The Fragile Beauty of Democracy: The Iowa Caucuses

I watched the Iowa caucuses on Monday, February 3, 2020, from the UK. Good coverage came from a remote caucus in Florida – one of Iowa’s 87 satellite caucuses – in addition to 1,678 precinct caucuses. In that particular satellite caucus, Iowa voters, sunbirds residing during the winter months in Florida, seemed to be in a gymnasium. Each individual participant moved to a particular corner or location depending on the candidate they wished to support. If their candidate did not have a sufficient percentage of supporters, then they could move to one of the groups that did. Those in the more populated groups could not move, but there was obviously much discussion and toing and froing among the voters as they were urged to join with others. 

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Journalists were singing praises for the Iowa caucuses as nothing less that democracy in action. Watching volunteers and citizens debating and sorting themselves by their preferred candidate was inspiring. It was beautiful. Citizens were not simply rolling over on their couch to vote for a candidate but committing themselves in public and debating about the choice before them. Of course, not everyone can come to a caucus, but more caucuses were held and some after working hours to maximize access. Likewise, the satellites enabled citizens to vote even if not currently in Iowa. 

But suddenly, just as the preliminary tallies were expected to be shown, and with media pundits anxious to discuss the meaning of the early returns, it was not to happen. Unexplained delays, followed by notification of problems reconciling the numbers across the different methods used to tally all the caucuses, and problems with the new ap being used to support these tallies, and finally partial returns. 

Days later, the votes were counted and despite a close race between Bernie Sanders, the popular vote winner, and Pete Buttigieg, who edged out as the delegate winner (13-12), criticism focused on the delays and not on the overall shape of the final results. 

But a torrent of criticism focused on early discrepancies, errors, and discrepanies in the tallies, which led to delay in reporting, and the process, which was slammed as unacceptable. Nathan Robinson in The Guardian called it a mess, a debacle, and a ‘blow to American faith in democracy.’[1] These problems have been the focus of much good journalism, but did they forget the major story? Instantly, a beautiful display of democratic practice was turned into an American debacle. 

Commentators — as soon as on the very night of the caucuses — were posing sanctions on Iowa’s Democratic Party, saying that they should not be allowed to hold caucuses again, and that Iowa should no longer be the first primary in the election season. Iowa was going to pay for this screw-up for the candidates and the media. 

Personally, I have not seen many if any candidate or media pundit go to the defense of Iowa. This is a shame. Discussion focused on whom to blame for the problems. Should it be the state party, the national party apparatus, the ap developer, the ap, the volunteers who couldn’t use it effectively, or some conspiracy. I did find a wonderful letter from Julie Riggs, a contributor to Iowa View in the Des Moines Register, days after the crisis, which claimed that the ‘Iowa caucuses are an American treasure’.[2] She exclaimed:  ‘Don’t take our caucus away!’. I completely agree. 

Somehow, the media lost the plot when their expectations were not met, and they were left stammering in front of the camera with nothing to report. Flipping the story to the cause of the delays could have real damage to the democratic process. Democracy should be more important than efficiency, and real democrats should not surrender control to the media. As Julie Riggs said in her piece, through participating in the cut and thrust of debate in the caucus, she had a ‘palpable feeling’ that ‘the people hold the power’. You do. So don’t give that up. The media and the candidates can just wait a few hours or days on the volunteers and citizens making sure they get this right. Democracy is inefficient. The media need to get over it. 


[1] See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/07/the-iowa-caucuses-only-reinforced-the-idea-that-democracy-is-a-joke

[2] https://eu.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2020/02/16/iowa-caucuses-american-treasure-republican-first-time-experience/4754985002/

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