To paraphrase John Edwards, there are two Iowas. One is in the popular imagination, where the locals care passionately about their caucus and talk earnestly with presidential prospects in their living rooms. Then there's the actual Iowa, where most people are indifferent and a small band of the politically active act as extras in the media's stories from the heartland.
Iowans' participation in the caucuses is notorious: 6 percent of eligible voters showed up in the 2004 Democratic caucuses -- translating to about 125,000 people. If that number got much lower, voters might be outnumbered by the thousands of journalists, campaign staffers and volunteers who crowd Des Moines's hotels, flights and restaurants, reading tea leaves to divine what the small minority of Iowa voters will do on Thursday. --Dana Milbank, writing in The Washington Post
(At left, a trio of caucus-goers. God bless America.)
Then there's the often wrong, often self-absorbed but always amusing, always bullish Christopher Hitchens, penning a laugh-out-loud piece for Slate . . .
It is quite astonishing to see with what deadpan and neutral a tone our press and television report the open corruption—and the flagrantly anti-democratic character—of the Iowa caucuses. It's not enough that we have to read of inducements openly offered to potential supporters—I almost said "voters"—even if these mini-bribes only take the form of "platters of sandwiches" and "novelty items" (I am quoting from Sunday's New York Times). It's also that campaign aides are showing up at Iowan homes "with DVD's that [explain] how the caucuses work." Nobody needs a DVD to understand one-person-one-vote, a level playing field, and a secret ballot. The DVD and the other gifts and goodies (Sen. Barack Obama is promising free baby-sitting on Thursday) are required precisely because none of those conditions applies in Iowa. In a genuine democratic process, these Tammany tactics would long ago have been declared illegal. But this is not a democratic process, and besides, as my old friend Michael Kinsley used to say about Washington, the scandal is never about what's illegal. It's about what's legal.
The Iowa caucuses are absurd and not "undemocratic" but, as Hitchens points out, counterdemocratic. They allow a small band of political nerds, serial campaigners, fierce partisans, and old geezers to unfairly sway the outcome of the primaries, and thus the general election. If Iowa wants to keep it's cherished first-in-the-nation status, then it should be made to institute a normal, secret-ballot primary.