Turbo Populism and the Rise of the Political Disruptor

Anger over the failures of the political system to serve the needs of Main Street, and resentment over the excesses and abuses of Wall Street, led to a formidable but aspirational grass roots force for change in 2008.   Its fierce return in 2016, at a time of even more pronounced income disparity and mistrust of government, is now reshaping the traditional world of politics in ways not even thinkable a few months ago.  Just look at Donald Trump’s  h u g e  success and what Bernie Sanders is doing in challenging the coronation of Hillary Clinton by the Democrat establishment.

The perceived betrayal of elites, both in business and in the political arena, exemplified by the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq on the one hand and the Wall Street subprime financial crisis on the other, have unleashed seismic forces of popular discontent in America. It is fueled by a sweeping rejection of a political status quo that is seen to place the self-aggrandizement of special interests ahead of the well-being of ordinary people. It seeks to rewrite the political contract between voters and leaders in the most profound ways. So powerful has this grass roots movement become and so forceful its capacity to effect change that we have dubbed it Turbo Populism.  It is precisely what is propelling an unlikely first-term senator named Barack Obama toward the White House on an unstoppable wave of popular hope and support.

from Finlay ON Governance, 2008

In 2008, two tectonic events — the aftermath of the ill-fated U.S. invasion of Iraq and the emerging subprime scandal that caused the worst recession since the Great Depression — created a tidal wave that altered the political landscape.   We dubbed it Turbo Populism at that time. It propelled a first-term African American Senator named Barack Obama to the presidency and later gave birth to the Tea Party movement of disaffected voters. In 2016, Turbo Populism is recasting the political contours of America in even more profound ways.

The idea that a 74-year-old socialist would become the darling of millennials thirsting to establish their place in a more honest political system and a brash billionaire who breaks all the political conventions would even be taken seriously as candidates for the Democrat and Republican nominations for president, much less set attendance records for campaign rallies, shows how powerful these aspirational forces of grass roots energy have become. These disruptors of the political status quo demonstrate that people are no longer willing to be treated as mere pawns by those at the top or pick up the tab for their excesses and failures of judgment. Politics-as-usual  —the politics of special interest and the politics of the old style where promises are rarely kept and little gets done— is politics to be shunned.

More than big money campaign budgets and so-called super packs of entrenched interests, the currency of electoral success today is authenticity.  It is the genuine and passionate voice that speaks to those cut out of the system or have been left behind by it or have never had their concerns addressed in any way that resonates within the deep heart’s core.  It is a yearning to be counted in and a rejection, indeed, a repudiation, of the idea that somehow whole slices of society just don’t count. This is not a voice where the message can be pre-scripted, copied or hijacked. Actors on this new political stage (who do best when they do not seem like politicians at all) either have it or they don’t.  Most do not, which is why one appears on the horizon the whole political compass can suddenly gyrate out of control and be irrepressibly drawn toward it. Even establishment front-runners like Hillary Clinton appear to be trying to adapt to this reality by borrowing from the Bernie Sanders songbook of words and music that hit that rare emotional chord of younger and more independent voters.

Whether they have come from the ideological left or right, whether they are young millennials or middle age white men, they have looked over the litter mound of Wall Street scandals, government bailouts, cozy deals and corrupting political influences and glimpsed a land that refuses any longer to be the captive of a rigged system that works first and foremost for insiders and the well connected. Read more



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