Americans are losing faith in institutions; Is a political realignment far behind?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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You could say I lost my faith in the people on TV
You could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians
They all seemed like game show hosts to me


Over at National Journal, Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton have penned what NBC’s Chuck Todd says “may end being in top 5 best pieces about this campaign.” The piece voices a familiar lament, that: “[P]eople have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing.”

There is a certain malaise lingering in the air, and I can think of at least two possible contributing factors.

On one hand (and liberals are sure to agree here) there is a downside to “creative destruction.” It is good, of course, that the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, but surely some Americans were hurt in the process. To be sure, it would have been silly for the nation not to adapt to modern technology, but that doesn’t mean some people weren’t left behind. Times of economic change and technological advancement are sure to create stress and dislocation. That’s part of what we’re going through today.

Conversely (and conservatives might concur here) if we are honestly worried about Americans losing faith in our institutions, then maybe it’s time we back off a tad in terms of adding stress to them?

The church has its own problems to contend with, of course, but now they also have this HHS mandate to deal with. Additionally, conservatives would likely argue the institution of marriage is under continual assault — and that the military continues to be a place for social engineering. We are exerting external stress on our long-standing institutions as if they can never break. But how resilient are they?

As you might have guessed, I’m arguing that there is a politically underrepresented “populist” constituency in America. Demographically, they are noncollege-educated whites. Philosophically, they are generally Christian conservatives who are also skeptical of big business. They are pro-gun and pro-union. They are pro-life and pro-tariff. They believe in God and government.

To one degree or another, candidates like Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot have wooed them in the recent past. Even more recently, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have flirted with them. But neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have a natural connection with them.

So far, this group has not equaled electoral success. That might change, though, if times get even tougher. Might there is room for a populist third party candidate to emerge? Maybe not this year. But my guess is that one of the major political parties will have to find a way to woo this group of disaffected voters — especially if the economy fails to improve.

Matt K. Lewis