Signs of a Gathering Storm: Iowa Caucus Report


This is a quick, morning after reflection from Iowa City. The Iowa Caucus results were exactly as I expected. Donald Trump got bested by Ted Cruz despite his somewhat higher poll ratings. Of course: The Donald did not have a ground game to match his opinion numbers (gee, imagine that). Cruz was obviously more popular with the Evangelical “Christians” who are prominent in the Iowa Republican Party.

Rubio creamed everyone else in the so-called “moderate” GOP camp. Naturally: Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are pathetic.

Bernie and Hillary fought to a virtual coin-toss tie, replete with literal coin-tosses in some Iowa precincts. This was just as the last Des Moines Register poll indicated.

No surprises.

I had written off any chance of being able to report on the Iowa Caucus from Iowa City, ground zero for Berniemania. I was working an evening shift (2 to 10 pm) at Iowa City’s local giant corporate monopoly-capitalist factory (and no, I am not referring to the University of Iowa, though I could be), filling hoppers with small plastic bottles destined to be filled with North America’s favorite shampoo.

And it was alright. The line was going down a lot and there was plenty of time to talk to some of my fellow workers. One of them was from Guinea and speaks four languages: French, English, Arabic, and his local African dialect. He plans to attend medical school.

Another was a woman from Haiti who also (imagine) speaks four languages: French, Spanish, English, and Creole. She was asking me for advice on how to publish a book on her life.

Another co-worker was a young white kid who is doing graphic artwork for an e-comic book. He showed me some of his (very impressive) sketch-work.

I enjoy these people. It struck me once again that a lot of very interesting and brilliant people are doing some very devalued and alienating wage-work in America.

Another co-worker is a young and somewhat awkward, endearing bi-lingual Latino college student who wants to teach high school someday. He was in the break-room at 6:15, hoping to caucus for Sanders. I informed that he had exactly 45 minutes to sign in. Did he know where his caucus site was? “Holy shit, dude,” I told him, “you better find out.” He ran out of there.

I had been joking around with folks, telling them that the company’s CEO was a close friend of Donald Trump and that at 6 pm we would all be bussed to an Iowa caucus site and told to caucus for The Donald or be fired. I think two workers actually believed me.

Then came my pleasant surprise. The word came down at 7 pm: we were all being sent home because of a product changeover. “Sorry. Hope you weren’t counting on eight paid hours.” There were no apologies necessary for me. (I’ve never been a big fan of wage labor).

Reflecting that a leading caucus site was right in the middle of my bike ride home, I figured “what the hell. This is political history.” By 7:25, steel-tipped work-boots and all, I was standing at the back of Iowa City High School’s cafeteria, watching the Democratic presidential Caucus spectacle unfold. There were 600 caucusers in the room, almost evenly split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

I had an interesting discussion about the unmitigated evil that is Hillary Clinton (more on that below) with a middle-aged couple in from New York to observe the curious Midwestern proceedings. We traded notes on ugly Clinton history. We laughed about the comparative absence of any actual contestation around the presidential election by the time the spectacle reaches Chicago and New York. I didn’t tell them I was Left of Bernie.

The first thing that struck me was how completely white this crowd was compared to my co-workers. At least 80 percent of the temporary production workers at the aforementioned factory are Black, most from Africa. Among the 600-plus people in the cafeteria, there could not have more than five people of color. It seemed appropriate to me that the words “caucus” and “Caucasian” share the same first four letters!

I saw two Black men in the cafeteria. One stood with the Hillary folks. He wore a T-shirt depicting Barack Obama as Superman: “Super-O.” The other black guy sat with the Sanders people. I heard him tell the Clinton crowd that they were “a bunch of Republicans.”

The second thing that struck me was the differences in age and affluence between the 300 Hillary supporters standing to the right side of the cafeteria (wearing the little Hillary sticker with an arrow pointing, well, to the right) and the 300 Sanders supporters standing on the left. The Hillary people were considerably more white-haired. They wore more expensive clothes. They were older and richer. A bunch of them looked like, well, like Republicans.

The Bernie people on the whole were younger, less well-dressed, and more, shall we say, countercultural in appearance. Which is not to say that there weren’t plenty of white-haired folks on the Sanders side, including a number of 60-something gentleman with pony tails. One of these guys looked just liked David Crosby!

There were plenty of women on the Sanders side. As far as I could tell, it was a 50-50 gender split over there.

