10/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Representation: Jefferson versus Jackson

The constant discussion of experience and qualifications -- does Governor Palin have "foreign policy experience"? Does Obama have "executive" or "leadership experience" -- is miscast. The question is not what experiences a candidate has, it is what elements of character and competence s/he can demonstrate as a result of that experience. Fred Thompson (of all people?) got it right when he said "being a POW is not a qualification for president, but it shows you something about character." So the question is not what experience Palin has, it is what lessons she has demonstrably learned as a result of that experience. That's where Obama's 25 debates through a long campaign comes in; the idea is not, as the Republicans claim, that running for president is experience in governing, it is that in the course of the campaign we have all had ample opportunity to see what Obama learned from his time as a US Senator, state senator, community organizer, and law professor. What little we know about the character and competences that Sarah Palin has developed through her own experience is not reassuring. All of which points to the dynamic that has emerged in this election since the Palin pick. To put it in terms of democratic theory, the contest -- among other things -- is now between two different models of representation.

There are two very distinct models of representation in American political tradition: we might call them the Jeffersonian and the Jacksonian. Among the Founders, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams all shared a view of representation despite their profound differences on a wide range of issues (including religion -- Jefferson once called Christianity a species of "demonism" while Adams was a deeply religious man.) All three conceived of democracy as a mechanism whereby the people would elect the best men among them, meaning the most educated, the wisest, the most prudent. This was certainly elitism of a sort, but an elite of merit rather than rank; they assumed that the ordinary voter would have the wisdom to recognize excellence and the virtue to want to see it elevated to high office. Jefferson, in particular, tied his ideal of representation directly to education. Voters should be independent yeoman farmers possessed of basic education, but elected leaders should have the benefits of higher education. It was for that reason that Jefferson so enthusiastically supported the development of universities, calling them "nurseries" in which future democratic leaders would be raised. But education was only a means to an end, the inculcation of virtues. Among the virtues that the Framers sought in their leaders, "prudence" was particularly important. Classical writers from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli have emphasized the idea that prudence -- the habit of exercising careful judgment and acting effectively in response to particular circumstances -- is the highest virtue in a leader. Jefferson, Madison, and the other Federalists had no doubt that prudence and good judgment were the products of a trained and disciplined mind well versed in the arts, the sciences, and the traditions of philosophical inquiry. Voters, they assumed, would naturally seek out those individuals who had thought more deeply, studied more widely, and consequently would display more prudence than the voters themselves might possess.

Against this Jeffersonian tradition there is the Jacksonian tradition of what Hannah Pitkin called "descriptive representation." Jackson particularly emphasized the frontier; not that all or most Americans were frontiersmen, but that Americans are culturally conditions to identify themselves with the frontier. The frontier was the place to find self-made individuals unhindered by laws and uncorrupted by book learning - Jackson once remarked that he had no respect for a man who knew only one way to spell a word. In the Jacksonian ideal, voters should seek candidates who are as much as possible like themselves.

When Obama asks us to consider his judgment -- "temperament" is his favorite term -- he appeals to the classical virtues of Greece and Rome that the Federalists who created the Constitution held dear. While he does not play up his obvious intelligence and deep store of knowledge, for those who support him it is obviously part of his appeal. Both Obama and Biden are educated men, both are lawyers who have studied the Constitution and America's traditions deeply. The GOP candidates make a stark contrast. McCain graduated at the bottom of his class, while Palin attended five colleges in six years; the anti-intellectualism of both candidates is palpable. Moreover, with the addition of Palin to the ticket the emphasis has decidedly shifted. McCain's supporters now emphasize the fact that he makes decisions "from his gut" as exemplified by his choice of running mate. Education, deep thought, careful judgment -- these are elitist concepts. We don't need those things in our own lives, so our leaders shouldn't have them either. McCain and Palin are just like us. Never mind that few of us will be prisoners of war or skin a moose (or live in a sparsely populated state with enormous budget surpluses): they are just like us because they have were indifferent students, because they have no respect for a rule-bound sissy who reads books and knows only one way to spell a word. Remember, in the movies it is always the least educated characters - the ones with some country twang in their accents -- who turn out to be the real heroes.

What is being contested in this election, in other words, is a deep question about the nature of American democracy. This is the most important sense in which a McCain-Palin administration would represent four more years of Bush-ism. As Bob Woodward makes clear in his new book, the disaster of Bush administration policymaking was due in large part to Bush's reliance on his "gut" and his unwillingness to alter his convictions in the face of new information - in other words, his discomfort with the process of becoming educated. McCain and Palin are selling the same "an ordinary guy with simple solutions" line that George W. Bush ran on in 2000, and promising to run the government on the basis of gut instincts and simple mantras.

In 1976 there was a Doonesbury cartoon in which a character named Terry declared that he was voting for Carter because Carter was shrewd (I'm paraphrasing from memory, here.) As evidence, Terry points out that Carter had promised to make American government "as full of compassion and goodness as the American people. And that means people just like me." His listener looked puzzled: "But you're a mean, selfish bigot, Terry." And the responding trump: "Then you admit he's shrewd!" McCain and Palin are not betting that Americans want a candidate onto whom they can project bigotry or selfishness, but they are emphatically gambling that voters want a candidate onto whom they can project their parochialism, their ignorance and incuriosity, their suspicion of science and technical knowledge, their Manicheanism, their desire for simple answers in an increasingly confusing world, and their religious identities. To win, the Democrats have to make the case that voting for President can involve something better than that -- but in the meantime, you have to admit that they're shrewd.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?