From the dust of Iowa, a clear contrast emerges
I should have known better. The general cliché (I’ve used it myself) for the Iowa caucus is “democracy in action.” The word “democracy” is rooted in Greek, “demokratia,” meaning the rule by the “demos,” the people. In Iowa, it usually translates as “chaos.”
But what does that translation mean? What do I mean by “rule”? That is, what are the rules, and how do we find out who will govern? In Iowa, voters don’t just show up and cast a ballot. Republicans listen to speeches and then vote; Democrats huddle around big rooms in geographic support of various candidates and give their own speeches, trying to convince undecided or independent voters to switch sides. It’s exactly the kind of popular exercise in persuasion that I love to see and write about (and don’t particularly care to participate in).
And what do we mean by “the demos,” the people? That’s even more tricky. In classical Athens, “the people” were native-born men. Women, aliens, slaves, were all exiled from public life. In the U.S., citizenship has come to be more broad, but the early centrality in the presidential selection process of Iowa– a very white, largely rural state – raises questions about our democracy’s gate-keepers. Iowa’s intense experience of presidential democracy, in other words, comes at the expense of many, many other voters’ choices.
Of course, once candidates survive Iowa (and most do not), other voters will get their chance to speak. Running for president is a long game, beginning with fund-raising months before Iowa and then extending through multiple caucuses and primaries before candidates even get to the general election. That incredibly broad focus helps us to understand two of the noteworthy oddities of the night.
First: the third place candidate on the Republican side gave a victory speech, and the second place candidate gave a (relatively) humbled concession speech. But then #2, Donald Trump, has premised his entire campaign persona on being the people’s choice against all others, one who was defined by his victories, and who therefore is going to have to do some serious speech editing to overcome tonight’s loss; while #3, Marco Rubio, has somehow positioned himself as the choice of reasonable and moderate Republicans, and needs only to beat anyone who isn’t named Trump or Cruz. One candidate premised the long game on the persona of a braying victor, while the other has based his on being an electable survivor. By their own standards, #2 lost, #3 won.
And second: when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were estimated to be tied, she gave a victory speech. Even now, talking heads on the television are trying to make sense of that, but again, let’s look at the long game. Sanders was declared an electoral impossibility just months ago, and now he has fought the long-favored Clinton to, at least, a near-loss, and that will bring him more attention, more donations, and more support. Clinton has broader support among the interest groups that are central to the Democratic Party, and among the superdelegates who could matter so much at the convention. If she had lost big tonight, she could have pointed at the favorability of the Iowa electorate to Sanders – white, rural, liberal voters for a senator from a white, rural, liberal state – and survived, but to fight him to, at least, a near-loss will keep her from a round of “2008 revisited” news stories, and allow her to move on, after New Hampshire, to states that favor her candidacy. From the Clinton perspective, this was a victory; from the Sanders perspective, it was at least a tie, and that, too, is a victory, even if he didn’t quite declare it to be such.
And what do I take away from all this before I stumble off to bed? Frankly, a brief moment of clarity, and a feeling that maybe all of this democracy wasn’t so chaotic, in the end, after all. There’s a fantastic scene in Preston Sturges’ brilliant 1940 film, “The Great McGinty,” in which two campaign speeches – one for candidate McGinty, one against him – are intercut, and we realize that what we’re hearing actually makes for one cohesive picture. “The other party’s candidate wants to spend lots of your tax dollars,” “I promise new civic works projects,” “…in order to put his followers on the city payroll…”, “…and provide jobs and stability for the working people of our city!” Despite the over-the-top performances, the scenery-chewing, the hate speech, the melodrama, the buffoonery, of this year’s Iowa caucus, at the end of the day, we have two very coherent party profiles. The GOP promises us “Judeo-Christian values” in government and a new day in post-Obama American history; the Democrats promise us a commitment to equality, an increase in economic justice, and an expansion on the policies of the Obama presidency. Even with the dust not yet settled, that’s an awfully clear choice.
Meanwhile, you get some sleep too. Maine’s caucuses are just around the corner – March 5 for Republicans, March 6 for Democrats – and we are not about to let the rest of the country make our decisions for us, are we?
Photo via Alex Hanson.
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