One of the common tropes of this election season is that so-called anti-establishment politicians and voters are challenging the authority of the current political establishment because of its corruption and ineptitude.
Tea Party activists originally employed anti-establishment rhetoric to unseat ineffective establishment politicians at the local, state, and federal level in favor of more ideologically consistent, albeit less experienced, amateurs, such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Now professional politicians themselves, those Tea Party politicians have continued to use inflammatory speech to reinvigorate the many voters who, for good reason, still feel disillusioned by the current political scene. In the name of anti-establishment politics, self-professed conservatives are not only falling for, but vigorously defending the nonsensical jabbering of a billionaire blowhard and his brand of eclectic populism.
Ted Cruz, who has a far more consistent political track record than Trump, has also capitalized on the anti-establishment sentiment by staking his bid for the GOP nomination on his assurance that he will fight “the Washington cartel.”
It was clear from the beginning of the race that experience alone wouldn’t carry any candidate to the nomination. The presence of outsiders like Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina deemphasized coverage of traditional qualifications, such as policy beliefs and voting records, and forced candidates to prove themselves as the most outside of the outsiders.
Although Jeb Bush entered the race with the most super PAC money, establishment support, and media attention, his campaign fizzled, partly because of his lackluster efforts, but also in part because of his well-established and familial connections to GOP elites. Bush could not escape the associations with his brother’s legacy, which his opponents did not hesitate to exploit. The presidential race is an especially dirty and unforgiving game this year, and so it goes that a competent and impressive candidate in his own right failed to pass the politics of personality test.
Despite riding to the Senate on the Tea Party wave as an anti-establishment alternative to a sitting Republican Senator, Marco Rubio has picked up Jeb’s mantle as the establishment champion. Establishment politicians believe that Rubio’s broad appeal to independents and conservatives gives the party its best chance to win the White House and reunite Republicans.
Even the Democrats have not been immune to the anti-establishment sentiments that have plagued this election. When she entered the race, it seemed that Hillary Clinton’s coronation as the Democratic nominee was all but assured. With a fifty-point lead over the hypothetical candidacy of Joe Biden, it seemed that Hillary would proceed to the general election unopposed. But of the lingering few token challengers to Clinton, the only one to emerge was an aging socialist who was not a Democrat until 2015.
Of course, Sanders still poses little threat to Hillary, but the strength of his support is nonetheless concerning to the former Secretary of State. Hillary has shown herself to be somewhat resistant to charges that she represents the Democratic establishment, which has received some criticism as a result of rising disapproval of Obama’s policies.
When, for example, Bernie accused Hillary of shilling for the establishment, she feigned disbelief that anyone could characterize her, “a woman running to be the first woman president as exemplifying the establishment.” Hillary easily dodged Sanders’ establishment dig with her judicious use of the gender card, and received tumultuous applause by reminding people of the historical significance of her campaign. She also suggested that, as a woman, she could never be a part of any “establishment.”
In attacking Clinton, Sanders unwittingly expressed the raison d’etre for his recent success in the polls. He claimed that he “represent[s]…ordinary Americans, and, by the way, who are not all that enamored with the establishment.”
Luckily for both Democrats and Republicans the supporters of these extreme candidates are still outnumbered by a majority of voters who adhere to the platform and values of their respective parties. Although some anger towards the establishment of political elites is fully justified considering the state of American politics and the government’s divisiveness, idleness, corruption, and general incompetence, the anti-establishment rhetoric invoked by the media and the outsider candidates has become little more than the hollow battle cry of Trumpkins and riders of the Bernie Bus.
Granted, sometimes when a party becomes gluttonous, lazy, and dishonest it can be healthy to purge it of its failures and remind it that it’s supposed to vaguely follow the desires of its constituents. It becomes dangerous, however, when ideological outliers use the discontent to make their own radical agendas more palatable to angry voters, who are hungry to hear someone in politics eloquently—or, in Trump’s case, forcefully—present themselves as representative of the voters.
The anti-establishment insurgents gain recognition and support for the anger and passion they display in presenting their platform, but in gaining that support, their followers pay less attention to the substance of their ideas and more to the emotion with which it’s invoked.