Opinion

Can the big political parties harness the energy of their populist insurgencies?

It sure doesn't seem like it...

Ted Cruz lost in Mississippi. John Kasich fanned in Michigan. Marco Rubio all but collapsed, not even close in Idaho, where some hoped he might make a mark.

And then there was Bernie. In a shocker that broke the spirit of pollsters everywhere, Sanders overcame a wide double-digit deficit to squeak out a stunning win over Hillary Clinton in Michigan.

Tuesday night's primaries and caucuses carried a clear lesson: Voters are unhappy. They who have felt so punished are now proceeding to punish.

So the big question shaping up for party elites on both sides is the same: What will it take to overcome these populist insurgencies? What will placate the insurgents, or negotiate a workable peace, and bring them back — energy intact — into the campaign fold? If the established parties can figure this out, the dividends could make the difference between success and failure in the general election. Democrats' turnout has crashed this year relative to last cycle; they need voters to feel as much of a burn (or Bern) as possible. And though Republicans have enjoyed blockbuster turnout, if they manage to deny Donald Trump the nomination, they could face enough of a rebellion to vault Clinton comfortably into the White House.

Sometimes instant conventional wisdom turns out to be correct, and a plausible narrative about how to placate the insurgents has already started to shape up. For Republicans and Democrats alike, in fact, it's just about the same: Sanders and Trump have tapped into voters who don't like free trade. While Bernie's brigades blew away expectations thanks to Michigan's industrial base, Trump beat back Kasich and Cruz by sticking out as the one guy who rejects the negative Beltway view of protectionism.

But can anyone imagine either party nudging an inch on trade? The pro-corporate consensus powering global trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not overwhelming — after all, the TPP is still tied up in Congress — but it is strong enough to ensure its dominance even in a year with so much populism from left to right. What's more, the consensus is as strong as it is because elites know the consequences to our still-fragile international financial system if tariffs and trade wars become the next big thing. They're just unlikely to reconcile with their respective insurgencies on the flows of goods and services that shape the global economy.

That means they need to horse trade in some other way — or face the electoral consequences.

The major issue adjacent to trade is labor. It's the changing dispensation of workers and jobs that's behind the immigration animosity rankling Republicans, and it's the political touchstone for anti-corporate progressives who don't believe card check is more important than unions. Conceivably, either party could try to renegotiate their political compact with an economic platform that at least tries to protect American jobs if not protect favorable business conditions. But this too seems dead on arrival. An economy structured around growth for the cheapest and costliest wages can only be twisted so much to the advantage of the working and lower-middle classes. And neither party really believes they can make up in support among the despairing that they have lost with the merely anxious.

If trade, labor, and immigration are out, it's hard to find one realm of policy where America's insurgents are crying out for change and America's established leadership might be willing to change. Unless, of course, you look to the last big zone of economic politics — the financial industry. Hark back to Rick Perry's campaign, and you'll discover that the ballyhooed Texan actually rolled out a fairly serious plan for reforming Wall Street. Look ahead, meanwhile, and Elizabeth Warren will still enjoy the stalwart support of Democrats dissatisfied by Clinton's moneyed habits — and energized by Sanders' finance-focused campaign.

Perhaps the only way the party bigs can bank on a lasting victory in November is by turning, at long last, on the big banks. If not, today's bipartisan insurgency is set to drag on — with a deeper victory than Election Day staying stubbornly elusive.

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