There is not a thinking person who can defend the Iowa caucuses on any rational grounds. It is almost comically unfair that such a small, rural, overwhelmingly white state has such outsized influence on who gets to lead the most powerful country in the history of the world.
Worse still, the fact that Iowa holds a caucus and not a simpler primary means that a shockingly low number of people turn up to participate. The effect is that the political class is obsessed with Iowa for a year, while a small group of Iowa farmers exploit that obsession for huge, counterproductive ethanol subsidies.
I see this as obvious and incontrovertible. As I traveled to Des Moines on Monday morning, I took comfort in knowing that nothing could alter my disdain for the caucuses.
But when it was all over, I had gone through a crisis of faith. An embarrassingly un-hip sentimentality washed over me after I watched the most earnest and pure expression of democracy I had ever seen. I could almost hear the theme from “The West Wing” as Iowans exercised their God-given right to be first.
When you work in media, you become used to a certain kind of snark when it comes to politics. This is particularly true on Twitter. Everything is a game, and everyone is looking for the perfect joke, the one that shows how much they know about “the game” while maintaining a cool detachment from it. God forbid you treat politics as something that can mean life or death for people.
Iowa caucus-goers are the opposite. Not a single person I saw at George Washington Carver community school—the site of Precinct 22 for the Democrats and Precincts 33 and 34 for the Republicans—showed a hint of this kind of cynicism.
After Neil, the caucus chair for Precinct 34, asked whether anyone wanted to watch over his shoulder while he counted the votes, I piped up and said: “Why? Do you think they don’t trust you?” I was reveling in my cleverness when one of the caucus-goers yelled out: “It’s not about trust, it’s about accountability.” And of course, he was right.
The precincts that caucused at the school were heavily Democratic. Among the Republicans, a Trump supporter explained his vote by saying that he knew someone who was on disability despite the fact that they could still do “mixed martial arts.” Another Republican caucus-goer lamented a breakdown of law and order, and that several cars had parked in the fire lane that night. Another woman said she wanted to bring God back to American life.
The Democrats were much livelier. Roughly 200 people packed into the cafeteria, most of them wearing T-shirts supporting their favorite candidate. One tall 20-something was wearing a Run the Jewels sweatshirt. I talked to a burly man with a buzzcut and two full sleeve tattoos who would not have been out of place at a Hells Angels conference—a history professor who was caucusing for Bernie Sanders because he cares about poor people. A polite middle-aged man was caucusing for Martin O’Malley because he had the most detailed policies. The caucus chair, whose father had held a caucus in his living room in the 1988 campaign, was supporting Hillary Clinton because his 8-year-old daughter talked him into it.
It became clear that O’Malley didn’t have the requisite 15% support to be a viable candidate, and excitement in the room began to rise. There weren’t many O’Malley supporters, maybe a dozen. Nevertheless, the Clinton people began to beg them to come to their side, while the Sanders crowd began to chant, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
I watched with the anticipation of a goal-line stand in the dying moments of a Super Bowl. The O’Malley supporters hesitated for several moments, shot one another a few inquiring looks, and then broke en masse to the Bernie side of the room. The room erupted in applause. Hugs and high-fives were exchanged. In the end, Sanders supporters outnumbered Clinton supporters almost 2-to-1 in the precinct.
A caucus is absurdly messy. You can imagine a million ways the votes could be miscounted. It seems incredibly old-fashioned in an age in which technology could assure you a simple, clean, basically foolproof election. But it does feel like democracy in action.
And at a time when citizen participation in government can feel pointless, that’s a welcome reprieve. I asked Fusion’s Jorge Ramos what he thought of the whole thing, and he said, “It really gets to me when I see this. In Mexico, often you can suffer violence just for voting. Here people come, they bring their kids, they participate. We sometimes take it for granted.”
The Iowa caucus is still wrong. But I’ll never snark about my right to participate in the process again.
Nando Vila is Vice President of Programming at Fusion and a correspondent for America with Jorge Ramos.