This year’s Iowa caucuses were a pratfall shackled to a debacle and wrapped inside a horror. The failure of organizers to get and report results promptly has provoked demands for change: Scrap the format, change the way results are tabulated or cancel Iowa’s first place on the calendar. But the spectacle was a distraction from the graver defect, which is an overdose of democracy.
The caucuses were once an exercise in irrelevance, and presidential primaries were only slightly more than that. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without entering a single primary. Party officials made the decision. But afterward, Democrats led by Sen. George McGovern changed the rules to give ordinary voters a bigger say.
Things have never been the same. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, an obscure one-term Georgia governor with little support among party officials, surprised people by announcing that he would enter every primary, and in a crowded field, managed to win — starting in Iowa. Since then, nominees have been picked by the voters.
The smoke-filled rooms packed with insiders where candidates were eliminated or elevated are long gone. But the Iowa disaster is more evidence that maybe it’s time to bring them back, in a smoke-free form.
The old method was disowned for being undemocratic, secretive and exclusionary. But what was the original smoke-filled room? Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the framers labored behind closed doors, sworn to confidentiality, to hammer out a Constitution that has lasted 231 years. The delegates were chosen not by the voting public but by state legislatures.
The old system for choosing presidential nominees didn’t yield such bad results. Among the products were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. More important, it put power in the hands of party stalwarts, who had a stake not only in winning each election but also in keeping their institution strong over the long term.
As a result, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith tells me: “You had two parties, one center-right and one center-left, with an emphasis on ‘center.’ They were much more reflective of the country.”
The presidential primaries are one reason for the greater polarization of the two parties. They have created opportunities for outsiders and zealots to compete and win.
What matters in these contests is not building broad appeal but cultivating factions of intense supporters with slashing rhetoric and flame-broiled ideology. Victory in the Iowa caucuses has gone to such hard-liners as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.
Donald Trump, a onetime pro-choice Democrat who became a right-wing rabble-rouser, would have been blocked by the GOP establishment. Party insiders and Republican elected officials likely would have chosen a relative moderate such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich.
Bernie Sanders nearly won the Democratic nomination in 2016 even though he had not previously been a Democrat. He and his leftist followers could emerge triumphant at this year’s convention and then lead the party over a cliff in November, as McGovern did in 1972. Under a process controlled by people who have been elected to public office or party posts, Sanders wouldn’t have a chance.
That option may sound unfair and anti-democratic. But I’m reminded of H.L. Mencken’s definition of an idealist as “one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.” Just because democracy is the best method in many instances doesn’t mean it’s right in all.
The flaw in the new system, wrote political scientist Judith Center in 1974, is that it “challenged the ancient wisdom that has held that the purpose of a political party is to mobilize majorities to win general elections, and that compromise and accommodation are eminently acceptable and valuable means to that end.” The voters always had the final authority.
It may be no coincidence that the more democracy we introduce into nominating campaigns, the more uncompromising the parties become. As the parties grow more strenuously ideological and intolerant of internal differences, the public feels more alienated.
In 1961, according to the Pew Research Center, 79% of Americans said they were either Democrats or Republicans. Today, only 55% do. And as voters put off by uncompromising positions leave either party to become independents, the more extreme elements in each gain even more control.
It seemed like such a good idea to take these decisions out of those smoke-filled rooms. But today, we’re choking on the results.