by Chuck Raasch
April 22, 2010

WASHINGTON — If you’re angry or frustrated at the government, you’re not alone.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press just reported that 21% of respondents to a March poll said they were mad at their own government. And 56% said they were frustrated.

Pew called it the highest anger-and-disgust level in a half-century of polling. It is due at least partially to the cumulative effect of political and institutional failure writ large. The last 38 years of that half-century have spanned Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Iran-Contra, Clinton-Lewinsky, the 2000 election legal fight, 9/11, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and government bailouts of the car, housing and banking industries.

“The litany … just gives people a dim baseline view of government — that they are all a bunch of rascals, and none speaks for me,” said Marc Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and author of books about political trust.

The anger could hurt Democrats more in the November congressional elections, because they have more to defend, although anti-government sentiment is so deep that any politician facing voters this year is on an endangered list.

But the longer-term impact is more important. Politics is in a period of such intense volatility that it is folly to predict anything.

“Nothing is permanent any more,” said Rod Martin, a conservative activist and former counsel to the online revenue portal PayPal.com. He reminded an audience at a Politics Online conference this month that after the 2004 elections, some were predicting that evangelicals were on the rise and could be in control for a long time. In successive elections, however, Democrats made huge gains, culminating with President Obama’s win in 2008.

“This is not normal in our lifetimes,” Martin said of the volatility. “This was not possible in the television era. You are seeing massive volatility because of the technology. … And you are going to see that just increase and increase, almost exponentially, over the next several (election) cycles.”

The volatility is due to tectonic, technology-driven power migration away from big organizing institutions, like corporations and political parties, to a dispersed universe of what conservative blogger and author Glenn Reynolds calls “an army of Davids.”

As in David vs. Goliath.

These online armies can literally spring up overnight, as witnessed by the Tea Party’s rise over the past year. The Internet gives nascent forces an immediate organizing platform, the power to push back and even the ability to create their own realities.

This is why extreme “truths” like the claims that Obama was not born in America or that George W. Bush planned 9/11 linger on the right and left, respectively, despite evidence otherwise.

Some say the trajectory inevitably leads to viable independent presidential candidates and the long-term decline of political parties.

Joe Trippi is considered a godfather of Internet campaigns for his role in Democrat Howard Dean’s chaotic 2004 rise and fall. Trippi says that on the last day of Dean’s campaign just six years ago, there were an estimated 1.4 million blogs in the U.S. On the first day of Obama’s campaign less than three years later, he said, there were 77 million.

There was no YouTube when Dean ran. Three years later, one of the most influential pro-Obama messages was an independently produced YouTube video of “Obama girl” exhorting his positives. Millions viewed it.

“The institutions do not have the power any more,” Trippi said. “Power is drifting towards these armies of Davids.”

Trippi argues that successful politicians “are the people that hand out the slingshots” to the Davids.

Adaptation of new technology is moving so fast, he said, that “there will be a campaign in 2012 and 2016 that will make the Obama campaign look like just as much of a joke as the Obama campaign made the Dean campaign look like a joke.”

Trippi said that the features that make the Web so powerful a political force — immediacy, decentralization, and an ability to virtually organize — are anathema to closed party primaries and top-down message control.

In the past five months, the Republican Party has had two harbingers of what Trippi said is coming for both political parties.

In a New York special congressional election last fall, Tea Party activists and others rejected a candidate who had been hand-picked by the GOP establishment. Conservatives put up their own candidate, and eventually the chosen GOP candidate quit and endorsed the Democrat, who won.

Tea Party activists in Ohio are now complaining that Republican officials are not allowing open competition for elections for the party’s governing committee next month. Republican Party officials say they are doing what they always do — defending incumbents.

“The Tea Party is not an accident,” Trippi said. “We are very likely to see an independent (presidential) candidacy in 2012 or 2016. … We are entering a very disruptive period.”

 

***

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in USA Today.