The rising protests in America’s financial sectors — known, broadly, as “Occupy Wall Street — are the latest tangible evidence of the American public’s growing distrust and frustration with the major institutional pillars of the country.
“OWS has tapped into the huge amount of anger and frustration average Americans are feeling about a political system that caters to Wall Street at the expense of people on Main Street,” said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime Democratic strategist with close ties to the labor movement.
Former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold told the Post’s Greg Sargent today that OWS is “expressing the populist, genuine view that people have been ripped off.”
Regardless of how seriously you take OWS — and that ranges, typically depending on your ideological bent — its rapid expansion suggests that it’s tapping into some broader sentiment among the general public.
Everywhere you look that discontent is manifest. Take the new Washington Post-ABC News poll that shows:
* Just 14 percent of people approve of the job Congress is doing, a historic low in the poll.
* Forty-two percent approve of how President Obama is handling his job, the lowest ebb of his time in the White House.
* Only one in five people say they are “satisfied” with the way the country’s political system is working, the lowest — stop us if you’ve heard this one before — that number has ever been in the poll.
And, the ebbing confidence and rising anger directed toward the country’s institutions isn’t simply a short-term spike driven by the recent partisan gridlock in the country.
An annual Gallup survey revealed that “confidence in institutions this years  is below the historical average for each.”
In 2011, confidence in Congress, for example, ran 12 points behind its historical average while confidence in the presidency lagged the historical norm by 10 points. The biggest loser? Banks, whose 23 percent confidence score lagged 19 points behind the historical average.
That raft of numbers poses an incredibly complex political challenge for politicians who are inherently “establishment” figures but must do everything they can to run against that very establishment in hopes of channeling the rage and unhappiness coursing through the public.
“People are more angry, frustrated and disillusioned with government and institutions than we’ve ever seen," said Democratic media consultant Jason Ralston. “It’s a volatile mix that will certainly have an impact on politics, but it’s unclear at this point who will pay the price. Channeling that anger in the direction of your opponent will be the great battle of 2012.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination, has been the most overt in his populist/anti-establishment messaging.
“I’ll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can,” Perry said in his announcement speech in mid-August. The line is also a standard feature of his stump speech.
For others, however, a fiery populist approach is less of a natural fit.
President Obama is, as we have written many times before, not a natural populist and tends to shy away from that sort of rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Of late though, Obama has struck a more partisan — and populist — tone on the campaign trail, seeking to lay the negative feelings that people have about political institutions at the feet of Republicans in Congress.
The rising distrust with and lack of faith in institutions a major feature of the American political landscape. Dealing with that new reality and finding ways to direct that energy into positive activity is the challenge before every person running for elected office between now and November 2012.