December 26, 2007

Ivory Meets Corn: the Sun’s Caucus Blog from Iowa

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DAVENPORT, Iowa — First day “out on the campaign trail!” Picture it as a kind of overgrown trail, whose trail markers are in fact cameras, flashing so incessantly that, from far way, one can barely see what the trail itself is. It is a sort of imagined place, its mundane reality a far cry from the media’s glossy representation that we see on TV.
In a small campaign office yesterday in the eastern Iowan city of Muscatine, a man walked in to tell staffers some critical campaign news: his friend Richard was supporting their candidate. “Would you support him too?” the staffers all eagerly asked. “I don’t know,” was the reply. “Just… my friend likes him, and he’s a good guy….”
After a few minutes of convincing, the man stumbled out of the office, drunker than your dear writer had realized. Maybe he’ll show up to caucus, the staffers wondered aloud. They had stuffed quite a bit of literature in his pockets.
With just under a week to go before the January 3 Caucuses, Iowans like this man (and not like this man) are being called something like six or seven times a night by campaign staffers and pollsters. The callers ask politely, but their need to know is urgent. They care not so much who will be president but who other people want to be president.
We might think of this as a worshipping of the individual preference gone so far it is like reverse monarchy: the voting consumer is king. Whether or not Iowans would rejoice in such status, many are sick of the calling. Many have made up their minds; some don’t care. And the campaign workers are used to getting hung up on quite a bit. To the extent Iowans are in the media’s rotating role of America’s Top Spectacle, they know it.
Ironically enough, the juiciest part of the latest LA Times/Bloomberg poll, which shows Clinton leading Obama 29 percent to 26 percent, is the margin of error: five percentage points! That is, we don’t know who is really leading. So, dearest media, why don’t you pack it up and leave? Iowa is cold.
But the drive to know is obsessive. The public is in the passenger seat; MSNBC is driving, and just won’t shut up about its stupid baby grandson who eats stuff off the floor.
What more is there to say after all? We don’t know. On Jan. 3, those who show up (a mere 6% of eligible Iowan voters in 2004) will choose delegates at the precinct level, who in turn select county, then state, then national delegates, who in turn elect… the presidential nominee of each party.
That is why our democracy is really, really indirect. Of course, this precinct level is where the whole public can get involved; it is the kind of democratic flash in a long, bureaucratic process. And that flash is sometimes… mundane and small. As few as 15 or 20 people will show up to their local churches and high schools in some smaller Iowan precincts.
The Democratic Party’s version of this process is complicated and heavily deliberative: caucus-goers stand in different corners of the room to support different candidates, and then try to convince each other to switch corners.
This small-scale discussion feels democratic, but it sure has its absurdities! Campaign staffers will supply a steady stream of cookies to try to keep people in their corner. One NRA supporter is bringing buffalo jerky (tastier than beef, he said) to keep his antsy friends there long enough to be counted.
So imagine scrolling through your Facebook “friends,” and inviting every single one to your party, or your performance, or your Facebook group about how you dropped your phone in the toilet and you “need #s.” Even that kid you met once at a party. The one you pass on campus and don’t say hello to. Actually, the Iowa caucuses are a Facebook event. So no imagination is necessary.
According to this logic of the advertiser, it doesn’t matter what your friends think—they’re bodies. Perhaps a kind of interesting twist on Machiavelli, then—meaningful ends might justify meaningless means. In Iowa, snow-shoveling is perhaps the most practical form of this. Hillary’s workers are said to have their shovels ready. And perhaps it was Al Borland, or President Bush, who said that neighbors with snow-blowers make good political allies.
Of course, the great thing about democracy is that you can vote for whoever you want, and you don’t have to show any ideological credentials to anyone, or prove how you thought it out. And many Iowans will coax their friends over to another point of view with the best of arguments. Still, we ought to be very afraid of a politics overly affected by mass consumerism. It will cease to mean anything.
Still, what democratic promise there is in an institution like the caucus—bodies in deliberation! This is one Cornellian’s disappointing find: those aren’t always thinking bodies. Disappointing, but as the old saying goes, there’s no use crying over spilled intellectual idealism…

Jeremy Siegman is a Sun columnist. He can be reached at jsiegman@cornellsun.com.