The first symbolic hurdle of the presidential campaign is anti-democratic, meaningless, even harmful.
The armies of the media are gathering in the American heartland. With each new poll come shrieks of joy, or panic. When Monday night finally arrives, this first test of the candidates will be treated as an immeasurably consequential event, honored by column-miles of type and pixels, and uncountable hours of analysis—almost all of which will conceal the cold, hard reality: The Iowa caucuses have become a blight on American politics.
For 40 years, a state with an otherwise admirable civic life has been the scene of a quadrennial exercise that is the antithesis of a rational, accessible democratic process. By any measure—participation and representativeness, to mention two—it fails the most basic test of what you would want in an exercise that so dominates the attention and resources of campaigns and the media.
Iowa looks nothing like the rest of the nation, and its wintry, time-consuming caucuses make participation difficult, if not impossible, for much of the citizenry—especially those with limited economic means. The Democratic caucuses in particular take two of the core principles of a free system—the secret ballot and one-person-one-vote—and throw them away.
Indeed, if you look beyond the color and the pageantry, beyond the county fairs and butter cows, and appreciate the real workings and impact of the caucuses, you realize that Iowa is neither a useful bellwether or an important test for candidates. Moreover, there are baleful consequences of the inflated status of Iowa: It distorts the political process and leads to bad public policy.
Iowa survives and flourishes as a political ritual for the same reason that bad people remain in power and bad policies remain in place: those who benefit from it can make the cost of challenging it too high. If there is no hope of unseating the caucuses from their privileged perch, it’s at least worth understanding how we got here—and at what cost.
Iowa isn’t an immutable fact of American political life. It began its rise to outsize importance only a few decades ago, through mere happenstance. In 1968, opponents of the Vietnam War, looking to mount challenges to the policy and to President Lyndon Johnson, discovered in state after state that they were effectively shut out of the process of choosing delegates. Primaries were few, and in many states, delegates had been chosen months before, with little or no public notice. In the wake of the tumultuous, divisive Chicago Democratic National Convention, a commission was formed to propose ways of opening up the process. Many states chose the primary route; Iowa chose a different path.