The confusion around picking a presidential candidate in both parties has led to a much more open nominating process. For the first time in decades the potential front-runners are spending huge amounts of time and money in small states, and crossover independent voters have a significant voice in picking the winner. Could it be that democracy is cautiously rearing its head? Both political parties have become used to choosing their candidates by organizing local party regulars and then going through a few skirmishes in the early primaries before announcing to the populace who the chosen nominee is.
Both Bushes, Al Gore, and John Kerry were all pre-selected, in effect, and Hillary Clinton had every right to believe that she had been as well. She has worked the party base for years, amassed big contributors, wooed influential leaders, and toed the line through assiduous work in the Senate. This almost corporate process is far different from the rough and tumble that gave us Abraham Lincoln in the rowdy party dustups of the past. Barack Obama, by contrast, has offered himself to the American people in a more nakedly democratic fashion, as did Mike Huckabee and before either of them, Ross Perot. No matter how much media coverage an insurgent candidacy gets, it never succeeds in the end. Both parties belong to their regular members, the dedicated volunteers who keep the faith and do the grunt work in between election years. It's inconvenient for all concerned if the process suddenly becomes too democratic.
Yet this inconvenience may be the saving grace of 2008. The unspoken fear behind every election is a fear of ordinary people and their ornery, rough, uncontrollable opinions. Whether it was Perot railing against NAFTA, the rude insertion of Christian beliefs by the religious right, or the current wave of animosity against illegal immigrants, popular causes threaten the received wisdom and practices of the powers that be. Even when a voting bloc becomes so big that it must be catered to, as happened with the religious right, decades can pass before their agenda is taken seriously in the corridors of power, much less acted upon. We still have abortion, no school prayer, and the steady advance of gay rights, no matter how powerful the Christian pulpits think they are. The governing elite's motto is "Elect us and then leave us alone."
How inconvenient will democracy prove to be this year? Under the banner of "the audacity of hope," Obama is portraying a populist uprising as good rather than dangerous. But the underlying dilemma will never go away. A true democracy feels threatening (witness the populist uprisings of Soviet Communism and German Fascism) while at the same time it feels like the best chance we have to rid the government of complacent, rich, often corrupt power brokers. (Notice how blithely we sit by when Pres. Bush talks about replenishing the family coffers by giving lectures after he leaves office. The same thing was done by Bill Clinton. In effect, they expect the Presidency to be the road to wealth.) It will be fascinating to see how much democracy is actually permitted by the governing elite, and if the people get the final say in picking two candidates who weren't signed, sealed, and delivered in advance.