WASHINGTON -- Judging from complaints by her minions, Hillary Clinton considers it unfair that Barack Obama has been wafted close to the pinnacle of politics by an updraft from the continentwide swoon of millions of Democrats and much of the media brought on by his Delphic utterances such as "We are the change." But disquisitions on fairness are unpersuasive coming from someone from Illinois or Arkansas whose marriage enabled her to treat New York as her home, and the Senate as an entry-level electoral office (only 12 of today's senators have been elected to no other office) and a steppingstone to the presidency.
The four-letter F word that is central to Democrats' rhetoric and to discord everywhere -- "fair" -- is being bandied about. Clinton would be ahead in the delegate count if Obama had not won about twice as many delegates as she in caucuses, so Clinton implies that it is not quite fair to consider delegates accumulated in caucuses as significant as those won in primaries. Obama says it would not be fair for "superdelegates," or delegates chosen by Michigan's and Florida's renegade primaries, to decide the nomination.
Clinton has a small piece of a point, but misses the important point. Caucuses are, indeed, less purely "democratic" than primaries. That is their virtue. They are inconvenient, requiring commitments of time and energy that are more apt to be made by especially interested voters. Thus caucuses filter out, disproportionately, the lightly committed and least informed, which is not cause for dismay.
Popular sovereignty is simple in theory -- government by consent of the governed -- but should not be simple-minded in practice. It need not mean government by adding machine, the mere adding up of numbers. A wise polity also has mechanisms for measuring, accommodating and even rewarding intensity. The Senate does this with the filibuster, which enables an intense minority to slow or stymie a majority, at least for a while.
Caucuses are apt to have (in the jargon of liberal jurisprudence) a "disparate impact": Some kinds or classes of people will be more inclined than others to want to, or be able to, participate. Caucuses might, therefore, skew participation patterns toward the more leisured, affluent and educated -- disproportionately Obama voters. That probably troubles the easily troubled consciences of liberals for whom equality is the sovereign good. One solution is for them to salve their consciences by demoting equality.