In 1814, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "An enlightened people and an energetic public opinion . . . will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." His opinion is worth remembering in a time which tends to echo the contempt in which H.L. Mencken held the American electorate, whom he referred to as "the booboisie."
But what happened last week in Iowa may be a signal that the common man has, in George W. Bush's phrase, been "misunderestimated." For, the caucus victories of both Barak Obama, on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee, on the Republican side, were striking rebukes to the elites in both parties.
There was a time when party bosses gathered in smoke filled rooms to choose their parties' presidential candidates. But, when president Theodore Roosevelt and governors like Wisconsin's Robert LaFollete ushered in the Progressive Era, the presidential primary became the vehicle by which an enlightened public wrestled control of the political process from entrenched interests.
Over the years, with the help of political consultants and the codified techniques of mass communication, the party elites have learned how to control the primary process. However, in the last eight years -- according to conservative commentator David Brooks in The New York Times -- there has been a catastrophic failure of what Brooks calls, "the leadership class." That class includes more than just politicians. It includes the Brahmans of the Fourth Estate and the uniformed military at the Pentagon. The consequence of that failure has been what Brooks has called "two earthquakes."
"This is a huge moment," Brooks wrote last week. "It's one of those times when a movement that seemed ethereal and idealistic became a reality and took on political substance." From the other side of the political spectrum, Brooks' friend, E.J. Dionne, wrote in The Washington Post that, "Iowa voters in both parties staged a rebellion against the status quo and against the past."
Of course, it will take more than the selection of two insurgent candidates to cure America's political ills. The common man and woman have learned a lot in the last seven years about Congressional math. They have learned you can win the popular vote and lose the election. They have learned that it takes 60 votes, not 51, to pass legislation in the Senate. The have learned that, if you believe in divided government, it's better to have one house of Congress at odds with the other house, than to have one house divided against itself. And they have learned that, even if both houses manage to pass a piece of legislation, the president -- through the use of "signing statements"-- can virtually ignore any clause, or, indeed, most of any bill that comes to his desk. During the second Bush administration, "the aristocratic spirit of government" has been given free reign.
We will have to wait to see if this rebellion has legs. The cynics claim that Huckabee will not do nearly as well in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa. But they speculate that John McCain, who used to be an insurgent in another political life, may -- with Obama -- walk away with a victory. However, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, the choices of their parties' elites, are taking off their gloves.
More importantly, the primaries which follow Iowa and New Hampshire have been -- up to this point -- the places where the traditional tools of mass communication have been employed by the powers that be to slap down political upstarts. It is worth remembering that, in 2000, the Bush organization put an end to McCain's presidential quest be starting a whisper campaign in South Carolina, to the effect that McCain was the father of an illegitimate black child. Such are the joys of politics as usual.
My money's on Obama. But I would be quite happy to see him run against Huckabee. That contest would have been ordained by the people. It remains to be seen if the people are willing to tolerate politics as usual. If they rejected the usual hokum this time around, Mr. Jefferson would be pleased.