The third thing struck me was the sheer and despicable ignorance, stupidity, and/or disingenuousness of the people who spoke on behalf of Hillary Clinton right before the 20-minute period of time in which the Hillary and the Bernie supporters sought to “persuade” uncommitted caucusers over to their side. Hillary’s Precinct One captain was a bouncy, middle-aged brown-haired woman who wanted everyone to know that Hillary is a “true progressive” because Mrs. Clinton graduated from Yale Law School and could have walked into a top corporate position but “chose instead to work for poor and minority children at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)…All this talk about Hillary being ‘pro-business’ and ‘right wing’ is nonsense,” because, the precinct captain claimed, “more than 90 percent of Hillary’s campaign contributions have come from ordinary middle-class donors, not from big corporations.”

The New York couple and I shuddered. Like me, they know some Clinton history and have a capacity for detecting populism-manipulating bullshit. They know that in Arkansas during the 1970s and 1980s Bill and Hillary helped pioneer the pro-Big Business, right-wing, neoliberal wing of the contemporary Republican-lite Democratic Party. They know that Bill and Hillary made their early mark in Arkansas by attacking public education and teachers’ unions. They know that the Clintons passed the pro-Big Business, investor rights North American Free Trade Agreement and the disastrous deregulation of finance during the 1990s. They know that Hillary personally oversaw the killing of hopes for real (single-payer, Canadian-style) national health insurance in 1993 and 1994.

They know that Hillary heartily approved Bill and New Gingrich’s vicious and punitive neoliberal elimination of AFDC – of poor women and children’s prior entitlement of federal family cash assistance – in the Orwellian name of “personal responsibility” two decades ago. They know that that terrible action cost the Clintons the public loss of their prior friendship with the CDF’s founders Marian and Peter Wright Edelman. They know that the Clintons’ pernicious “welfare reform” has proven to be a disaster for poor families. They know that campaign finance’s malignant “free speech” influence is weighted in dollars and that Wall Street and other wealthy sectors have far outspent “ordinary” people when it comes filling “Hillary Inc.’s” war chest.

They know that corporate and financial America hasn’t provided Hillary with lucrative backing without capitalist strings attached and that the backing has come with full knowledge that her populist- and progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric is nothing more than cynical marketing necessity. And they know that Hillary’s is a bellicose and imperial militarist who voted for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and promises to inflict considerable bloodshed on the global stage. (We had some time to talk during the “persuasion” period!)

Another Hillary speaker was a 30-something white man who told us that he has a daughter and that this was “our chance to make history by putting a woman in the White House.” He didn’t even attempt to suggest that there was anything more to it than pure-and-simple identity politics. He said nothing about policy, nothing about ideology or values or Hillary’s commitment (real or fake) to the common good. He related nothing, of course, about the Clinton’s numerous and many-sided assaults on poor and working class women at home and abroad. He just mentioned gender, in and of itself. So, Margaret Thatcher for president? Condoleezza Rice? How about Eva Braun?

After “persuasion” (the 20-minute period when the “viable” camps compete for un-decided caucusers), Hillary eked out a narrow delegate victory (6 to 5) in Precinct One. I left slightly dejected only to happen the younger and less affluent Precinct Seventeen in City High’s auditorium. An old acquaintance of mine showed me the numbers there: (a) the biggest precinct turnout in history (900, more than 200 above the prior record from the year of Obama) (b) a crushing 2 to 1 victory for Sanders.

Wow, I thought to myself, what a difference a little bit of college town geography makes. Precinct 17, it appears has more college students, young people who will be entering the miserable labor market in the stinking, “elite”-rigged New Gilded Age of savage inequality, rampant economic precarity, and environmental collapse brought to us by global neoliberal capitalism and its many political agents, including Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“Bigger than Obama,” I said to my acquaintance. “Damn. And this time it’s for an actual progressive, not a fake one.” A young lady, a college student, gave me a big smile when she heard that.

I left the high school and found that the back tire on my bike was flat. I had a half-mile walk home in the cool and misty silence. There were rumors of an approaching winter storm. It gave me time for reflection. I’ve been quite critical from the anti-capitalist and anti-imperial Left of Sanders, of the Iowa Caucus (which I was able to observe only because of a fluke of a production-line shutdown), and the quadrennial candidate-centered presidential electoral extravaganza. I stand by my criticisms.

Still, I can’t lie. It felt good to see that vicious neoliberal sociopath Hillary take a black eye at City High. And it felt good to see hundreds of people ready to stand up for a politician who calls himself a “democratic socialist,” even if he’s really just a social-democratically included New Deal liberal at best – and a sadly imperial one at that.

There’s something to work with in all that, not to be taken lightly. I see a lot of the people who stood on the left side of the cafeteria refusing to line up dutifully behind the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party in coming months and years.

Something left and radically democratic is up with young folks and others and it’s not going to disappear with the eventual fading of Bernie. Consider it an approaching left storm, bigger than the electoral major party Sanders sensation. We may well be moving into a good time to talk about revolution and socialism, the real things.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).