Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy’s dramatic rise in the polls reflects an ongoing trend in American politics—the increasing popularity of anti-establishment candidates. An entrepreneur with no political background whatsoever, Ramaswamy is polling ahead of seasoned governors, senators, and representatives. It is still too soon to know which candidate will win the Republican nomination, yet Ramaswamy’s high poll numbers spell out a larger shift in American politics: a growth in the popularity of anti-establishment candidates. Outsider candidates like Ramaswamy are winning difficult elections across the country. Today’s political spectrum still includes the typical liberal-conservative scale, but also incorporates a new axis of outsider vs. establishment, giving rise to a new America where being labeled as a “politician” is seen as an insult. But why is this happening? Anti-establishment candidates have risen to power by taking advantage of the atomization and political disillusionment that the American voter increasingly feels, effectively tailoring populist rhetoric to their dissatisfied audience.
Being “anti-establishment” does not have a singular, objective definition. Anti-establishment candidates are not necessarily inexperienced or entirely unaffiliated with the “establishment.” In some districts, they are candidates who are from out of town or candidates who are simply challenging long-standing incumbents. In others, they are wildly successful businessmen who can fund their own campaigns. Either way, being “anti-establishment” is more about the idea than the literal experience. All anti-establishment candidates have a few key qualities in common. Rather than allow their inexperience to be seen as a negative, they spin their outsider perspective to bludgeon current structures and policies, take advantage of target voters’ distaste with the “established” government, and tend to further a populist “us against the elites” mentality. In that same vein, many candidates use populist phrasing in their public statements, ensuring they use the word “we” rather than “I” in many instances.
In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, someone with no prior political experience, defeated 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley by almost 15 percentage points. Her campaign video stated that “this race is about people vs. money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money.” Donald Trump’s campaign website writes that “The corrupt government cartel is once again destroying our country,” drawing on American dissatisfaction with political corruption. This type of rhetoric resonates with voters and helps candidates win campaigns.
Anti-establishment rhetoric is particularly effective today because of American voters’ changing attitudes toward the current political structure and the economy. While Americans are wealthier than ever before, polling from the Pew Research Center shows that the public is generally critical of the United States’ overall economic outlook. According to the poll, most Americans believe that “the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests,” and voters from both parties lack optimism in the state of the US economy. Eight in ten Americans say that they are not happy with the way things are going in the country.
A reason Americans may feel this way is the failure of more experienced politicians to create substantial policies while staying out of trouble. Consider the recent case of Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), whose indictment alleges the “acceptance of ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ in return for the use of the senator’s influence to enrich three New Jersey businessmen and benefit the Egyptian government.” This is not an isolated case. In February 2020, a handful of lawmakers were involved in an insider trading scandal right before the stock market crashed. Cases like these have caused a severe decline in public trust in government. In fact, since 2007, the percentage of Americans saying that they can “trust the government always or most of the time” has not exceeded 30 percent.
The link between dissatisfaction with the economy and a shift in voting behavior is not unique to the United States. With respect to elections, this trend matches global historical data, demonstrating not only that voter disillusionment gives rise to populism in times of economic hardship, but also that a relationship between unemployment and voting for more outsider candidates exists. This is because outsiders tend to promise a greater redistribution of wealth and hence fight the economic insecurities of constituents.
Between 2016 and 2018, inexperienced candidates won nearly 50 percent of all open Congressional primary elections. Admittedly, they are not overtaking all longtime incumbents. Establishment candidates like Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) are still winning races because the effectiveness of anti-establishment campaigns depends on much more than just campaign promises and the economy. Moreover, not all candidates who spread anti-establishment rhetoric are accepted as “anti-establishment” by the general public.
In order to be “anti-establishment” successfully, a candidate has to not only hold the outsider stance but also simultaneously be accepted in that position. Take Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: While his 2024 presidential campaign boasts of fostering a “Great American Comeback” and of fighting to hold “rogue federal agencies” accountable, he is plummeting in the polls. This is likely due to his piggybacking off of Trump’s campaign principles while simultaneously trying to counter him, combined with a lack of charisma and poor positioning on critical issues. On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is a career politician who has been widely accepted as an outsider. For most of his career, Sanders has been an independent with no party affiliation and has unequivocally advocated for anti-corporate lobbying and pro-citizen policies. His lack of loyalty to a particular political party has meant that he is commonly viewed and accepted as an outsider, not to politics as a whole, but rather to the two-party system and the despair commonly associated with it.
As the share of anti-establishment candidates in office continues to grow, we must consider the implications of that shift in the governance of our country. In the context of our democracy, “populism” could be a chance for greater accountability in the government and a chance for productive change, from women’s suffrage to labor union collective bargaining rights. At the same time, it could be a harmful reversal of progress made over time, as elected officials either have selfish interests or fall into the same traps of corruption that they lamented in their campaigns. Historically, outsider candidates may also have proto-fascist tendencies or an authoritarian cult of personality, setting the stage for a potential reversal of democracy as a whole. Therefore, it is imperative that American voters make informed decisions in future elections because broken promises from broken politicians will fracture the United States, not fix it.