Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Why Iowa?

Undoubtedly, every country has its odd customs, which have some sound historical reason behind them but seem odd - and may indeed be odd - to outsiders. The British abound in quaint customs, which the rest of the world tends to see as charming - like announcing royal proclamations in Edinburgh 3 days later than in London because in the 17th century it took 3 days to get from the southern capital to the northern capital. 

Likewise the US has its own idiosyncrasies also, but perhaps none more glaring that the odd way we choose our presidents. And, unlike reading royal proclamations 3 days late, the way we choose our presidents has sometimes had catastrophic consequences for the world.

With typically European elitist snobbery, The Economist recently sneered at the way we choose our presidents. See, for example, "The brawl begins: Marvel at the jaw-dropping spectacle. Then worry. American politics has taken a dangerous turn" (January 30, 2016).

Foreign incomprehension of American character and elitists snobbery aside, the critics are, of course, correct. Our system - if "system" is the right word - for choosing the most powerful person on earth and leader of the "Free World" is at best odd, at worst a moral and political disaster. And it all starts in Iowa, one of the most amazingly unrepresentative states, demographically and culturally, in the entire country.

The Iowa Caucuses are one of those high-intensity exercises in participatory democracy that appeal to American nostalgia and to good-government reformers. And, like so many other good-government reforms in the 20th century, it has had catastrophically bad consequences for the country.

So once again that strange amalgam of showy religiosity and right-wing paranoia tha tpasses for Christian evangelicalism in certain segments of American  society has won the day in the Iowa Republican Caucuses - the same process and the same constituency that rewarded such spectacularly un-presidential personalities as Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rich Santorum in 2012. Of course, neither went on to anything beyond punditry afterwards. Iowa seldom selects the President. But we indulge this performance, and distort the process accordingly.

Ted Cruz could, of course, go on to win the nomination, although it is unlikely that he will win the next test - in the much more secular and modern, but also very unrepresentative state of New Hampshire. That state's "first in the nation" primary has had an outsized role in politics for a lot longer than Iowa. Who can forget how Eugene McCarthy's electoral loss but "moral victory" in New Hampshire in March 1968 helped nudge President Johnson to quit the White House?

Iowa and New Hampshire have historically highlighted so-called "retail politics." In an increasingly nationalized campaign with less and less direct interaction between voters and our very highly scripted candidates, Iowa and New Hampshire have forced candidates to meet and speak directly with potential voters - not a bad thing in a supposed democracy! If only that were happening in communities that are more representative, demographically and culturally, of the United States as it really is!

Caucuses and primaries reward high intensity voters. That's presumably why trump did less well than he had hoped and why Sanders (who appeals so strongly to the extreme Left wing of his party - the wing that likes to make Republican presidents inevitable) also did so well. Intensity is valuable and, up to a point, desirable. But intensity bereft of wider community connection can become ideological fanaticism and produce the kind of political polarization that stymies the politics of deliberation and debate which democracy requires. More less intense, "moderate" voters would provide a necessary balance in the nominating process. (Theoretically the later primaries do that, and of course the conventions would too if they still worked like real conventions and not made-for-TV coronations).

There is a lot to be said for distinctive, even quaint customs that reflect our history and highlight important cultural values - but not when they corrupt and distort the political process the way our media-induced fixation with the Iowa caucuses does!

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