'Nothing to lose'? Political storm churning on both sides of Atlantic

Pollster Frank Luntz provides insight


The words just don’t make any sense. Kind of like our politics these days.

“Incense and peppermints. The color of time.”

But they don’t have to. These are the lyrics to the 1967, number-one hit “Incense and Peppermints” by the band Strawberry Alarm Clock. The song is so psychedelically potent that it doubles as a stereophonic bong. You can almost achieve a cannabis-induced buzz just by listening.

After all, it was the 1960s.

But while the song is littered with nonsensical words, some lines resonate with astonishing truth.

“Who cares what games we choose? Little to win. But nothing to lose.”

That is where we are now in politics. Not just in Congress or the United States – but also in the United Kingdom as voters resoundingly declared they want to abandon the E.U.

It’s as though the public matriculated beyond the political status quo – dictated by perceived elites, insiders, analysts, power-brokers or whomever they think is in charge in Brussels, London, Washington or down at the local school board. Ironically, globalization and technology helped spawn everything from social movements on Facebook to Periscoping a live sit-in on firearms on the House floor.

Examine the power of the Tea Party in 2010. Or for that matter, the rise of President Obama in 2008. The proletariat now has more power than it ever did. Average people and workers can deploy those tools – to say nothing of their own feet and ballots – to intone an end to business as usual and hold those in power to account.

To many, a decision by the United Kingdom to abdicate membership in the European Union made no sense. But like the lyric in the song, the “leave” side didn’t care what games they were playing. They viewed it as “little to win. But nothing to lose.”

Consider for a moment how tortured some logic may be.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) now controls Scotland. After the Brexit vote, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said a second referendum for Scotland to secede is “highly likely.” Never mind that most of Scotland voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the E.U. Even so, those for Scottish independence think Scotland would fare better in the E.U. But that could prove to be a fool’s errand if the rest of the E.U. collapses because of the Brexit precedent.

Watch where this heads next. A similar restlessness has crept through the American experience for the better part of a decade now.

Aside from Obama and the Tea Party, observe how Donald Trump and even Sen. Bernie Sanders mustered a disaffected slate of the electorate this time around.

The paradox is that many of Trump’s supporters see eye-to-eye with some of Sanders’ backers when it comes to trade and certain economic issues.

Astute political observers note the same commotion that rocked the U.K. is coming to the U.S. Similar, agitated seeds started germinating here a long time ago. In fact, proof of this turbulence is best illustrated in the U.S. House. With two-year election cycles and near constant primaries, no other legislative assembly on the planet so accurately emulates the attitudes of the public at any given moment.

Start with the unprecedented primary defeat of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. Cantor’s ouster by Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., reflects the rapid rise of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Freedom Caucus members have since either exerted significant influence over certain pieces of legislation in the House or made it virtually impossible for the body to advance other initiatives. It hasn’t even been a year since Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and other caucus members sowed the ground that led to the demise of then-House Speaker John Boehner.

The fight over succeeding Boehner was a wild one – first bouncing House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from contention before members finally settled on current House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The leadership phenomenon also reveals how divided the House and by extension, parts of the country, really are. It also demonstrates the delicate path Ryan must walk to hold power.

To be clear, there is no movement now to remove Ryan. Many Republicans have enthusiastically commended Ryan’s approach to the speakership in contrast to that of his predecessor. However, one of the best things Ryan has going for him is that there’s no obvious challenger waiting in the wings to succeed him. Moreover, no one really pines for the job right now.

But Ryan knows he can’t be at rest during this period of instability. On Friday, the speaker finished rolling out the sixth and final policy initiative that House Republicans hope to tackle next year. There’s regulatory reform. Addressing poverty. Tax reform. Repealing and replacing ObamaCare.

Yet there is danger in this, too.

Some might quibble why the GOP wouldn’t try to move some of those measures now. The official reason is that Obama may veto them. Another reason is that while the plans sound good and are great campaign promises (after all, it is an election year), House Republicans may struggle to pass these proposals because they lack the votes.

“We are not putting a deadline nor a timeline on the committees to produce a certain result,” said a senior House Republican leadership aide about the pace of the GOP’s health care approach.

This is where the jeopardy comes in for Ryan and other Republicans.

Such promises may have worked a long time ago. But one of the reasons the GOP earned control of the House in 2010 was a call to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Granted, such a proposal isn’t going to get past Obama. However, this is the “politics as usual” that drives American voters nuts. There’s a reason they’ve flocked to Trump and Sanders. There’s a reason why voters in the United Kingdom are trashing the country’s institutions and why people there want the E.U. to take a hike.

Social media and technology now fully empower average, working-class people. They are exhausted by hollow promises. There’s a sense of betrayal here in the U.S. and overseas. This is why Thomas Jefferson argued to James Madison that people should periodically shake things up: “It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

A storm churns in the political realm now. People are done with the doubletalk. “Incense and peppermints. The color of time.” Stuff that just doesn’t make any sense. And that’s why voters don’t mind upsetting the applecart now.

They have “little to win. But nothing to lose.”