No liberal seems to like the Iowa caucus, or at least no one who isn’t an Iowa public official. Christopher Hitchens accused the caucus of being undemocratic, saying that its rules are a “fraud” and invite “Tammany tactics.” Dana Milbank compared the caucus to a freak show performed by political activists and media types rather than local citizens. Even three Iowa intellectuals in the New York Times criticized the states’ caucus as an affront to democracy, noting that local Democratic-party officials “shun public disclosure of voter preferences at their caucuses.”
Except for Milbank’s plaint that activists proliferate in the caucus, these criticisms are off base. The Democratic party’s Iowa caucus isn’t really undemocratic. Its presidential candidates receive delegates based on the preferences of voters, not party hacks or media honchos. Sure, the party’s Iowa caucus is not based on the principle of one-man, one-vote. But neither are elections for the United States Senate and the presidency, and few criticize those as undemocratic.
No, the problem with the Democratic party’s Iowa caucus is that its type of democracy is elitist. And in a party that at the presidential level has lost support from the masses, this is a problem indeed.
The party’s Iowa caucus, which debuted in 1972, was never meant to advance the aims of its blue-collar clientele. Its intellectual roots were in the New Left, the student-centered movement that began in the 1960s. While many members of the New Left endorsed the principle of one-man, one-vote, others put more stock in “participatory democracy.” In The Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, the group called for organizing political life on several principles. Among those was that “decision-making be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;” “politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community …;” and the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution; it should provide outlets for the expression of personal grievance and aspiration …” Put crudely, the vision animating these principles was more guys-in-togas-deliberating-in-the-forum than the masses-marching-in-torchlight-parades-on-the-eve-of-the-election.
The main way in which the caucus is elitist is the amount and time and effort it requires of voters. Participants can not simply show up and vote. They must spend at least an hour and often several hours sitting through a meeting before finally declaring their support for a candidate.
Another way in which the caucus is elitist is that the caucus is a night-time-only affair. Unlike primaries, when voters can cast their ballots from dawn to dusk, the Iowa caucus occurs only in the evening. So long young mothers and second-shifters.
The consequences of these rules and structure are substantial.
In terms of demographics, the Democratic party’s Iowa caucus in effect marginalizes working class and less educated voters. Four years ago, almost three-fifths of caucus-goers (58 percent) had earned a four-year college degree or more. That might not sound like a high figure, but comparatively speaking it is. In the general election, only two-fifths (42 percent) of all voters had done so.
Well-educated people might not be different from you and me, but they are from their less-educated counterparts in terms of policy preferences. Take the issue of abortion. According to Voter News Service data from the 2000 election, a slight majority (52) of whites with high school diplomas or less believed that most abortions should be illegal. By contrast, only 37 percent of whites with college and postgraduate degrees said they favored the same.
It’s true that cultural conservatives have not always been marginalized in the party’s Iowa caucus. As late as 1976, Catholics were a key constituency in the caucuses; it was their support that enabled Jimmy Carter, who whispered to one woman that he would support a national law to extend many legal protections to unborn infants, to win more delegates than any other candidate, a key victory on his path to the nomination.
But that was three decades ago. Culturally conservative Democrats are now a spectral presence in the Iowa caucuses. Their ranks have been filled, almost entirely, by social liberals. Here’s as good example as any. Hillary Clinton last month attacked Barack Obama for voting “present” when abortion-rights bills were under consideration, rather than the preferred support for them.
This is bad news for Democrats. As I argued earlier, in almost every general election since 1972, the national party’s association with abortion, as well as homosexuality, has damaged its nominee politically. The caucuses force Democrats to move to the left on cultural issues, where the party is weakest, and prevents them from emphasizing their main strength, economic issues.
Of course, the elite nature of the party’s Iowa caucuses is good news for Republicans. Which is perhaps why conservatives criticize them so rarely.
— Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party (Encounter Books). He keeps a blog at www.infrontofyournose.com