Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has baffled political experts everywhere, with many suggesting his popularity is merely symptomatic of a reality television obsessed culture. But it goes beyond that. The truth is, Americans don’t trust or like politicians.
A candidate’s prior political experience once was viewed as a resume builder when running for President, but today is less of an asset. In a poll last month, a staggering 73% of Republican voters prefer a Washington outsider for President compared to just 21% who said they are more likely to vote for a candidate with experience. The unpopularity of career politicians has set the stage for the rise of a new class of political outsiders and a particular popularity for the candidates who speak extemporaneously, shoot from the hip and buck the Washington establishment at every turn.
This is not the first time Americans have been disgusted by Washington politics. In June 1976, in the aftermath of Watergate, only eight percent of the public had a great deal of trust and confidence in the federal government to handle international and domestic problems. In the poll from last month mentioned before, only 2 percent of voters said they trust government “almost all the time.” In the seventies, it was voters’ lack of trust in the federal government coupled with Jimmy Carter’s status as a Washington outsider that led to his surprise nomination and election.
A similar dynamic is shaping this election. Two dynastical, establishment favorites on both sides, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, were billed as the expected nominees for the 2016 Presidential election. The former, a previous Secretary of State and First Lady with questionable ethics, and the latter, a son and brother to two former Presidents. Americans frustrated with the direction of Washington D.C. recoiled from the idea of such an obvious continuation of business-as-usual. Today, still during the early stages of the election, voters appear committed to shutting out professional politicians, which has caused both Clinton and Bush to fall in the polls.
This public indignation is understandable. Voters believe the system is corrupt and rigged against them to benefit political elites on both sides of the aisle. There is a frustration among Republicans that nothing happens and conservatives never make good on their promises. Democrats recognize problems of crony capitalism and the rise of income inequality on their watch.
This frustration with the direction of the country and disdain for establishment politics has opened the door for outsider candidates to dominate the playing field like never before. It seems that even governors have been spurned for not being far enough removed from Washington influence. Accordingly, we’ve recently witnessed a wealthy former reality TV star, a neurosurgeon with no political experience, a former tech CEO, and a quirky Senator who openly embraces the label of socialist outperform the establishment favorites.
Time will tell how long the current love affair with outsiders lasts. Yet politicians—those running for president now and at all levels of government around the country—ought to take note of this phenomenon and embrace some important lessons. Voters have had enough with calculated, perfectly polished speeches. Candidates would be better off remembering they are human beings, talking to other human beings. Voters want to know that candidates genuinely understand and care about the issues they face every day. Voters want authenticity and are tired of politicians who say whatever it takes to get ahead.
Further, candidates should not hide their track record and policy stances from voters. Instead of running away from controversial issues, candidates should welcome them and be eager to discuss a whole range of issues that are important to the American people. Republican candidates should learn from outsider Carly Fiorina in taking on issues like paid maternity leave, childcare, and the so-called maternal wage gap. For too long, conservatives have attempted to avoid these issues out of fear they would commit a gaffe. But it is far better to take on these issues and explain how conservative solutions revolving around greater choice and economic opportunity will help all women.
Americans’ disgust with Washington and political insiders does not mean that this election is a lock for any of the candidates leading the polls today. But it does mean that for a candidate to be successful, they have to demonstrate a commitment to something different from business as usual.