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Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

The Dream of Iowa

Iowa was a mess. Let’s not tear ourselves apart because of it.

I never paid attention to the Iowa caucuses until this past one. Even my roommate, who never engages in politics, was asking me about them, which is kind of incredible. Before this week, I knew some states had caucuses but most had primaries, and Iowa goes first every year, this being the result of what is residual ninth grade trivia bits bouncing around in my head. Now, this year, having learnt a bit more about what really happens in Iowa at the start of election season, I am disheartened by the idea of eliminating caucuses altogether.

The Iowa caucuses can be quite charming. Candidates spend months getting down and dirty with the state, on a face to face level, going to fairs and speaking at intimate gatherings, meeting voters exactly where they are. And these people are not just your regular voter. These are some of the most informed voters of the electorate. It’s grueling and inspiring all wrapped into one, culminating in the caucuses themselves.

On caucus night, party members across the state gather in gyms, churches, restaurants, schools, and pubs to discuss in real time and in real life, the merits of their candidate and work diligently to make converts out of everyone they can in order to win the caucus. It’s exciting and messy and in your face. There are disagreements and broken wine bottles, but for the most part everyone is civil and every vote is counted.

That’s the noble goal at least.

In practice though, caucuses can be exclusionary, with long hours; they’re messy and unprofessional and the process is complicated. All of these flaws were put on stark display this year with the staggering blunder that was this year’s Iowa caucus and the incompetence of the Iowa Democratic Party. Add to that the more than willing Republicans unashamedly throwing gasoline on the fire and that was it. Down is up. Democrats are evil and no can be trusted. Even now sleuths on Twitter are churning out new theories every day about who actually won, Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders.

Our democratic system’s integrity absolutely relies on the passionate engagement of its citizens.

I don’t think these flaws are fatal or even insurmountable though. In fact, the Iowa Caucuses this year in a lot of ways were successful. The caucuses themselves were a hit. People came, did the thing they were supposed to do, and largely recorded their data accurately. A not small portion of the controversy was blown way out of proportion by campaigns and media companies on both sides. The ultimate crime was a lack of immediate gratification when it comes to the results, and CNN, Jacobin, the Intercept, and MSNBC all collectively lost their minds because of it.

At the end of the day, any benefit from winning Iowa is gone, the press has long moved elsewhere and to be honest it seems so has Bernie and Buttigieg. This is good, especially since they will end up taking a similar amount of delegates from Iowa anyway. What I worry about are the calls for ending caucuses for good. While civic engagement is trending up from 2018, there is still a lot more to be done to engage citizens in the joys of democracy, and I think caucuses, if done right, could be an antidote to that problem.

People are still disengaged.

Last year, The Dallas News Editorial Board wrote, “In the 2015 mayoral election only 6 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, dead last in a ranking of America’s 30 largest cities. The median age of voters was 62 for Dallas and 66 for Fort Worth.” 6 percent! And all of the voters were in their sixties or older! The amount of attention voters, especially younger voters, pay to local and state elections is criminal. According to the United States Election Project, the average turnout for primaries and caucuses was about 27% in 2016. Even with the election of Trump, which unquestionably caused scores of civilians to perk up when it came to politics, people for the most part are still operating at the periphery.

Opensecrets.org reports that in 2018 only 0.47% of voters game more than 200 bucks to any political orgnaization or candidate. In 2017, Adam Hughes, writing for the Pew Research Center, outlined a few key trends about political donations in the US. Hughes writes first that only 15% of Americans said they have donated any amount to a political cause, campaign, or organization in 2016. This is a 4% increase from 1992. Huges continues by saying, “During the 2016 campaign, politically engaged Americans were much more likely to make political donations. Those who said they follow what is going on in government and public affairs most of the time reported donating at a rate of 28%, compared with less than 7% of those who follow government and public affairs some of the time or less often, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 10, 2016. Among those who say they vote always or nearly always, 21% said that they made a donation, compared with 4% of those who seldom voted or voted only part of the time.

In a survey report done in 2018, Pew Research found that only 5% of respondents mentioned they had volunteered for a political campaign in the laster year, and 16% said they have volunteered in the last five years. Eleven percent of respondents said they had gone to a political rally in the last year with 10% reporting having attended a government meeting in the last year.

Iowa was on the right track this year with the introduction of its satellite caucuses, but much more can and should be done.

Essentially, scores of Americans are disengaged, and with that comes low donation rates, less volunteers, less engagement with government, and less advocacy for not only the candidates but also our system of government and elections. Our democratic system’s integrity absolutely relies on the passionate engagement of its citizens. When I was speaking with my partner about this, she said something that stuck with me. She asked why we as a country continuously “perpetuate a system in which voters are required to do the bare minimum to vote.” The current system for the most part is standing in a long line, filling out some bubbles, giving in to some poll worker and then going on your way.

Nowhere in the process is there encouragement to read up on the candidates, resources readily available to provide information, an election or primary night event so the act is harder to skip and also a lot more fun.

Caucuses if designed right could be all of those thing and more, as well as done in an accessible and open-minded way.

The dream of Iowa.

When the train went off its tracks, we all got to see Iowa’s slow motion transfomation into a ball of fire and shrapnel. The world is as connected as ever, but a persuasive argument could be made that we’re starting to come full circle. With Facebook appearing in the news every other week with a new data scandal and law enforcement agencies chopping at the bit to have access to every single photo we’ve ever taken, the news can be draining. Mark Jerkowitz, writing for Pew Research, says that, “At a time when the country’s polarizing politics and public discourse are dividing many Americans, close to half of all U.S. adults acknowledge that they have stopped discussing political and election news with someone.” That’s in no small part to the state of our politics online; cutting off the discussion altogether can seem like the easiest option. What most people don’t realize is that most people are their most extreme selves on the internet. In person, most everyone is more reasonable or at least somewhat less combative if only because there is a physical human that’s interacting with them and not a computer screen.

That’s what the caucuses can do for us, Democrats, and the voting electorate. Iowa was on the right track, but imagine if caucusing was open to any group of people who wanted to get together to discuss politics. It could be done in a gym, a living room, back yard or pub. Location doesn’t matter. Imagine if the rules were simplified so that popular vote wins. Imagine if there was investment in awareness and advertisement for the caucuses statewide in order to encourage turnout, or if the state government mandated that caucus day was a day off from work. Imagine if the bigger caucuses acted like events, with speakers, bands, food, and daycare. Imagine if the state put on free educational civics classes as well as leadership training seminars for those who wanted to be precinct captains. Imagine if caucuses game you that same sense if community that millions of people feel at church.

I could go on, but the idea is gathering people across a state to talk politics in an accessible, educational, and most importantly fun way. That’s the important distinction. It’s the Jon Stewart and Jon Oliver approach to politics now applied to voting. You ever wonder why are most highly rated political talk show hosts are all comedians?

In the end, forcing everyone to gather on one night to essentially, “hash it out” before they take a vote that could have monumental ramifications for the country seems like a great antidote to the venom online and the refusal to listen to each other. That’s the dream of Iowa and one I hope will remain even if Iowa loses its first-in-the-nation status.

If you liked this post, here are a few others I’ve written that you might enjoy:

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