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By Jay Cost

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Thunder on the Mountain

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be

Mean old twister bearing down on me

All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town

Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down
-Bob Dylan

The American people have only a limited role in the United States government. They must choose representatives to govern for them, rather than govern directly. They have just two political parties from which to choose. And if a representative from one district votes for a bill that affects another, the people in the other district cannot do a thing about it.

Oftentimes, one can't help but wonder if the practical power of the people is even slighter. American elections too often have low turnout. They are too frequently determined by the campaign for dollars, as candidates raise money to subsidize the unctuous propaganda that fills the airwaves prior to Election Day. Elections often do a poor job of booting the bad characters from government. The whole ugly process of electoral politics rarely seems to attract the best of the citizenry. A visit to Washington, D.C. can prompt the cynical question, "Who runs this place? Because it sure as hell doesn't seem like it's the people..."

And yet for all this, the people do indeed rule. While their power is limited, it is nevertheless unconditional where it exists. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi need the assent of the people of the United States to govern this country. But the people don't need any such thing. In the limited sphere where they rule, they are supreme.

This is easy to forget because it is rare to see the people actually wield their power in its full force. Between 1954 and 1994, the Democrats controlled the House, whether they deserved to or not. The Republicans controlled it from 1994 to 2006, again regardless of merit. The Senate has usually been just as static. Turnover in the presidency has also been fairly uneventful. Only once in the last century have the people ejected from the White House a party it had installed just four years prior (that dubious distinction goes to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, who were promoted to the White House in 1976 then quickly demoted in 1980).

This kind of stability can give the impression that the people do not rule. We so rarely see the full force of their power that it is easy to think that the real bossess are the decades-long denizens of the prestige committees, the high-powered lobbyists, the king-makers in both party establishments, or the plugged-in Beltway journalists. We see them all the time, preening about their power and influence. They seem like they're really in charge.

But they're not. D.C. might shine brilliantly to the eyes of some, but it is still just reflected light. For all their posturing, the establishment still works at the pleasure of the people. It just so happens that the people usually choose to renew their tenure.

Yet this year, it looks like the people are set to deliver a historic rebuke to the establishment. The portents of the coming reprimand are all around us. Consider:

-Arlen Specter was effectively booted from the Republican Party nearly a year before the primary election. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania had become too conservative. This tendentious interpretation has been exploded by the fact that he's about to be ejected from the Democratic side, too.

-Scott Brown came out of nowhere to defeat Martha Coakley in the election to replace Senator Ted Kennedy.

-Former Senator Dan Coats couldn't even get 40% of the vote in the Indiana primary. Most of the vote was split between Marlin Stutzman and John Hostettler, who combined had raised just $315k by April 14.

-In Indiana's 9th Congressional District, frequent candidate, former representative and party favorite Mike Sodrel finished in third place. In Indiana's 5th District, Republican incumbent Dan Burton scored just 30% of the primary vote.

-Charlie Crist has been forced to exit the Republican primary in Florida because of Marco Rubio's surge. He is currently leading in opinion polls, but the lead is completely illusory. Right now, he's winning over 40% of the Democratic vote (more than the presumptive Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meeks) as well as nearly 25% of the African-American vote. Those numbers are unsustainable.

-Three-term Senator Bob Bennett has been booted from his seat by the Republican Party of Utah.

This is the thunder on the mountain, the early warning that something bad is about to blow through the District of Columbia. I don't think there's anything anybody there can do about it. The people have a limited role in this government - but where the people do possess power, they are like a force of nature. They cannot be stopped.

That's bad news for the establishment this year. They're going to wake up on the morning of November 3rd and be reminded of who is actually in charge of this country.

Democrats will be hit much, much harder than Republicans. Even so, it would be a huge mistake to interpret the coming rebuke through a strictly ideological or partisan lens. Yet predictably, that's what many will do. Republicans will see this as a historic rejection of Barack Obama's liberalism, just as they saw the 1994 revolution as a censure of Bill Clinton, and just as Democrats saw 2006 and 2008 as admonishments of George W. Bush's foreign policy. These interpretations are only half right. When the people are angry at the way the government is being managed, and they are casting about for change, their only option is the minority party. The partisans of the minority are quick to interpret this as their holy invitation to the promised land, but that's not what it really is about. They were only given the promotion because the people had no other choice.

The entire political class needs to understand that the coming events transcend ideology and partisanship. The electoral wave of 2010 will have been preceded by the waves of 2006 and 2008. That will make three electoral waves in a row, affecting both parties and conservative and liberal politicians alike. The American people are sending the establishment a message: we're angry at the way you are running our government; fix it or you'll be next to go.

-Jay Cost