The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why politicians are so eager to claim the outsider mantle

Americans have long hated our politics, but they rarely change.

President Trump appears with Republican Rick Saccone during a campaign rally in March in Moon Township, Pa. Saccone lost to Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election March 13 in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Earlier this month, Republican Rick Saccone, who described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” lost a Pennsylvania special congressional election despite a last-minute visit from the president to the district, which Trump had carried handily in 2016. Despite of Saccone’s failure, candidates are scrambling to claim the outsider brand — a byproduct of economic dislocation and the temptation to run against a system that Americans don’t much like. Candidates in both parties see value in this label and bid to outdo one another in promising transformative change.

But while the ultimate outsider sits in the White House, don’t expect a full-scale makeover of U.S. politics. Outsiders are a common feature in American politics, a reaction to outside factors, such as discontent with the economy or the unexpected success of a political neophyte. But while the outsider style may stick around, the true outsider seldom remakes the political sphere.

Political outsiders market themselves as challenging the prevailing political mold. In reality, however, they actually have a mold of their own. Like clockwork, every few decades one emerges at the presidential level. It started in 1896 with a real populist, William Jennings Bryan. The first outsider Fifth-Avenue Republican was Wendell Willkie in 1940. And even though it’s a myth that Ross Perot cost George H.W. Bush the 1992 election, his outsider independent candidacy did pull votes away from the incumbent.

As disparate as Bryan, Willkie and Perot were, a common thread united them all: the economy. 

In 1896, a depression coincided with the election calendar, and Bryan captivated the Democrats’ convention with a rousing critique of the gold standard, which he felt disadvantaged farmers. Willkie contested Franklin D. Roosevelt during the president’s second reelection campaign, a point at which the New Deal had not fully restored the U.S. economy. Willkie, a corporate CEO who had never held office, emphasized what he perceived as an overregulated economy. 

The North American Free Trade Act was on Perot’s 1992 agenda, much as it was on Trump’s in 2016. The inexperienced Perot ran as an independent with a laser focus on the economy. His protectionist, populist, anti-NAFTA stance infused one of the most memorable sound bites of the campaign — that there would be a “giant sucking sound” in the United States under NAFTA as companies looked south to take advantage of Mexico’s low pay and relaxed environmental standards.

Economic distress is an effective catalyst for political outsiders, but it’s not the only one. Scandal and outrageous or tone-deaf behavior by elected officials often inspire a flood of outsider candidates. The year 1992 offered the perfect storm to produce this sort of surge in Congress.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) ran as “just a mom in tennis shoes,” epitomizing the female Democratic candidates inspired to run by the outrage that women felt about the televised all-male grilling of Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Technically, Murray, a sitting member of the Washington state Senate, was no outsider. But sometimes outsider status is more image than reality.

That same year, Republicans capitalized upon a wave of anger about the House banking scandal, choosing to play down their own political experience and run as outsiders committed to cleaning up a corrupt Congress. A record 19 incumbents from both parties suffered primary defeats, and the general election was especially tough on Democratic incumbents, who bore the brunt of voters’ anger. Seven of the Democratic losses were credited to the banking scandal, though redistricting also took a heavy toll.

Successful down-ballot outsiders provide a road map for those whose political climb circumvents the traditional path of working up through the ranks, and those who successfully claim outsider status even though they, like Murray, might not deserve it.

Candidates usually grab the outsider mantle for one of two reasons: tapping into distress, economic or otherwise, or trying to paint an opponent as a career politician. The latter label could — but doesn’t — conjure up a long, distinguished commitment to public service and effective leadership or representation. Instead, it is almost exclusively a pejorative, used to demean an elected official as out of touch, driven by self-interest or beholden to narrow interests.

There’s nothing new about this outsider cache and insider disdain. In fact, it’s consistent with the long-term contempt of Americans for political parties. And it’s also entangled with the legacy of the Progressives, whose reforms around the turn of the twentieth century — the direct primary, new municipal governing arrangements — were designed to wrest power from parties and traditional power bases.

Yet today, after well over a century of outsiders crusading, the system remains largely the same. Parties, though diminished in power, have not succumbed. Money is consistently the key factor that fuels politics. And it never takes long for some elected official to demonstrate behavior that repulses average Americans.

Ironically, the lack of change simply creates more opportunities for candidates to claim the outsider mantle. If anything, they are becoming increasingly creative in how they do so in the era of Trump.

Indeed, there’s nothing that catalyzes a surge in outsider candidates more than a successful outsider presidential candidate. Trump’s success has emboldened outsiders in both parties to run for office in 2018, especially Democratic women fed up with his behavior. Record numbers of first-time female candidates have jumped into races.

But the candidates scrambling to identify as outsiders aren’t always first-time candidates.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) barely survived a tight primary last week in part because he didn’t let niceties like incumbent status or endorsements from the established media taint his outsider status. Instead, he worked to shore up his outsider credentials by targeting Mike Madigan, a longtime Illinois House Speaker and Democratic power broker. In Ohio, insiders are rushing to claim the outsider mantle: Republican Rep. James B. Renacci is running for Senate by tying himself to the outsider president, while Democratic gubernatorial contestant Dennis Kucinich, whose career path has wound from mayor to congressman to presidential candidate, is now also running as an outsider.

But it’s the Ohio Republican gubernatorial primary that epitomizes the value of outsider status today. Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor didn’t simply reject the endorsement of Gov. John Kasich; she went so far as to claim that Kasich endorsed her opponent, Attorney General Mike DeWine. What’s more, despite Kasich’s assertions to the contrary, Taylor says that she hasn’t even seen the governor in about a year. In this case, a candidate with credible insider credentials is going to enormous lengths to distance herself from an insider nemesis of the president.  

Trump isn’t the only catalyst for this rush to identify as outsiders. Thanks to the success of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who is more career politician than outsider after more than a quarter-century in Congress — many candidates now think that the outsider mantle is as beneficial for Democrats as Republicans.

But it remains to be seen whether this is a winning strategy. The question for Democrats is whether it will translate into electoral success or simply prolong the deep divide within the party that has existed since the start of the 2016 presidential primaries. On the right, it’s not clear what being connected to the president will mean in general elections. The ultimate test of Trump’s outsider brand will be if he can produce the results he promised as a candidate and transform his party, ultimately making being tied to him good for Republicans. 

Regardless, expect outsiders to remain a regular feature in our politics. Who better than an outsider to challenge the established order when it falters? Except, perhaps, for the strategically positioned “outsider”: the veteran politician who successfully captures the outsider mantle. The increasing ability of candidates to control their own image, not relying on their political parties or traditional media, gives them the means to compete as outsiders. And the failures of successive waves of outsiders to transform American politics — which has left Americans with historically low levels of trust in government — provides a motive to promise that the next wave of outsiders will actually be the ones to remake the system.