Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
For all the talk about the “town hall meeting” character of the Iowa caucuses, this is not what democracy looks like. Awash in big money, manipulated by distant donors and Super PAC consultants, defined by negative TV advertising and the crude calculus of party insiders, caucuses that might once have provided a credible opening for presidential campaigning have degenerated into bad theater. The fight encouraged the worst instincts of a news media more prone to stenography than journalism and narrowed the political options for a nation in desperate need of an expanded discourse. As such, the caucuses provided an ugly start to a nominating process that needs to be reformed—not in isolation but as part of a much broader agenda to renew the promise of American democracy.
What was striking was that at a point when Republicans are supposedly all charged up to take on President Obama, their 2012 caucuses drew barely 3,000 more voters than they did in 2008. The relentless negativity didn’t help. Mitt Romney spent millions to take apart anyone who began to get traction. Rick Perry aired negative ads to prevent Rick Santorum from becoming the default choice of social conservatives. Then Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann ganged up on libertarian outlier Ron Paul. After the better part of a decade of campaigning for his party’s nomination, after spending millions from his own accounts and having millions more spent on his behalf by Super PACs, Romney could manage only an eight-vote “victory” over Santorum, who just weeks ago was polling less than the margin of error.
The problem goes beyond this year’s crop of candidates. There’s an old and still unresolved debate about whether Iowa and New Hampshire are the right places to begin the nominating process of the two major parties that dominate our politics. These small states are particularly unrepresentative this year: not only are they disproportionately white; their unemployment rates are roughly three points below the national average. While neither has been immune to the recession, both are dramatically more prosperous than bigger and more battered states like Michigan and Ohio. The national debate, driven by the media focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, has been warped to underemphasize the need for job creation and overemphasize the far right’s focus on killing Obama’s health insurance reforms and promoting Representative Paul Ryan’s schemes to turn Medicare into a voucher program and begin the privatization of Social Security.
The GOP caucuses are so skewed toward the hard right that, as former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Art Neu said before the event, “The Republican Party has been overtaken by evangelicals and the Tea Party. This is not the same Republican Party I used to be active in.” The GOP candidates made no effort to appeal to the great mass of voters. Indeed, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson noted, “You’ve got $12 million in ads being pushed at 150,000 people, at most. It’s a very unrepresentative slice of America, sold as the mainstream…. There’s not a single ad on poverty, on more Americans being on food stamps than ever…. The issues that really matter to most people are not on the agenda.”
So this is how the 2012 election season begins, on a note of dysfunction that exposes the structural flaws of our political process. Americans who want a better politics should be at least as concerned about those structural flaws as they are about the positioning of the contenders.
A hundred years ago Nebraska Congressman George Norris argued for open and uniform primaries that would give the fullest possible power in the nominating process to the people. “Norris recognized that if you want to reform politics, you have to pay attention to how the candidates are nominated,” says FairVote’s Rob Richie, a leading reform advocate. “What we’ve seen in Iowa this year, and what’s playing out in other states, reminds us that he was right.”
The need to reform the nominating process can’t be separated from the need for other reforms. In the shadow of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, there is chilling evidence that a new class of bosses—consultants running Super PACs funded by corporations and wealthy donors—is gaming the process with such skill that 2012 is seeing the renewal of Gilded Age politics. Remarkably, one of the first victims was a veteran defender of money in politics: Newt Gingrich. At the start of December, he was leading in the polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers. After a month in which, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, 45 percent of the political ads in Iowa attacked Gingrich, the former House Speaker plummeted in the polls.
But it’s likely that nothing we’ve seen so far will rival what happens when Karl Rove swings his American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS operations into full gear—or, for that matter, when Super PACs run by Obama’s allies start firing back. This reliance by both parties on secretive groups funded by big donors leads Fred Wertheimer of the Democracy 21 watchdog group to refer to Super PACs as “the most dangerous vehicles for corruption in American politics today.” He’s right, and one of the most reassuring signals from Iowa was the ramped-up fight by activists for a constitutional amendment to challenge the “corporate personhood” premises underpinning Citizens United.
The push can’t stop there. The GOP debates illustrated the need for reforms of an increasingly dumbed-down major-media “journalism” that does not counter what Paul Krugman describes as “post-truth politics,” in which candidates feel free to make absurd claims like Romney’s that Democrats are determined “to put free enterprise on trial.” And where was the media outcry about the barriers to ballot access in Virginia that kept all candidates except Romney and Paul off that state’s primary ballot? That’s one of many new, unsettling constraints on electoral democracy. Republican governors and legislatures across the country have implemented restrictive voter-ID laws and erected new barriers to early voting and same-day registration. These are already a factor during the primary process and will be a serious threat to participation in November by low-income voters, students and the elderly. Indeed, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as 5 million eligible voters will find it “significantly harder” to cast ballots.
The progressives of a century ago were right when they declared that the best way to cure the ills of democracy is with more democracy. And the best way to get more democracy is by reforming the electoral process, getting corporate cash out of politics, renewing journalism’s spirit of holding the powerful accountable and, above all, fighting to assure that every American can vote and that those votes will be counted. The Iowa caucuses started the 2012 campaign on plenty of sour notes. Too many politicians and pundits are satisfied with that dysfunction. But we the people should not let it end there.