When things are going well in America, voters are almost indifferent to who’s in power or what they stand for. But when the atmosphere is full of darkening storm clouds, brought on by a changing economy and hardships, voters quickly become both animated and impatient.

There are two movements for change at work among the electorate these days. Both are fueled by anger and frustration at an uncertain future. Each has produced its own narrative that has fueled the rise of “insurgent” candidates who promise to topple the existing order.

The movement on the right wants to return the country to something like what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. They blame government and liberals and immigrants for most of the country’s ills. It is a movement that has dominated national political dialogue for at least a decade.

The emerging movement on the left began to stir, in recent times, with President Barack Obama’s election and the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was then championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and now is exploding through the Bernie Sanders campaign. Their targets are not the powerless but powerful Wall Street, the billionaires and the greedy. They want to restore a time when the country’s wealth was more evenly shared and government protected the little guys from the powerful and privileged few.

Each side of course feels that the system is stacked against them. And they’re hard at work trying to ensure their respective political parties pick their favored candidate in this election season. Whether they succeed or not, and whoever the parties pick as their nominees, the “insurgent” energy will be needed by both candidates through the fall, so it isn’t going away.

The media has been devoting enormous energy trying to understand why this year’s insurgent candidates have gained so much traction. “Why is Trump doing so well?,” they ask. How in the world could an avowed socialist be packing halls and leading the polls in conservative New Hampshire? And why would a nice state like Maine elect someone like Paul LePage?

Unfortunately, too many are looking in the wrong end of the telescope. This election isn’t about personalities, it’s about underlying social changes that are making those personalities so attractive. And it’s about voters who are frustrated.

Support for insurgent candidates is hardly a new phenomenon in America. It may even be one of our least-appreciated national pastimes. Past insurgents have included Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Huey Long, Jesse Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Obama and countless others.

A decade ago, an angry electorate called for a return to more comforting times when they formed the tea party. That helped propel the growth of the Right and success for Republicans. It is a movement which has, at its core, working class men who are frustrated by shrinking opportunities in a changing world.

On the other end of the political spectrum is a movement driven largely by young people who see no brightness in their future and who are too often saddled with debt and deadening jobs.

Maine has hardly been immune from the rise of the angry voter. The state has twice elected LePage, primarily because he has loudly promised change and meant it. Not that people who voted with him agree with all his stances or his style, but many reluctantly concluded that a determined change agent who you don’t entirely agree with is better than a candidate who talks about change, but doesn’t mean it.

Democrats, of course, made LePage’s rise easier by nominating long-standing politicians as their gubernatorial candidates, who, despite what they said, were symbolically representative of the status quo.

How is all this going to play out over the next few years, in Maine and Washington? Time will tell, but this much seems clear: The mood of this electorate is working against Hillary Clinton, as a career political actor. It will continue to do so unless she finds a way to more fully embrace the movement’s goals.

These conditions also work for an insurgent Republican running against Clinton, as long as the Republican nominee isn’t a lunatic. None of that is meant to project the winner in November as much as to underscore the challenges both sides face.

In Maine, all this will work for a Republican successor to Paul LePage unless Democrats find a way to become what they once were, which is agents of change and champions of equal opportunity more than government programs. But to do that, they’ll have to produce an insurgent candidate of their own who understands the anger of working-class and middle-class voters and will help channel that anger toward positive action.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is the owner of Caron Communications, which is based in Freeport. He can be reached at [email protected]


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