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Good from the machine

| Monday, February 1, 2016

So that was the Iowa caucuses. I don’t actually know what happened, because I’m writing this in advance. However, it likely wasn’t boring. All eyes have been on two contests on either side of the aisle — Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, and Everyone Else versus Donald Trump for the Republicans. In both cases, the challengers have framed themselves as transformative outsiders who refuse to play ball with the party establishment.

If there’s one word that describes both the Trump and Sanders campaigns, it’s “demagoguery.” Both candidates have risen to prominence based on applause-line promises founded almost exclusively in emotion, whether it’s Trump’s race-baiting or Sanders’s soak-the-rich moralizing. Trump has promised to expel undocumented migrants and defeat ISIS without any plan more sophisticated than “by being great,” yet this does not faze the cheering crowds. Meanwhile, Sanders’s healthcare plan has been roundly criticized for being hundreds of billions of dollars in the red, but his throng is no less dedicated than Trump’s. The thought of either of these fist-shakers achieving election, or even nomination, scares me profoundly, though it does not surprise me. As H. L. Mencken once said, “No one in this world … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Fortunately for America, for the world and for me, a Trump or Sanders presidency is so extreme the establishments of both parties are certain to agitate against it. The Republican base has been running away from Trump from the instant he announced his run. The campaign against Sanders has been muted because he’s never been the frontrunner. Yet the first blows are landing; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently took a big step back from Sanders’s tax hikes. More will surely follow.

If these campaigns don’t crash and burn immediately following Iowa, at some point a concerted campaign of endorsements, ad money and Sunday morning talk show time will pound the upstarts into oblivion. The Clinton campaign hasn’t even started picking through Sanders’s dirty laundry, and Trump seems quite content to keep smithing the nails for his own coffin. Behind closed doors, both candidates will be sat down by the party leaders and explicitly notified that their candidacy is a threat to the future of the party and the nation. They might still be in double digits in the polls after Super Tuesday, but their long-haul potential will be shattered.

History is a useful guide here. In mid-February of 2012, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and even Rick Perry had jumped to the front of the Republican pack as more exciting alternatives to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s establishment, run-of-the-mill conservatism. Yet it was Romney who secured the nomination.

Now of course, that’s no fun. There’s no sex appeal in a system where the flamboyant outsider loses, and the compromiser — the one who actually does the messy, unpleasant, unglamorous work of running a city, state or country — receives the party’s support. And yes, this election cycle has had more than its fair share of lifeless, extruded-political-product campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s run in particular appears to have been assembled from a Build-a-Candidacy kit (batteries not included). But the constant vetting by the party apparatus is invaluable in preventing a fundamentally unqualified candidate from ascending to the presidency.

Of course, the installation of safeguards against radical change is not new or even restricted to the party apparatus. Many aspects of our political system brace the country against the will of the small-D democratic mob. The whole reason we have separation of powers in the first place is to prevent our leaders from forcing their agendas on the nation. Similarly, the much-maligned Electoral College is invaluable as a final line of defense against the election of a malevolent candidate. Am I bothered by the fact that Minnesota (where I vote absentee) will go for the Democratic candidate no matter whom I vote for? Yes. Am I willing to accept that to keep the next Caligula out of the White House? You betcha!

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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