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The Iowa Caucus is a Classist and Ageist Farce



In Iowa, as across the nation, lots of people work during the early to middle evening, after the traditional dinner hour. Tow-truck drivers. Nurses’ aides. Nurses. Resident emergency room doctors. EMTs. Hotel receptionists. Cops. Security guards. Second-shift production workers. Custodians. Retail clerks. Waitresses. Dishwashers. Butchers at the grocery store. Chicken-shacklers at poultry-processing plants. English as a Second Language night instructors. Telemarketers. Cab drivers. Bus drivers. Activity coordinators at retirement homes. Librarians. The people who rent out ice skates at the rink in the Coralville Mall. I could go on.

Many of these folks would seem to be precisely the sort of working class people one might expect to gain from the enactment of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ progressive domestic social agenda, including a significant increase in the federal minimum wage and single-payer (Medicare for All) health insurance. But most early evening workers can’t participate in the Iowa presidential Caucus pitting Sanders against the corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton next Monday night. There’s no federal or statewide Election Day law requiring employers to let those workers participate in the “beloved Iowa political ritual.” The prime-time workers who want to Caucus have to ask for special permission (so their bosses can find replacements) and give up lost wages to go sit and stand through hours of political deliberation.

How many of these wage- and salary- earners are there in Iowa? It has to run well into the tens and thousands, perhaps the hundreds of thousands. It’s not insignificant. Capitalism moved untold millions of workers off the standard day shift (9 am to 5pm) eons ago.

Ain’t it strange? The national media celebrates and obsesses over the great grassroots democratic moment that (supposedly) is the Iowa presidential Caucus. Reporters are swarming across the state to capture and reflect upon this purported grand exercise in popular self-governance. Political commentators wax eloquent and practically teary-eyed about the noble quadrennial exercise in hearing “the voice of the people.” And, if I might use one of Senator Sanders’ more annoyingly repeated phrases, guess what? A vast number of Iowans on evening work shifts are effectively excluded from the cherished event.

It’s another among many reminders (e.g., the Democratic Party’s unaccountable presidential convention “super-delegates,” the “deeply undemocratic structure of the Senate,: and the preposterously authoritarian Electoral College) that not all of the barriers to democracy in the U.S. are simply reducible to contemporary campaign finance.[1] Wage labor, employers’ reluctance to grant time off for “voting” (well, caucusing), and the absence of state laws requiring time off for workers to join in the presidential candidate-selection process (such as it is) combine here to disenfranchise a large number of largely working class citizens.

Even some workers who work a “normal” day shift (say, 9 am to 5 pm) or the graveyard shift (10 pm to 6 am at the local giant Procter & Gamble plant here in Iowa City) avoid the Democratic Party Caucus for an interesting reason. They don’t want to have to deal with the bossy and mostly middle- and upper- middle- class professional people (including lots of know-it-all professors in Iowa’s many college towns) who tend to dominate the two-plus hour-long Democratic Caucus proceedings.

By the Way…

Another group of people who often can’t or don’t want to participate in the Democratic Caucus are old and/or sick people who don’t feel they have the stamina and/or mobility required for the prolonged proceedings.

Republican Caucus Actually More Accessible

It might interest those who wonder how and why the plutocratic Republicans (do not take that term to mean that the Democrats aren’t also plutocratic) do as well they do with working class people that the Iowa Republican Caucus is much more accessible to folks without the time, inclination, or ability to hang around for hours with politicos. At the Republican Caucus, people vote on individual ballots, and results are tabulated and announced. Then, other official state and county business begins, including electing delegates to the county convention and voting on platform plans for that convention. People don’t have to stick around for the official business.

The Democrats have a more complex and time-consuming process. After the rules are explained at a caucus, people hear speeches on behalf of the presidential candidates. Voters break up into groups based on whom they back for president. Individuals stand in different parts of the room based on whom they support, and uncommitted voters have their own group, too. The group numbers are counted. Groups must have at least 15 percent of the total number of attendees to be considered “viable.” Those in groups that aren’t viable — likely to happen to plenty of Martin O’Malley supporters — and uncommitted voters may then realign and join another group. Groups are counted again. This process continues until all remaining groups are viable. Only after all this, which can go on for some time, do the Democrats attend to other official party business that “voters” (well, caucusers) are free to skip.

Caucus Turnout Record: 16 Percent….That’s Right, 16 Percent

Thinking about this problem the other day, I did a Google search on “caucus turnout.” I ran across the following depressing findings:

“The biggest and most important difference [between states that select their presidential convention delegates through primaries and those that use caucuses] is voter turnout. Put simply, turnout is much, much lower in states that hold caucuses and tends to be less representative of the general population. Researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School took a closer look at primary election turnouts in a 2009 study. The authors found that presidential primaries have notably low turnout relative to general elections, something that is particularly true for states with caucuses. In 2008, the most recent election without an incumbent president running, in the 12 states where both parties held caucuses, the average turnout was just 6.8 percent of eligible voters. While primaries tend to have higher rates of turnout relative to caucuses, average turnout is considerably lower than general elections, particularly for primaries held toward the end of the primary season.”

