Friday, January 04, 2008

Forget Iowa!

The Iowa caucuses are over and the 2008 primary season is in full swing. Obama and Huckabee come out strong and now head to New Hampshire. Commentators are pointing out that participation this year was quite impressive for this quirky experiment in nomination politics.

Conor Clarke, however, hates Iowa and says the caucus system is profoundly undemocratic and one of the poorest ways to elect leaders. For all the talk about direct and personal democracy, it is full of practices that go against norms and practices understood to be representative of developed democracies, Clarke argues.

There is a lot of talk recently about the structural problems with the way the United States votes for its executive. Now some states are planning on big reforms that would essentially undermine the Electoral College. Maryland recently passed the National Popular Vote Law which mandates that a state's Electors must cast their ballots in line with the popular vote. Illinois and New Jersey are likely to follow in the next few months. This would essentially strip the Electoral College of its power and mean that the president would be the person chosen by a majority of the voters, not the majority of the Electors of the College. With such a reform in place earlier, we might now be looking at the end of President Gore's second term!

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At 9:51 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

As an Iowan, I love the Caucus system. I agree that it's not entirely democratic — and perhaps even very far from it. But I have a huge sentimental attachment to it. However, it's hugely problematic, and if reforms went through, I'd support them. I listened to Iowa Public Radio during the caucus last night, and I was dismayed with how many people who are disabled could not go, in addition to my problem already with a system that doesn't allow for many service-sector people to participate.

This problem might be more inline, though, with a system of elections predicated on political parties. Aren't exclusionary caucuses part of a system of politics set up with exclusionary political parties?

At 10:50 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Michael: I thought this post might get a response from you. ;)

I must admit that I am sadly underinformed about the specifics of the Iowa system. On the one hand, it sounds interesting, at least on the Democratic side, for giving people an embodied political experience (but, as you point out, mostly for the able bodied).

I'm not sure that the problem is entirely with political parties themselves. It seems like it might be possible to have parties, but manage them with fair procedural rules that would allow for participation and deliberation. I agree that our "first past the post" system is not conducive to these goals. But just because we don't explode into Kenyan style political chaos doesn't mean there is not gross unfairness to basic democratic norms in our own systems.

At 1:17 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

Yes, I definitely would not say that the problem is solely with the political party system, but it seems that the caucus system is directly tied to that. The way the system works is that those devoted to the party go to the caucus, so it's usually the more activist-oriented folks or historically Democratic folks (for the Democrats) or the staunch conservative Christians and hardline fiscal conservatives for Republicans (a small percentage of voters). They vote for delegates for the county level, who then vote for delegates to the state level, who then vote for the national level.

At the national level, there are even individuals who have votes, such as senators and other party leaders. Essentially, an individual with ties to the party has as much power as about 1/10 of some states, if not more. It's ridiculous.

That the primary season coincides with the political (and intricately tied to ethnic) riots in Kenya fascinates me. Here in the last two elections there has been legitimate evidence that there was tampering in the voting process, but there was hardly any unrest or outrage. In other countries, though, that outrage is very explicit (though not necessarily vocalized ethically).

Where is the moral outrage here? I just read Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terrorism, and he goes so far as to say that the West no longer even has values — that we are a pretty much arbitrary society.

I'm contemplating how correct that is... and I'm also rambling a bit.


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