It’s no secret that Americans are sick and tired of the status quo. We live in an age of “disruptors” who make apps that upend taxi services, hotels, restaurants, and what it means to be a friend. We reward disruptive technological innovation while looking the other way at what this new disruptive economy has wrought. Many of us also love political disruptors whose rhetoric about “winning,” “revolution,” and “shrinking the federal government” resonates with those who believe that in order to save the country you have to destroy it first. Yet, when 40 House members (whose districts are gerrymandered to make them political safe houses) act on those ideas, the result is a political civil war within the GOP.
In the name of being ideologically pure, these political disruptors cloak themselves in the title “Freedom Caucus” while loathing the very constitutional processes that forces something they view as profane: compromise. If you just read Tim Dickinson’s piece in Rolling Stone (“Meet the Right-Wing Rebels Who Overthrew John Boehner”) you’ll understand the motivation fueling their disgust with the GOP. Indeed, at times, members of The Freedom Caucus sound like Bernie Sanders inveighing against lobbyists and crony capitalism – but the comparison only goes so far. These House members are hearing it from their base; a base manufactured to be a racially homogenous and ideologically consistent group of voters who will only give support to their representative as long as they remain uncompromising in the face of opposition. It’s a One Party mentality that sees anyone who holds different views from theirs as an enemy.
Then, there’s a recent New York Times piece on the voters who support those in the Freedom Caucus – or those like them. Woven into their psyche seems to be a deep sense of nihilism — a nihilism borne out of economic stagnation. Quite simply, these Americans are working just as hard or harder than they have in years, but haven’t made any more money, and feel like it’s harder and harder to “get ahead.” The sense of economic malaise that’s infected their paychecks is projected onto the federal government where debt, deficits, welfare, and perceived loss of power in the world correspond to their own sense of perceived powerlessness. A key ‘graph in the New York Times article focused on the former lieutenant governor Ken Ard, who is now a radio talk show host:
“I remember growing up, a man could work at DuPont, a big plant here in town,” he said, “and the wife would teach school, and before you knew it, they had a beach house. They’d send a kid to University of South Carolina. They’d send a kid to Clemson. They weren’t up to their eyeballs in debt.”
“And somewhere in the past 30 years, we’ve lost that,” he said. “I’m not blaming Republicans. I’m not blaming Democrats. But if you’re working at DuPont making 50 grand a year, if you’re teaching, making 40 grand a year, you’re doing all you can to keep your head above water.”
Back in 1993 (a year marked by a deep recession), Bill Clinton made a powerful speech that included a summation of what the American Dream is: “… in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life and a better chance for your children.” That’s almost the same sentiment as Ard’s – yet it’s highly unlikely Ard would ever say that he and Bill Clinton share similar values and could work together to make the American Dream happen for all those who want to work hard for it.
Even farther out in the concentric circles of discontent are the Sovereign Citizens profiled in Ashley Powers’ riveting article in The California Sunday Magazine. The movement has been around for decades, but it usually grows in numbers when the economy hits the skids and the promise of the American Dream dwindles. Oklahoma City bombing terrorist Terry Nichols is one of the more noted members of the Sovereign Citizens movement, and if you wade through their, at times, nonsensical ideology, their beef centers on cops and the federal government. If you think members of the Freedom Caucus are a crazy bunch of dead-enders, the Sovereign Citizens are pretty much a 10 on the Snap-O-Meter in terms of paranoia. To wit, Powers gives us this glimpse:
At the warehouse, David and Devon schooled Scott in a range of conspiracy theories: Fighter jets dump aluminum on us. Chicken is poisoned to give women cancer and feminize men (that’s why David and Devon ate organic food). The New World Order, an elite cabal, is plotting to slaughter much of the world’s population. Scott never mocked them. In fact, his politics weren’t far removed: His ringtone was the Muslim call to prayer, followed by gunfire, followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Before you write these sovereigns off as isolated white supremacist types (though, many are), know that the movement’s ideology appeals to some African-Americans (who also have a long historical beef with cops) and Hawaiian secessionists (who have a beef with the colonialist oppression of the federal government).
While I’ve focused solely on Right-Wing discontent, there’s certainly no shortage of it on the left – though it’s not filled with as much nihilism that’s on the Right. From WTO protesters, to Occupy Wall Street, to Edward Snowden, to an embrace of the only Democratic Socialist running for president, the visceral feeling of “we’re getting screwed, too” is prevalent among the Left. While Bernie Sanders is no left wing Donald Trump, he does speak a language that resonates with liberals, progressives and many young folks. Sanders doesn’t drop key terms that sends out dog whistles of racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. Rather, when he speaks, he’s taking aim at those corporations that both wrecked the economy and the politicians who used their powers (and taxpayer money) to bail out their failures (which is socialism for the rich). It’s those establishment politicians who keep themselves employed though the (now) unlimited campaign donations (laundered though so-called “non-profit” organizations) courtesy of the Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United that’s given rise to plethora of politicians running for office. Most of the money comes from 158 families who, according to a report in the New York Times, have donated nearly half (half!) “of the early money for efforts to capture the White House.” (Note: this excludes Donald Trump who is spending his own money to run for president. Although, Trump is getting millions in donations from people giving an average of $50. This is much like Bernie Sanders who also gets most of his campaign money from small donations).
Center-left Democrats like Hillary Clinton or even Martin O’Malley talk a good game, but in this age of disruption, those on the left and right of the political spectrum want to believe in candidates who walk the walk. One reason why Barack Obama captured such a large swath of the vote in two elections is that he spoke the language of both optimism and disruption (i.e. hope and change) during The Great Recession. People wanted a transformative politician (and their jobs back), but they got a “work within the system” president whose actions were centrist, and whose wins were incremental — just as The United States Constitution set up as its governing framework. And while the days of “No Drama Obama” seem so 2009, many crave what he was selling on the campaign trail. If we didn’t, the political outliers in the Democratic and Republican parties wouldn’t be doing as well as they are in the polls.