Because the Iowa caucuses are a perversely puny and undemocratic spectacle, heroic exertions are required to endow them with long-term narrative meaning. Worry not, though: Our media-political complex exists largely to billow the semblance of significance into the decaying husk of our public life, and Monday’s surreal and unhinged caucus balloting was certainly no exception.
Begin with the obvious trends that have upset the orderly progression of candidates through the presidential turnstiles. Primary voters in both major parties are in the throes of populist rebellion. A neoliberal leadership class on the Democratic side collects both its funding and its major policy initiatives via a system of glorified graft; the debt-ridden, not-yet-jaded working-class and youth vote on the left rises up in revolt to erase the 60-point lead formerly held by that class’s chosen administrator. Yet, sure enough, the consensus story is that Hillary Clinton has snagged an important victory from Monday’s caucus vote, and will roll on confidently to her eventual anointment as the savior of the Democrats.
Similarly, Republicans have spent the last six months in thrall to a mediagenic xenophobic billionaire, largely on the grounds that his candidacy permits them to say things that are unsayable in polite (or—horrors—politically correct) society. The ugliness of this license shouldn’t conceal that the inchoate Trump insurgency is also reacting to real economic marginalization—a decline in socio-political standing that easily gets translated into immigrant-bashing, self-dramatizing culture-war scripts and worse. Nevertheless, when Trump came up short in Iowa, this, too, was hailed as a long-overdue moment of vindication for the GOP’s own grown-up class of campaign fixers.
If the Iowa caucuses are democracy in action, one weeps to picture democracy in slumber.
The problem here, as for the Democrats, is that such storylines are pure fiction. After all, the victor in the GOP caucuses was Ted Cruz—a raw right-wing ideologue who is more roundly loathed by the Republican power elite than Trump is. Together, Trump and Cruz pulled down a much bigger share of the caucus vote than the cluster of conventionally vetted, “responsible” cohort of GOP hopefuls. Trump and Cruz netted just over 50 percent of the caucus vote; if one brackets the results for outlier candidates Ben Carson and Rand Paul, this leaves the ballyhooed proven leaders of GOP governance—Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum—sharing just 11.2 percent of the vote among them. (The numbers on the side of conservative populist discontent swell further if one counts the strong third-place showing of Marco Rubio among the insurgent ballots; Rubio is, after all, an oleaginous creation of the Tea Party who’s managed to position himself as a pundit-consensus candidate mostly by coding his hate speech a little less clumsily than Trump does.)
Such nettlesome facts count for little, though: the media tells the paint-by-numbers story of the establishment’s certain redemption in the polls because it’s the story that the media was built to tell. And Iowa is, in its twisted way, the perfect showcase for this tale because the Iowa caucus process is the most obdurately undemocratic balloting ritual this side of the Florida pageant of hanging chads and disfranchised African Americans. To tease any sort of abiding civic-republican moral from the seamy conduct of the caucuses requires some truly epic lurches into wish-fulfillment fantasy.
But our media was again up to the challenge. To take just one example, when a crowd of some 500 voters came together in a University of Iowa gym to caucus, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow witlessly enthused that this was “democracy in action”—even though more than 31,000 students are enrolled at the school, which meant that the percentage of active caucus voters assembled for the event was just shy of two. If this is democracy in action, one weeps to picture democracy in slumber.
It gets worse. That Iowa City caucus, like many in the eastern half of the state, went overwhelmingly to Sanders, but his commanding margin there didn’t translate into correspondingly fulsome gains in the delegate column. That’s because the caucus voters aren’t voting for candidates at all so much as for recondite formulas by which party bosses eventually allot delegates to a major party convention. (I took special interest in the now-famous—and misreported—“coin toss” decisions because one of the caucus votes thus settled took place in my old precinct of West Davenport.) This is all to say nothing of the outlandish ways in which caucus votes are weighted to favor past trends in a precinct’s voter participation—as if that had any bearing on anything—and the eventual nomination-rigging practice known as super-delegate apportionment.
On the Republican side, shenanigans likewise abounded. When Ben Carson announced he was leaving the state ahead of any final tabulation of returns, Cruz apparatchiks pounced to circulate the unfounded rumor that Carson had bagged his presidential run altogether. Suppressing turnout for your rivals, and opportunistically poaching their supporters in the caucus cattle call—it’s all just more of democracy’s rich pageant.
The rot can never be institutional, and corruption can never be rampant, since that would mean that something was ultimately at stake.
As thuggishness like this transpires, media onlookers typically wander off to play with shiny new things. Hence Carson’s unbidden departure—which turned out to stem from nothing more than an entirely reasonable and relatable desire to change his clothes—became an instant social-media punchline among the campaign press clique. Buzzfeed-branded mockery predictably ensued.
And so things shall proceed, step by excruciating step, through the endless primary season. The edifice of official power, shored up by enormous infusions of cash, clout, and power-networking, will teeter ominously atop the maneuverings of a desperately powerless electorate, determined to extract something resembling a genuinely fair hearing for its grievances out of a system that a handful of insurgent figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren—and yes, even Donald Trump—insist is permanently rigged against them. And the what-me-worry national commentariat will look indulgently on, because their prepared scripts assure them that the core problems of American politics are always passing fancies—personality-drenched and narrative-driven, just like any other kind of reality programming. The rot can never be institutional, and corruption can never be rampant, since that would mean that something was ultimately at stake—and more to the point, that the disenchanted masses poised to overturn the social contract at the heart of our fetid media-political complex would at last have to be taken seriously.