I’d like you to consider the possibility that the political changes that have rocked this country over the past six years will be nothing compared with the changes that will rock it over the next six. I’d like you to consider the possibility that we’re in some sort of pre-revolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.
Look at the conditions all around us:
First, Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the way things are going. Only 13% of voters say the country is on the right track, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll published this week.
Second, Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the leaders of both parties. Joe Biden has a 33% job approval rating among registered voters. About half of Republican voters want to move on from Donald Trump and find a new presidential candidate for 2024.
Third, inflation is soaring. Throughout history, inflationary periods have often been linked to political instability. As economist Lionel Robbins wrote about Weimar Germany, inflation “destroyed the wealth of the more solid elements in German society; and it left behind a moral and economic disequilibrium, apt breeding ground for the disasters which have followed.”
Fourth, the generational turnover is coming. The boomer gerontocracy that now dominates power is bound to retire, leaving a vacuum for something new.
Fifth, Americans are detaching from the two political parties. Far more Americans consider themselves independents than consider themselves either Democrats or Republicans, and independents may be growing more distinct. And there’s some research that suggests independents are increasingly not just closeted members of the two main parties but also hold different beliefs, which puts them between parties. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe a third party is needed.
Sixth, disgust with the current system is high. A majority of American voters believe that our system of government does not work, and 58% believe that our democracy needs major reforms or a complete overhaul. Nearly half of young adult voters believe voting does not affect how the government operates.
If these conditions persist, the 2024 presidential primaries could be wild. Sure, conventional candidates like Republican Ron DeSantis or Democrat Gavin Newsom may run for the nominations. But if the hunger for change is as strong as it is now, the climate will favor unconventional outsiders, the further outside the better. These sorts of oddball or unexpected candidates could set off a series of swings and disequilibriums that will make the existing party systems unstable.
Furthermore, if ever there was a moment ripe for a Ross Perot-like third candidate in the 2024 general election, this is that moment. There are efforts underway to prepare the way for a third candidate, and in this environment, an outsider, with no ties to the status quo, who runs against the establishment and on the idea that we need to fundamentally fix the system — well, that person could wind up winning the presidency.
These conditions have already shaken up the stereotypes we used to use to think about politics. We used to think of the Democrats as the party of the economically disadvantaged. But college-educated metropolitan voters continue to flock to it and reshape it more and more each year. In the Times/Siena poll of registered voters, 57% of white college graduates wanted Democrats to control Congress compared with 36% who favored Republican control. For the first time in the survey’s history, Democrats had a larger share of support among white college graduates than among nonwhite voters. These white voters are often motivated by social policy issues like abortion rights and gun regulation.
Republicans used to be the party of business, but now they are emerging as a multiracial working-class party. In the Times/Siena poll, Hispanic voters were nearly evenly split about whether they favored Republicans or Democrats in the midterms. That may be overstating how much Hispanics have shifted, but it does seem as if the Republicans are genuinely becoming a working-class white-brown coalition. These voters care about the economy, the economy and the economy.
In other words, we now have an establishment progressive party and an anti-establishment conservative party. This isn’t normal.
If I were a cynical political operative who wanted to construct a presidential candidate perfectly suited for this moment, I’d start by making this candidate culturally conservative. I’d want the candidate to show by dress, speech and style that he or she is not part of the coastal educated establishment. I’d want the candidate to connect with middle- and working-class voters on values and to be full-throatedly patriotic.
Then I’d make the candidate economically center-left. I’d want to fuse the economic anxieties of the working-class Republicans with the economic anxieties of the Bernie Sanders young into one big riled populist package. College debt forgiveness. An aggressive homebuilding project to bring down prices. Whatever it took.
Then I’d have that candidate deliver one nonpartisan message: Everything is broken. Then he or she would offer a slew of institutional reforms to match the comprehensive institutional reforms the Progressive movement offered more than a century ago.
I guess I’m looking for a sort of modern Theodore Roosevelt. But heck, I don’t know. What’s coming down the pike is probably so unforeseeable that I don’t even have categories for it yet.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.