The Universal Notebook: Democracy in America

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Having just watched the Iowa caucus results, I think it is safe to say the only thing Iowa predicts these days is which Republican candidate holds the greatest appeal for evangelicals and social conservatives.

Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008. Rick Santorum in 2012. Ted Cruz in 2016. None of these theocrats is ever likely to be the GOP nominee, let alone the president of the United States.

Bill Clinton only got 3 percent of the vote in Iowa in 1992 and went on to become president, so I’m not sure why candidates waste so much time and money out there. Iowa is for losers.

Iowa Democrats had Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a dead heat, which suggests they are caught in the same dilemma I am. As an old 1960s liberal, I believe just about everything Bernie Sanders believes. His assessment of our rigged economy is spot on. But I fear he cannot win the general election with the albatross of socialism hanging around his neck. So for Democrats, 2016 will come down to choice between idealism (Sanders) and pragmatism (Clinton).

Idealism is a powerful force for good in the world. Bernie Sanders holds the same appeal for the idealistic young as John Kennedy did in 1960, anti-war candidates Gene McCarthy and George McGovern in 1968 and 1972, anti-establishment candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. Obama has been something of a disappointment, but then I doubt a President Sanders could enact the revolution he calls for either.

Hillary Clinton could be the idealist’s candidate, leading a feminist attack on the glass ceiling, but she has a lot of baggage around her neck, too: Bill, Wall Street, Benghazi, and her Top Secret emails, to name a few. Don’t get me wrong, though. None of these things disqualifies her as POTUS. I will vote for her if she is the Democratic nominee, because she would make a better president than any of the GOP candidates.

The GOP field is full of phonies (Carson, Trump), fear-mongers (Trump, Rubio, Bush), fat-cats (Trump, Bush), fanatics (Cruz, Santorum) and fantasists (Christie, Fiorina, Kasich, Paul). I assume Christie, Carson, Fiorina, Santorum, Kasich and Paul will all be weeded out soon. Bush III will likely stick around until the money runs out. That will leave Trump, Cruz and Rubio to duke it out.

Since Cruz, the darling of rightwing talk show hosts, holds no appeal for the GOP establishment, let alone independents or Democrats, the Republican race will likely come down to a choice between a stuffed shirt (Trump) and an empty suit (Rubio).

For some insight into why the presidential talent pool is so shallow these days, I have been reading Alexis De Tocqueville’s 1835 “Democracy in America,” a dense and prescient book by a French political thinker who seemed to have acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the American character while on an 1831 tour of American prisons.

The quotation I have been looking for is “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

I have not found it yet in my readings in the two volumes of Tocqueville, but I do read where he observed that “at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs” and “The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years.”

Tocqueville does not have much good to say about blacks, Muslims or socialism, so I assume he would be a Republican were he a naturalized American citizen today, but his observations on the American psyche in 1831 seem remarkable accurate 185 years later.

Tocqueville could be describing the Tea Party mob mentality, for instance, when he writes, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America” and “In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.”

This week we will know how our neighbors in New Hampshire voted on Feb. 9 and, consequently, who among the lesser lights may have been eliminated. Tocqueville held New England in high esteem because “society has acquired age and stability enough to enable it to form principles and hold fixed habits. … In New England, consequently, the democracy makes a more judicious choice than it does elsewhere.”

My guess is the Granite State will choose Trump and Sanders out of sheer Yankee cussedness.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.