Experientially, the Iowa Caucuses seem weird, which may be in part because they may be the closest we come to direct democracy in our presidential election process – a process which concludes with the obscenely anti-democratic device of the Electoral College which twice in the last 25 years (2000 and 2016) has inflicted a president on the American people whom the majority of American voters had definitively rejected. At the Iowa Caucuses – whatever else may be said about them for or against – ordinary voters all have a comparable say, but only as long as they care enough to participate on a sub-zero cold winter night.
Of course, the caucus system is far from flawless. It is presumably less representative than a primary. To which may be added the commonly expressed criticism that Iowa is itself a somewhat unrepresentative state. On the other hand, the political process as a whole is unrepresentative, empowering unpopulated spaces to the detriment of populated places and reducing the choice of president to small margins of votes in a few « battleground states » and completely ignoring the preferences of the overwhelming multitude of voters. All that having been said, while I have never spent more than a week in Iowa and have never participated in an Iowa Caucus, I would surely have liked to – perhaps even on what may prove to be one of the coldest nights of the year!
The caucus is sometimes described as « a gathering of neighbors. » People actually have to show up and interact with one another! Imagine that pre-modern behavior! Like all forms of direct democracy, the caucus calls for a degree of personal participation and commitment, considerably in excess of what our post-modern politics typically requires, as a well as a disposition toward politics as deliberation and debate as opposed to politics as consumer entertainment. (Obviously the caucus system dates back to a time – not that long ago – when social interaction and conversation were so much more common, not having yet been destroyed by the ubiquitous cell phone.)
On the other hand, all that having been said, this year’s Iowa Caucus has a frozen feel to it, by which I am not referencing the extreme weather, but rather our extreme politics, which in places like Iowa (and the rest of the country) have been completely transformed and reshaped by the MAGA movement and are now frozen in Donald Trump’s favor.
In fact, the only variable in tonight’s caucuses will be weather-induced, whether and how much turnout is reduced and which campaigns that helps or hurts. All evidence suggests the enthusiasm (what in 20th-century political science used to be labeled « intensity ») for Nikki Haley is low, which may perhaps hurt her turnout. And both Trump and Governor DeSantis have ground-level political operations which, if they perform as planned and turnout the vote, may serve them well in spite of the weather. Unless something incredibly unexpected happens, Trump appears set to win Iowa by the largest margin ever. The only question then will be who comes in second and how far behind.
But will that matter? The media would like to cover this year’s Iowa Caucuses as if this were a traditional party primary in a traditional presidential campaign. The one thing we can say for certain, however, is that this is not a traditional campaign because our normal politics have been replaced by something very different. The more time and energy wasted on trying to fit whatever happens in this contest into the once predictable categories of of traditional politics and traditional campaigns, the less we understand what is really happening in our society and the direction in w which we are actually going.