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In Federalist No. 60, Alexander Hamilton (here, in an 1806 oil painting by John Trumbull) writes about the improbability of a scenario where politicians orchestrate their own elections by denying voting rights to citizens of lower class. (Just you wait.)

Voices / Viewpoint

This election: a battle for our country’s soul

Trump versus Sanders would let us participate in an election that has broken away from the numbing grip of the established political class

Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, writes, teaches, performs music, works with wood, and advocates tirelessly and passionately for the causes in which he believes.

Newfane

Pity the poor political parties. Their Movers and Shakers can only quiver, as their best-laid plans have gone awry.

Their presidential electoral machines, well oiled by special interests, were supposed to give us the usual choice between two establishment ruling class representatives. This year’s ticket was to be another Bush/Clinton affair.

Perhaps it was their past track record of success, perhaps it is merely indicative of their cluelessness as to the present state of mind of the populace, or perhaps it is simply obeying the donors as usual, but Democrat and Republican “leaders” kept to the program and didn’t bat an eye when upstarts like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump entered the race.

The Dems were sure that America would have a laugh and shun the socialist. The Republicans were embarrassed by Trump but were sure that he would fade as quickly as had Herman Cain.

What these mainstream party leaders and members don’t understand is the depth of our collective disgust, dismay, and outrage at how they have served (while striving to join) a tiny, unrepresentative group of this country’s most wealthy, in the process weakening, if not fatally wounding, our democratic institutions.

We have watched our government continually hold us in contempt, ransoming action on important bills as politicians engage in pointless maneuvers that they think will impress their backers.

We have watched in horror as they sacrificed the lives of young Americans to satisfy political lies.

We have witnessed the rich elite who get to influence and often write the laws that will further enrich their class.

We have not been impressed when the Congress pats itself on the back for discovering bipartisanship and crafting a short-term bandage solution for some long-term problem.

And we are disgusted at the way our elected officials embrace money in their political quests.

* * *

It turns out that some of our founding fathers had worried about just this sort of corruption and wondered if it was adequately addressed in the newly proposed Constitution. In Federalist No. 57, James Madison, writing under the pseudonym “Publius,” defends the Constitution against the charge that the Congress could ever act as to benefit the few to the cost of the many.

Of all the objections that have been framed against the United States Constitution, this one is perhaps the most extraordinary. Its principle strikes against the very root of republican government.

In Federalist No. 60, Publius — this time the nom de plume of Alexander Hamilton, before his hip-hop period — was even more scathing on the topic of restricting voting rights, which he described as “so fundamental a privilege” in a country “so enlightened.”

“But it is alleged that [uncontrollable power over elections] might be employed in such a manner as to promote the election of some favourite class of men in exclusion of others, by confining the places of elections to particular districts, and rendering it impracticable to the citizens at large to partake in the choice.”

“Of all chimerical suppositions, this seems to be the most chimerical,” Hamilton continued. “[N]o rational calculation of probabilities would lead us to imagine that the disposition which a conduct so violent and extraordinary would imply, could ever find its way into the national councils.”

He described as “altogether inconceivable and incredible” the notion that voting could “be invaded to the prejudice of the great mass of the people, by the deliberate policy of the government, without occasioning a popular revolution.”

The recent slate of newly restrictive state voter laws, coupled with cuts in funding and in the numbers of polling stations, epitomize Hamilton’s nightmare scenario of what should never happen in a republic.

And, amazingly enough, a popular revolution has begun.

* * *

The party leaders must by now have an inkling that they are about to be bowled over by something that they can’t control.

Big money can’t find its mojo in this election cycle. Even the Koch brothers, with all their money and all of their men, couldn’t put Scott Walker together again.

And it’s easy to see why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the beneficiaries of the engagement of those previously alienated by the political process.

Bernie Sanders has been fighting for the alienated classes for his entire career. The party establishment’s assiduous avoidance of all things that counter Wall Street and big corporate sensibilities has guaranteed that Bernie has stayed an outsider, even though he knows how to get around and accomplish things.

But more than his outsider persona, Bernie is catching on because his ideas resonate. His policies, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, acknowledge and embrace all of us in this country, not just wealthy ones.

Many of us in the United States have opted out of the political process because it has never had anything to do with them. Bernie’s campaign addresses this population in a real and direct way that they haven’t seen since FDR. Add to them the young people joining the fray for the first time, along with the vast majority of Democrats who would like their party to stand for something more than an unequal status quo, and you have a large and vibrant base ready to work for his election.

Trump also appeals to the alienated Americans who see their piece of the pie shrinking and would like to blame someone. He appeals to the worst instincts in our country: greed, xenophobia, prejudice, and meanness, to name a few. His supporters are perhaps even more furious with the Republican Party than the Bernie supporters are with the Democrats.

The slumbering mass of an apathetic public is finally awakening. We’re grouchy, hungry, and not interested in toeing any party line.

* * *

If Hillary Clinton and anyone but Trump are nominated, then the election will be limited to the usual coterie of voters. It will have very little meaning, and very little will change.

But if Trump and Sanders face off in the general election, it will be a true battle for the soul of this country. All of us would see this scenario as a chance to participate in an election that has broken away from the numbing grip of the established political class.

Victory will go to the candidate who can motivate the most new voters. Will Sanders’ promise of a just economy and all that follows be enough to rouse the millions of non-voters who care for their fellow humans?

Or will it turn out that there are more angry, frightened and mean-spirited Americans who will give Trump the nod?

We always say that xenophobic and mean-spirited or prejudiced remarks are “un-American” and don’t represent the nation as a whole. With this election, we might just find out.

If if the answer if one we don’t want to hear, then we’ll have lots of work to do.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #344 (Wednesday, February 17, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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