as a follow-through on Bush, and finally a guy who (as Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of Thomas Dewey) looked like the little man on the top of the wedding cake and who epitomized the political and business establishments.