Friday, January 4, 2008

The Big Losers

Aaaand they’re off!

For all that reporters are making surprised noises about Huckabee’s and Obama’s victories in Iowa yesterday, for those of us who were poll-addicted over the holidays the results from last night were certainly well within the realm of possibility. Even Huckabee’s win as the evangelical “insurgent” has precedent; Pat Robertson was close on Bob Dole’s heels in Iowa in 1996 (they won 23% and 26% of votes respectively), but he never gained that kind of enthusiasm anywhere else.

There are several serious omissions from the mainstream election coverage that I find troubling. I’m going to abandon my performance-based analysis this morning to point out some major issues that emerged for me in the course of last night’s reporting but that major news outlets neglected to discuss in much detail. Some of these ideas have been covered in blogs, but either they haven’t been discussed in detail or haven’t been brought together in one place.

1) Iowa is not a primary and the caucuses violate the most basic tenets of democratic process. Chris Hitchens, of whom I’m not particularly a fan, had a good piece on the problems of the caucuses yesterday in Slate, but these issues warrant repeating. They’re held for two hours in the evening—if you can’t be there at that limited time, you can’t vote. If you vote in the Democratic caucuses, you don’t even get to vote anonymously—you mill about towards a poster of a candidate with all your neighbors and co-workers and family members watching your decision. This leaves the “voting” subject to all kinds of peer pressure, and as Mike Madden puts it today in Salon, looks "more like an elementary school recess activity gone awry than an exercise in democracy." As those on the fence try to make up their minds, their friends in the other groups call to them to persuade them to their corner. The caucuses don’t even follow one-person, one-vote procedure. In certain precincts, the votes are weighted based on participation from that precinct in the last caucus. So if you vote in a precinct that was poorly attended in 2004, your vote is worth less than that of a voter from well-attended precinct. This phenomenon is especially troubling when you consider that you’re far more likely to vote in the first place if you’re wealthy enough to own a car to get to the caucus, to afford a baby-sitter to watch your kids, or have a job that you can leave at six p.m. to get to the caucus—the upshot of this is that if you live in a rural county, your vote doesn’t carry the same weight as those in a suburban county. If the U.N. were to observe the caucuses, they would declare them illegal and invalid. We don’t let our high schools elect their class presidents this way. Why do we use this system to elect the president of the nation? It’s time to end the caucuses.

2) Mike Huckabee does not believe in evolution. This position is not just a matter of Huckabee’s religious beliefs; it has major policy ramifications, which makes it not just an appropriate point of analysis for our reporters, but a necessary one. This platform will not only effect the way education would be structured should Huckabee win the election (even as vice-president, which I heard kicked about as a possibility last night), there will be ripples felt throughout the economic sector as the U.S. becomes less and less able to produce people who understand basic scientific operations that are the basis for expanding technologies. Moreover, the denial of evolution is akin to a denial of gravity. It isn’t like a theological debate over transubstantiation; it demonstrates a clear lack of reasoning on Huckabee’s part. Evolution is an objectively observable process. I’m not sure which is more upsetting: that we have a major front-runner who claims that one of the basic laws of biology simply doesn’t exist, or that none of our major news outlets have drawn attention to this facet of his candidacy.

3) Obama and Huckabee are not outsiders. The major spin last night was that the caucus results offered a victory for the outsider, the underdog, the insurgent (more on this last term below). This conception is simply untrue for Huckabee, who is the former governor of Arkansas (hint: Bill Clinton’s job before he was president—not coincidentally, Huckabee took over after Clinton’s Lieutenant and successor Jim Tucker resigned after a fraud conviction for his part in the largely Republican-constructed Whitewater scandal). But it’s even less true of Obama; he had backing from major donors, many of whom are long-standing contributors to the Democratic party. Remember the dust-up over Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen over the summer? Oprah campaigned for him, for crying out loud—you don’t get a whole lot more establishment than that, even if she’s not normally a fixture in electoral politics.

4) What Obama did in Iowa that was unusual, and that reflected his pre-Harvard origins as the little guy, was instruct his Iowa operation to run as community organizers. He had volunteers (not just paid staff) working for him who went out and really tried to get to know the locals they were trying to persuade. They had beers with them. They held public forums to which folks could bring their kids. They worked through the local churches to find out what people needed. My guess is that the personal touch really paid off for him in the long run, just as a similar church-based organizing structure worked for Huckabee.

5) John Edwards is a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Of the more breathtaking omissions in the coverage from last night was the near dismissal of Edwards’ slip past Clinton. Apparently, the newsrooms are so attached to their narrative about the Democratic race as one between a black man and a white woman that they’re just not going to talk about Edwards. He mounted an impressive operation in Iowa—stumping in the oft-neglected rural western part of the state in ways that clearly paid off for him. Moreover, he’s the one Democratic candidate front-runner who has truly embraced populist politics. He’s been very vocal about corporate corruption in the U.S., and has pointed out repeatedly that the entities who hold the reins of power are not about to give up their influence without a fight. He spent a lot of energy exposing the glaring hypocrisy of Clinton’s idea that corporate interests “need a place at the table” when we sort out health care, for example. Iowa voters responded to his role as the boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes. I suspect that they will in other states as well, but we’ll have to watch to find out. The Democratic race is genuinely a three-way one.

6) Giuliani took an utterly humiliating face-in-the-mud finish at sixth place with only four percent of the take. Personally, I feel particularly good about this given the “vote to crush the muslims” campaign ad he’s been running, which is possibly the most meticulously manipulative, racist ad since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, one more reminiscent of the anti-Japan film shorts run in U.S. movie houses in the wake of Pearl Harbor than a contemporary campaign ad. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had the good grace to pull out after their results last night, and it’s time for Giuliani to do the same. He’ll almost certainly stick around to see how he performs in New Hampshire, but the Republican base in Iowa seem to think that he’s just a bad, bad choice for leader.

7) We should be worried that we’re using the Bush administration’s language of war to describe our electoral process. I can’t be the only person disturbed that so many commentators talked of “surges” and “insurgents” last night, and not just because these were inaccurate descriptions of what happened. One of the hallmarks of fascism is the saturation of daily discourse with the vocabulary of war, making war seem normal, everyday, and unremarkable. We’re watching this happen now, and not just from outlets like Fox where one would expect that kind of language to hold sway; I heard commentators on NPR this morning calling Obama and Huckabee “insurgents.” I’ve been concerned for a while that we’re losing our ability to think about events outside of the way the Bush Administration has constructed them for us; the bellicose descriptions of the caucuses chillingly confirmed this for me. Is our political vocabulary truly so impoverished that we can no longer imagine the world outside of war?

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