Forced Out of Politics?

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty. — NYT

The Times manages the appropriate — all snark excluded — balance between fact reportage and wistful discomfort with the caucus regime. The logic of equality pressures us toward something that politics, to work well, cannot deliver: equal suffrage, every issue, every election, every time. We can’t but grow irritated with Iowa when we hear of active-duty citizens who can’t impact a vote that will probably be decisive in shaping the general election — citizens whose votes would count hugely if they could devote the time to caucusing. But without doubt the baby sitter that would enable (both) parents to caucus without worrying about their children is not the sort of good that politics itself should provide. Indeed, when we face a civic duty we hate, like jury duty, we proudly and eagerly point out that we can’t afford the time off, and we get off the hook, too, and rightly so. But when a civic opportunity appears that stokes our envy, not our pride, our same obligations taste sour.

The Times is good enough to acknowledge that, all discomfort and dilemma aside, the Iowans who want to caucus but can’t because they’re too busy aren’t being forced out of politics:

Legally the issue falls into a murky area. The Constitution promises no affirmative right to vote, just assurances that specific categories of people cannot be excluded. And because the parties do not collect demographic data, no one really knows who does and does not participate. Besides, since the caucuses are run not by government but instead privately by the parties, the courts are reluctant to intervene in all but the most egregious cases.

In other words, no specific individual is being harmed, no protected class is being harmed, no government vote is taking place, and the venerable caucus system is a private privilege, not a public right. Where we really feel hypocritical is elevating Iowa to the colossally significant status it now enjoys — one because a private affair has taken on great public import, but two because as a private affair it’s exclusive, and exclusive status is anathema to the sentiments that drive and reproduce democratic politics. Not just Iowans without babysitters but Californians with them can’t play ball. Their Americanhood simply matters less, and although Americanhood isn’t relevant at all to the question of whether the Iowa caucus is legitimate, it dominates the way we democratic souls think about moral rectitude.

But I wonder whether the reason Iowa’s jumped to such prominence has to do exactly with the political rigor and specific exclusivity of the caucus system. Maybe someone can tell me whether this is nonsense and Iowa simply wrangled a first-place slot and kept it, but when I look at the demands the caucus system places on candidates, and the uncertainty of outcome it generates right up until caucusing day, I think it generates more politics than would happen otherwise. It’s not just about pulling a lever, casting a ballot, or standing up and bleating out a name. The rallies, the volunteering, the editorializing, the presence of political questions on public lips — these things wane when the envious itch for equal participation may be scratched safe in the knowledge that everyone’s input reduces finally to one lousy vote. When we’re all just lever-pullers, our political liberty transforms into equality in servitude. Under such circumstances, as we know, many are so comfortably unenvious that they don’t vote at all.

And then another round of democratic anxiety transpires, in which maybe those citizens are being ‘forced out of politics’, too. But that problem we can repeatedly resign ourselves to. Psychologically, as the Times puts it, what elevates Iowa to a nagging obsession is that the “caucuses bring power only to some:”

“It disenfranchises certain voters or makes them make choices between putting food on the table and caucusing,” said Tom Lindsey, a high school teacher in Iowa City.

Finally the argument about politics is lifted to superpolitical terms. Even if caucusing is politically and legally kosher, the argument has to run, shouldn’t Iowa’s political parties — out of something resembling moral guilt — democratize their democracy? As Tocqueville put it, we like liberty but we love equality, and if inequality is the price of liberty we turn against the latter. Seeing politics in action turns out to be only a subsidiary good. And real politics — well-informed exercises of political agency by self-selecting agents making decisive face-to-face judgments — turns out to be something we wish wasn’t worth the cost.

So what do we do? Probably Iowa is too hardwired into the system now to change. But fatalism here complements fatalism in so many other places, and we’ve accustomed ourselves to the notion that some, if not most, anxieties can’t be eliminated by cure. We’ll cope with Iowa’s power imbalances as we cope with Washington’s — trying, as we bounce back and forth between hopeful optimism and embittered cynicism, to find and enjoy moments of fugitive respite in the multifarious analgesic distractions of our apolitical lifestyles.

Crossposted at Postmodern Conservative.