Less than month before the first votes of the 2016 presidential election are cast in Iowa, both major parties find themselves in the grip of revolution — the Republican on the right and the Democratic on the left.
In the Grand Old Party, two loose-cannon conservatives — business tycoon Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — are vying for an early foothold in the Iowa precinct caucuses against a gaggle of nominally less conservative contenders seeking the establishment label: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Four other would-be right-wing cage-rattlers — former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former business executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — are still hanging in, as is the libertarian Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, praying for lightning to strike in a cloudless sky.
In the self-styled Party of the People, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, is challenging the undisputed establishment champion, former first lady and Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and another regular liberal Democrat, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Taken together, the two early caucuses could at least temporarily leave thousands of party establishment regulars on the outside looking in as the 2016 races move on to the initial presidential primary voting in New Hampshire eight days later. While the Republican free-for-all has drawn more attention, the astonishing crowds turning out for Mr. Sanders have raised an unanticipated question mark over Ms. Clinton's once-touted coronation.
Nevertheless, the Sanders challenge has not triggered anywhere near the turmoil within the Democratic establishment as has the prospect of a Trump or Cruz nomination. The Sanders campaign's focus on income inequality and war against Wall Street has many adherents among Clinton admirers in the Democratic ranks who accept the same objectives, if they do not feel the burn of the intense Vermonter.
Within the GOP, however, many old establishment figures, including those who had looked to Jeb Bush as an effective rallying point against either Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz, are approaching panic over either one of them going after the party nomination in an avalanche of anger-driven votes. Mr. Cruz's obnoxious behavior has made him persona non grata among many Republicans in the Senate.
Greater than the personal resentment of many Republican politicians toward Messrs. Trump and Cruz is their fear that neither of them could beat Hillary Clinton, the anticipated opponent in next November's general election. But in terms of restoring the old establishment dominance of senior officeholders at the national and state levels of the party, the threat of these two outsiders looms large in their calculations for the control of the Republican Party, at least as it has been known back to the Eisenhower years.
For decades, well-respected establishment figures — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney — waited their "turn" to claim the presidential nomination. Now a new era of uncertainty untied to past service is suddenly upon the GOP.
Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment looks to Hillary Clinton to keep its strong hand in power after an eight-year interlude of its own outsider, Barack Obama, who now himself represents the party establishment. The rule seems to be that it's fine to have an establishment in either party, as long as you're part of it. If not, man the barricades!
At this early stage, it may seem unlikely that both the Republican and Democratic establishments will find themselves on the sidelines in November when the two major parties square off for the presidency. But the purpose of the long process of choosing their nominees through state party caucuses and primaries is, after all, to determine the will of the voters. Like the outcome or not, that's what the whole exercise is about.
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin supposedly was asked by a lady: "Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" He was said to have replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." The approaching presidential election could shape up as a fair measure of that public desire.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.