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Trusting the power of the people

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David Goldman/AP

(Read caption) A voter marked a primary ballot in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 9.

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As Sir David Attenborough might put it: This unusual creature remains dormant for long periods. Normally concerned with raising its young, securing food and shelter, and pursuing happiness, every quadrennium this species assembles into one collective entity – a body the ancient Greeks named “the polis” – to decide who will lead them.

In “The Republic,” Plato thought the ideal leader for the polis, the citizenry, was a philosopher king. While a nice idea (if a little self-promoting for someone in the philosophy business), enlightened sovereigns are rare. Power need not corrupt, but it often does. So, after centuries of political experimentation that brought terrible wars, epic misrule, and unjust treatment of individuals and communities, the generally accepted solution to the governance problem has been periodic elections.

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Some nations – especially small and relatively homogeneous ones – do this quickly and efficiently. A continental-sized polis such as the United States goes through an expensive, multistage campaign process that lasts a year or more.

You and I might carry around ideas about how government ought to work and who would be a good person to steer it. But putting together a national campaign requires money and manpower, which is where political parties come in. There’s nothing in the US Constitution about parties. But parties have persisted as a practical necessity – except for a brief period in the early 19th century known as the “Era of Good Feelings.”

Parties are rarely beloved. They engage in less-than-noble tactics – constant fundraising, constant attacks on rivals – but parties remain interested in politics when most people are not. Even during the raucous 2016 presidential race, the latest Gallup survey shows only 4 in 10 adult Americans currently paying close attention. Up to now, the capture of the Republican Party by a Manhattan businessman/showman and the Democratic Party tug of war between an establishment candidate – a former first lady, New York senator, and diplomat – and an insurgent Vermont senator with a Millennial generation following have been playing to a limited audience.

Though Democrats are arguing over how far left of center the party should be, the Republicans are undergoing a much more surprising change. Republicans had a reputation for being a wait-your-turn old boys’ club. Donald Trump has stormed in; ignited populist and nativist passions amid a torrent of insults, declarations, and contradictions; and put the gilded Trump brand on the Republican club. In a Monitor cover story, Linda Feldmann delves into what Mr. Trump’s takeover means for the Grand Old Party.

For the Trump factor alone, this year’s race has already cinched a place in the history books. More history will be made on Nov. 8, when the polis assembles to choose who will govern. The choices aren’t always ideal. Philosopher kings and queens are rare. But the polis usually chooses wisely – after which the parties will regroup and plan for the next election and the polis will disband, returning to what it really wants to do: raise its young, secure a living, pursue happiness.