Parties Face ‘Crackup’ as Outsiders Wield Social Media Against the Establishment

WASHINGTON — On the night that he conceded defeat in 1992 after the most successful independent presidential campaign of the last century, Ross Perot made it clear that he was not done shaking up the established order. “Believe me,” he declared, “the system needs some shocks.”

So perhaps it was only fitting that on the same week that Mr. Perot died nearly 27 years later, both of the two major political parties were being rattled by the aftershocks of the earthquake that his campaign represented. President Trump was busy quarreling with former Speaker Paul D. Ryan while the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was bickering with first-year House Democrats.

In both cases, those who represented the institutional order, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Pelosi, found themselves at odds with rabble-rousers within their own parties agitating for change from outside the traditional system through the power of social media. This was not a week that showcased the competition between the parties but within them. The stress fractures that Mr. Perot identified a generation ago are tearing at the foundations of the Republican and Democratic Parties.

“This really is the crackup,” said Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic former Chicago mayor, congressman and White House chief of staff. “Usually fights are Democrats versus Republicans, one end of Pennsylvania Avenue versus the other, or the left versus the right. Today’s squabbles are internal between the establishment versus the people that are storming the barricades.”

Mr. Emanuel saw up close Mr. Perot’s campaign in 1992 (and then again in 1996) as an aide to Bill Clinton, and today he identifies that moment as “the beginning point of the crackup of the parties.” In the years since, the Bushes and Clintons have given way to Twitter-armed outsiders like Mr. Trump and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and “the squad” of her fellow Democratic insurgents in Congress.

[Ross Perot, a brash Texas billionaire who ran for president, dies at 89.]

The difference is that Mr. Trump successfully staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 and has since brought much of its old establishment to heel, driving the likes of Mr. Ryan out the door or into hiding. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her compatriots have not taken over the Democratic Party, but they are driving the conversation within it to a degree that few first-year House members have ever done, thanks to their online armies of like-minded disrupters tired of what they see as the corrupt status quo.

Mr. Trump’s dust-up with Mr. Ryan this week originated with the publication of “American Carnage,” a new book on the Republican civil war by Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine. In the book, Mr. Ryan, who stepped down as speaker in January, described his frustrations trying to deal with Mr. Trump, who, he said, “didn’t know anything about government.” As Mr. Ryan put it, “I wanted to scold him all the time.”

Mr. Trump, the first president in American history who arrived in Washington without a single day of government or military experience but with tens of millions of followers on Twitter eager for him to break up the system, characteristically fired back at Mr. Ryan. In late-night tweets from the White House, Mr. Trump dismissed the former speaker as “a long running lame duck failure” whose “record of achievement was atrocious.”

The flare-up between Ms. Pelosi and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her allies, Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, in some ways echoed those themes.

In an interview with the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Ms. Pelosi complained that the upstarts did not understand how government works, dismissing their digital following as “their public whatever.” They in turn complained that Ms. Pelosi’s record of achievement was inadequate because she was too willing to compromise rather than confront Republicans on issues like the migrant crisis at the border.

There is, of course, no little irony that Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Ryan are now the beleaguered defenders of the old order, given that both of them were once seen as champions of the ideological extremes of their parties — she as a radical San Francisco leftist, he as a Medicare-destroying right winger.

But they both came up within the system that is now under pressure from impatient newcomers who see no virtue in spending years in the backbenches waiting for their turn when they can be empowered by Twitter to wield influence in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past.

“Because of social media and because people can be their own stars, they don’t need to work through leadership or through hierarchy,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and a leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group seeking to find consensus in a House where that is a dirty word. “They work outside in. That is a huge challenge because technology allows it.”

The outsiders are, in their own ways, tapping into the same disenchantment with the two-party system that Mr. Perot did. When he attracted 19 percent of the vote in 1992 against Mr. Clinton and President George Bush, it was the most any independent presidential candidate had generated since Theodore Roosevelt’s unsuccessful comeback bid in 1912 and the most any independent candidate who had not previously served as president had received since the advent of the two current parties just before the Civil War.

Since then, even more Americans have chosen to dissociate from the two parties. As recently as July 2004, only 27 percent of Americans called themselves independent in Gallup polling; today, 15 years later, 46 percent do. Most of those still vote reliably for one party or the other, so they are not truly swing voters who bounce back and forth depending on the year and the candidate. But they are sufficiently turned off enough by the parties not to want a D or an R next to their names.

In 2003, 56 percent of Americans interviewed by Gallup said the two political parties did an adequate job. By last year, 57 percent said a third major party was needed. Younger Americans feel that even more strongly; 71 percent in an NBC/GenForward poll in 2017 said that they wanted a third party.

Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who supports impeaching Mr. Trump, reflected that when he left the Republican Party on the Fourth of July. “The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions,” he wrote in The Washington Post.

But Mr. Perot’s experience offers a cautionary tale. For all his money and easy access to television — “Larry King Live” was his Twitter — he still could not crack the duopoly. By the time he ran in 1996, again targeting the two-party system with a vow to “kill that little snake this time,” his share of the popular vote fell to 8 percent. The Reform Party that he created was ultimately taken over by marginal figures — Mr. Trump ran for that party’s 2000 nomination before dropping out — and faded from the scene.

What Mr. Trump took from Mr. Perot’s experience was that breaking the two-party system from the outside did not work; instead, he had to take over one of the parties from the inside.

“The two-party system has been bankrupt for at least a decade,” said former Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida. But “the barriers to entry in this space are extremely high,” and only Mr. Trump has figured out how to harness Americans’ frustration.

“If the two-party system remains incapable of addressing our nation’s greatest challenges and most controversial issues, younger generations of Americans will find a third way,” Mr. Curbelo said. “Unlike older voters, they will not remain complacent or resign themselves to this political misery.”

Nancy Jacobson, founder and chief executive of No Labels, a bipartisan group created in 2010, said the advent of Mr. Trump, combined with what could be a leftward lurch by the Democrats next year, could set the stage for a third party.

“The outsider populists are making it so the problem-solving voters in each party have more in common with each other than with the extremes in their current parties,” she said. “They could be forced into a new marriage.”

Maybe, maybe not. But the threat of divorce within the parties feels palpable.

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