“The Iowa caucus had a record-breaking turnout that year, but even then it only reached 16.3 percent of eligible voters. The researchers provide a stark summary of their findings:

‘In percentage terms, Iowa’s turnout was hardly earthshaking—only one in six of the eligible adults participated. The Democratic winner, Barack Obama, received the votes of just 4 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor, attracted the support of a mere 2 percent of Iowa adults. Nevertheless, the 16.3 percent turnout level was not only an all-time Iowa record, it was easily the highest percentage ever recorded for a presidential caucus, and about eight times the average for such contests.’

“Because a caucus is an event hosted and run by political parties, attendance is more than just casting a vote. In fact, the process can take several hours as state parties deal with party business and people have the opportunity to give speeches to try and persuade voters to back their candidate. In contrast, a primary more closely resembles a regular election–you show up to a polling location, ask for your party’s ballot, then cast your vote.”

That’s incredible. The all-time record Iowa Caucus and national presidential caucus turnout was 16 percent in Iowa in 2008. Average Caucus turnout is around 7 percent. Iowa Dems gave Obama his great Iowa boost with just 4 percent. Huckabee got his little moment with 2 percent. Pathetic.

Can’t Go to the Party Even I Want To…

I live in a purplish, presidentially semi-disputed (though perhaps now more blue than red) state (Iowa). While living here (since 2005), I’ve never been able to act on the advice of left “strategic voting” advocates who tell me to hold my nose and vote “for” the Democrat’s corporate-neoliberal presidential candidate (Obama in 2008 and 2012) to block the terrible Republican contender. Never having bought into the notion that voting is the most important way to bring about progressive change (I am much more impressed by the urgency and relevance of social movements beneath and beyond the quadrennial election spectacles), I always “waste” by vote on a third party candidate. The notion of me actually poking a presidential ballot for the vicious warmonger and arch-neoliberal Wall Street tool Hillary Clinton next November is unthinkable No amount of liberal or progressive Democratic name-calling – “spoiler,” “Nader,” “sexist” (false, Hillary is no progressive friend of women) – is going to fix that.

What about the semi-populist New Deal liberal Bernie Sanders (no “socialist,” democratic or otherwise) – could I vote for him as the “lesser evil” against the Republican Party? Maybe, perhaps, for what that’s worth. Or maybe not, for reasons I’ve explained at great length on this and other left venues. I guess I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. It is very unlikely I’ll have the option, however, as Sanders himself acknowledges [2]. Let’s face it: the notion of the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party letting a self-declared “socialist” become its presidential nominee is pretty damn far-fetched.

One thing is clear: I don’t have to agonize much about what to do on Caucus night. I’m scheduled for work – well, for paid work (employment [3]) – between 2 and 10 pm that day. I couldn’t Caucus even if I wanted to. (Maybe I should have told the Bernie and Hillary campaigns that before they sent a small forest’s worth of campaign materials to my mailbox).

It’s a chilling realization: I’m disenfranchised as far as the great “democratic” Iowa Caucus is concerned – along with tens of thousands of fellow workers (at least I’m not alone). Think about it!

A different version of this essay appeared on ZNet


1 As Left Business Observer’s Doug Henwood notes in his recent volume on Hillary Clinton, the authoritarian and imperial, fake-progressive “Hillary is a symptom of a deep sickness in the American political system, produced by the structural features designed to limit popular power that James Madison [and Alexander Hamilton and John Jay – P.S.] first mused about in The Federalist Papers and that the authors of the Constitution inscribed in our basic law. Those inhibiting Constitutional features include the division of power among the branches, judicial review, and the deeply undemocratic structure of the Senate, all supplemented with a variety of schemes over the decades to limit the franchise. Add to that the quasi-official status of a two-party Congress, the ability of the rich to buy legislation and legislators, and the gatekeeping role of the [corporate] media and you have a system that offers voters little more than the choice of which branch of the elite is going to screw them…While it’s sometimes fashionable to complain that our democracy has been taken from us, things have always been pretty much this way.” D. Henwood, My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (OR Books, 2015), 7.

2 Sanders said the following after a meeting with Obama in the White House last week: “I’m not saying we can do what Barack Obama did in 2008. I wish we could, but I don’t think we can.”

3 A student of mine once observed that equating work with employment is like equating sex with prostitution.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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