Don’t get me wrong, I love that Iowans have their quirky nomination process. It reminds me that Americans – unlike people in most other countries – really are pretty diverse. We’re free to be diverse and to have local traditions that others think are looney. I’m not familiar with the Iowa constitution, but I suspect that the political parties are free to have primary elections instead, if they choose. Even if they are not, I’m willing to take a bet that the people of Iowa are free – if they so choose – to enact any law or constitutional amendment necessary to allow for that flexibility.
What bothers me, though, is the impact of the Iowa caucuses’ timing on the news cycle. The reason this matters is that we have bought into this idea that what happens in each milestone on the campaign trail – and what the “experts” have to say about it – should inform our ballot choices as much or more than the results we want to see. Otherwise, Howard Dean might have been president. It’s a meta-process; too self-referential; too much of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes us settle for “viable” candidates instead of letting candidates become viable by our real choices based on real policy considerations.
As Dennis Kucinich once said: “I’m electable… If you vote for me.”
In the end, despite what the form of the Iowa caucus says about our diversity, its disproportional influence on the election is a symptom of our disturbing tendency to ignore the richness of political diversity and regress toward a manufactured mean.
Political strategies are important, of course. If you know your guy is unpopular, you need to figure out whether he or she has a realistic chance of overcoming that before you “waste” your vote. The Kucinich quote probably applies better to John McCain (before the latest poll surge) or Joe Biden. If your guy’s shot is as long as Kucinich’s, you might well want to cut your losses and vote for whoever is your number two. Still, this seems to me to be appropriate for the last minute and only for those who don’t see any value in symbolic voting (such as long-term transformational goals or ideological purity) as more pressing than the next president’s agenda and whether they can live with it.
But why would a pacifist liberal vote for a Democrat who is “electable” because she or he is hawkish? Why would a “small government” Republican vote for George W. Bush? Yet they do. All the time.
Take Hillary Clinton: why is she the favorite? Partly because she is all things to all people. Whew! We can relax, she won’t say too much to upset that mythical “center” of American politics and as long as we perceive her to be inoffensive to this “center” we don’t have to be offended by her either. It’s a shame that I feel this way, because I used to like her (and I may actually still vote for her). I liked her because once upon a time she seemed more authentic (if sometimes a little brash) and less politically malleable than Bill. But now people consider her “electable” precisely because she reminds them of Bill, who is every Democrat’s favorite “centrist.” He signed the Defense of Marriage Act (allowing states to disregard legal same-sex marriages from other states, which is in direct violation of Article IV of the constitution); he bombed Bosnia and Iraq while looking the other way on Rawanda; endorsed the Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which made it harder for unmarried mothers – the people most in need of help – to get welfare; and he broke his promise to end discrimination against gay people in the military. Where was the liberal president I thought I elected? I have friends who think he had to “compromise” this way in order to be “viable.” In other words, we now accept, without a hint irony, that politicians must do what they must do to stay in office.
That’s all good for the politician, but what’s in it for me? Why should I care if an official stays in power if she will do nothing that I would like to see done (or I don’t know what the hell she’ll do, because she’s working so hard to get/stay in office)? Why should we care about the party label if the candidate doesn’t do it for us (whatever that “it” might be for any one of us)?
This is why I was baffled at the ire of my fellow Democrats in 2000 over Nader “stealing” Gore’s votes. Call me old fashioned, but I say votes don’t belong to a candidate until they are cast in his favor. I hated that Bush got in office (and he actually did “steal” the votes by election fraud and then had them sanitized by judicial fiat, so who knows if it would even have mattered if Gore’s lead had been larger). In any case, I wouldn’t have and didn’t vote for a third party candidate that year; it really was important. But I can’t get over the arrogance of concluding that others are obliged to agree with your politics and your political strategies. Criticize them for their views, sure, but don’t imagine that you were somehow “wronged.”
Anyway, back to the present. I don’t know what y’all think, but it seems to me that most candidates (even those who tout themselves as candidates of “change”) are so squarely playing to the perceived “center” that we all kind of give in to this bland game of judging candidates by an invisible checklist of the “right” things to say. The right way to be “American.” I love how candidates say with authority “the American people want” – like there’s some ideal monolithic “American” mean to which the rest of us are obliged to defer. And the candidates prance around in a pageant where each of them has to prove to this “American” that she or he is the least unusual. The most centrist. They have to be, as Stephen Colbert once said: “extra medium.”
So we must choose from the Weebles. They are firmly rooted in the political center of electability. And while they wobble to the left or right depending on the audience, they don’t fall down off the center.