This summer the world observed the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the first World War. Like the European aristocracies and their courts that almost exactly a century ago so disastrously misjudged the implications of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the aristocracies of both political parties do not understand the scope and nature of America’s discontent.
Both sides have shown every sign of using the same weaponry in the 2014 elections as they have for the past decade. Democrats will continue the “War on Women” and “War on (insert aggrieved group here)” memes with the expectation of cobbling together victories by dividing one group of Americans against another.
Republicans will continue to run against ObamaCare and government run amok while offering no policy specifics or clear vision for the future.
If the 2014 campaign season continues on this trajectory late summer and autumn will be the political equivalent of the trench warfare of 1914-1918; enormous resources will be expended with little real estate changing hands. And most importantly, our Republic will be the poorer for it.
History is replete with examples of people failing to see signs that later seem so obvious. Washington, D.C. got such a sign two months ago in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.
The chattering class in Washington has alternatively explained the unprecedented defeat in a primary of a sitting House Majority leader as “meddling” by the other party in an open primary; Rep. Cantor’s stance on immigration; and “bad polling.” All three of these theories could well be musical performances between headstones.
Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics performed a thorough quantitative analysis of Mr. Cantor’s defeat demonstrating that there was no spike in turnout in Democratic precincts. So much for the ‘meddling’ theory.
Was it Rep. Cantor’s position on immigration reform then? Admittedly, there has been conflicting post mortem polling and analysis of this question. This seems unlikely to me in the absence of conclusive data as Sen. Lindsay Graham (an outspoken advocate for immigration reform) handily won his primary in South Carolina.
Polling, the principal tool of political operatives and pundits has very real limitations. Poll results are necessarily limited by the questions generated by the pollster. Campaign polls for the most part are constrained by time and resources and are designed to measure the ‘head to head’ and to test messages, axes of attack and provide a picture of the state of the race at that moment.
Despite its use of numbers polling is essentially an art and it is very difficult to capture voters’ emotions unless the pollster is extremely prescient (or lucky) and happens to ask the correct question. Even if the immigration issue played a part in Mr. Cantor’s defeat, there may be something very big brewing below the surface here that would be difficult for campaign polls to detect.
In the second week of June, Gallup surveyed Americans’ level of confidence in a number of institutions. The institutions that Americans have the most confidence in according to Gallup are: The Military (75%), Small Business (63%), The Police (56%), and Church or Organized Religion (44%). At the bottom were Congress (13%) Banks (21%) Big Business (21%) Organized Labor (21%) and Public Schools (29%). The last five were historic lows for Gallup’s survey.
These findings were confirmed in August by an NBC/WSJ poll which showed among other things that 80% of respondents were frustrated by our country’s political system, and 57% would be willing to carry a protest sign for a day. This frustration spanned the political spectrum.
These are striking numbers and represent voter attitudes that may be without precedent in recent American political history.
These results are logical when broken down into two groups. The first group represents institutions that many people relate to personally, participate in or otherwise feel invested in by way of American tradition.
The second group of less trusted institutions are those that people do not feel connected to; or perceive as acting contrary to their interests, or otherwise represent ‘big’ or ‘out of control.’ In Mr. Cantor’s case, he was not only a member of Congress but an unabashedly ambitious member of its leadership.
His opponent’s message was very simple for all of its power: I am the candidate of small business and freedom; Mr. Cantor is big business’ man in Congress. The fact that Mr. Cantor travelled to his district in a motorcade, and raised millions from K Street fed into the latent anger with the second group of institutions.
Despite Mr. Cantor’s loss Republicans are in a position to capitalize on this hostility toward large institutions, as the very heart of conservatism is wariness of the power of large institutions and a vigorous defense of the sanctity of the individual.
It remains to be seen if the Republican aristocracy can understand that the world has changed and that the majority of Americans do not want an out of control federal government or crony capitalism. If they cannot, they will be become as extinct politically as Mr. Cantor and the European aristocrats of the Edwardian Age.
John Jordan is CEO of Jordan Winery, co-founder of Labrador OmniMedia (creator of Tastevin, a tablet-based restaurant beverage list software), and is a member of the Hoover Institution's Board of Overseers at Stanford University.