We should have guessed that something was wrong when Warren Beatty strolled out just before midnight, with Faye Dunaway on his arm, and announced to the world that “La La Land” was the winner of the Democrats’ 2020 Iowa caucuses.
OK, that was obviously a lame joke. The reality is that if you tuned into the over-caffeinated TV coverage of Iowa in the middle of the night, absolutely nothing was happening —in a jaw-dropping political disaster that was probably a relief to Howard Dean, whose 2004 scream will never again be cited as the worst politics thing to ever happen in the Hawkeye State.
The Iowa Democrats’ epic fail —as I write this 16 hours after the caucus doors closed, no official results have been reported, in a contest that consumed tens of millions of dollars and many hours of TV airtime —feels both unprecedented and yet weirdly inevitable. Already in this first and supposedly most important contest in the choosing of a Democrat to challenge President Donald Trump in November, the New York Times had endorsed not one but two candidates, the major pre-election poll was canceled because of one complaining Pete Buttigieg voter, and the electorate seemed paralyzed by fear of picking a candidate who’d become prey for America’s bully in chief. A night with tens of thousands of voters and no results seems fitting.
Even normally glib TV commentators struggled to fill the abyss in the dead of a winter night on the American prairie. In a moment that will live in television infamy, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer did a live phone interview with a precinct caucus leader who’d been on hold with Iowa Democratic headquarters for more than an hour, which caused him to get hung up on —as millions listened live —when a party operative finally picked up.
One could make the case that what happened in Iowa on Monday was embarrassing but almost funny, and no big deal —soon to be forgotten by a nation where the 24-hour news cycle’s been condensed to about 51 minutes. The results will be posted any day now —any day now —and the candidates have given their bizarre 1 a.m. victory-no-really speeches and moved on to New Hampshire, where the votes may actually be counted. And hasn’t Iowa had its past disasters before, including a 2012 GOP race where Rick Santorum was declared a narrow loser and then a winner two weeks later, when it didn’t matter much anymore?
But Monday night was no laughing matter. Iowa’s Indecision 2020 happened to occur right in the middle of the biggest legitimacy crisis for American democracy since the Civil War. Just three days earlier in Washington, a majority of 51 Republican senators voted to shut down Trump’s impeachment trial and boost the notion that it’s no big deal when a U.S. president abuses the power of his office, even when it’s to cheat in his own election. Now comes Iowa to pour ethanol-based gasoline on America’s fire.
This wasn’t just a glitch, a temporary speed bump in America’s freeway of exceptionalism. No, the Iowa disaster was a dramatic example of our democratic decline. It was also a stark reminder that our rush to bring 21st century technology to voting —usually to politically wired bidders —has been an abject failure, prone to both the mundane reality of breakdowns and the very real fear of hacking by bad actors.
We have lost all faith in the very foundation of the American Experiment —our elections. That has made it easy and, frankly, understandable for conspiracy theories to flourish online, which is exactly what happened this calamitous February night. Even the Trump family had the nerve to claim the caucuses were “rigged.” Russia, are you listening to this nonsense?
This was supposed to be a morning for talking about the winners and losers. While there are arguably some early political takeaways to be had, including the unstoppable downward spiral of Joe Biden, it would be dishonest to name anyone else as the winner of the Democrats’ Iowa caucus but one Donald John Trump. For the next nine months, the GOP president will ask voters again and again, why they would trust the Democratic Party to run America when it can’t even run a one-night event in a small state?
And Trump’s attack line will work because —like all of his attack lines —it feeds on Americans’ basest fears and distrusts, that America’s cosmopolitan elites with their overpriced Ivy League degrees are both ethically corrupt and not as smart as they think. Indeed, the early reports about how the Iowa Democratic Party put its blind faith in an untested technology launched just months ago by party insiders is one more indictment of the smug technocracy that has also created a disinformation highway of manipulable social networks and easy-to-hack apps. The Democratic firm even called its shadowy app The Shadow. You can’t make this (bleep) up.
So, yes, Iowa was an unmitigated disaster, but it can also be a wake-up call, a turning point. It’s been clear for some time that many of the hallmarks of democracy in these United States are anything but, and yet we’ve been too afraid to make radical changes. Tradition is a powerful drug, and America’s political institutions are even worse than Major League Baseball when it comes to strangling themselves with the cloak of history. The modern Iowa Caucus freak show has only existed since 1976, and yet we treat it as an ancient sacrament.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in a so-far dreadful 2020, but if we start now we can start to bring back government by the people in time for 2024. Here’s how:
—Kill the Iowa caucuses. Iowa is a wonderful state (some of my ancestors farmed there) with many Midwestern nice folks who take their democracy seriously, but it’s time for its half-century in the political sun to end. A caucus system does lend an aura of “Our Town” participatory democracy, but the reality is that —even in such a politicized era —turnout is dismal, typically less than a third of New Hampshire’s primary voting rate a week later.
The reasons why are a laundry list of bad democracy. The lengthy time demands of caucusing scare away many would-be voters, especially those working extra jobs in today’s economy. As Mother Jones’ Ari Berman pointed out, the caucus system doesn’t have absentee ballots or the privacy of a secret vote, has accessibility issues for the disabled and disenfranchises felons. As frustrated ex-candidate Julian Castro and many others have also stressed, Iowa’s current status gives too much weight to a state where Democrats are 90% white and thus not reflective of the party’s diversity.
—Overhaul the primary system. The death of the Iowa caucuses as a first-in-the-nation endurance test is the perfect excuse for some tough love in radically overhauling a crazy, patchwork system that has become too messy, too expensive and way too long. A one-day national primary —suggested by some —is a bad idea because it would give too much weight to a super-rich candidate (cough, Mike Bloomberg, cough). A series of weekly regional primaries, rotated in their order every election cycle, would give a bigger say to more, and more diverse, voters.
—Fix election security. The unconscionable ability of freedom-crushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to thwart any and all election-security bills coming out of the Democrat-controlled House needs to become a four-alarm fire, with the media and voters screaming for something to be done. What happened in Iowa should be the death knell for any voting system that relies on vulnerable technology and doesn’t have a paper backup. The New York Times’ technology writer Kevin Roose was not being facetious Tuesday when he hailed how “we voted for much of the 20th century, on analog punch-card machines that spit out paper ballots to be hand-counted by election workers, with zero iPhones in sight.”
—Attack the Electoral College, and beyond. Some 244 years into the American Experiment of a constitutional republic (yes, yes, if you can keep it, ma’am) with a big dollop of democracy, that secret sauce is growing stale. An archaic system created to get buy-in from slaveholding states now means that our politics are held captive by a Senate majority from small states representing far fewer than half of all Americans, and a presidency increasingly won by the guy with the second-most votes. Major constitutional reforms are very, very hard —the Constitution set it up that way —but the Trump era has shown we have no choice but to try.
Have you heard of zero-based budgeting, when government starts anew every year to see which programs work and which one are wasting money and deserve to die? It’s time for zero-based democracy in America —to stop venerating outdated traditions that thwart the will of the people, again and again.
Starting from scratch in 2020, would a majority of the American people support an ancient idea like the Electoral College, or a Senate where the vote of a citizen from Wyoming counts 67 times as much as that of a citizen from California? I don’t think so. Nor does it make sense for two mostly white states, Iowa and now New Hampshire, to winnow the Democratic field and force out good candidates like Castro and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker before voting even starts.
This week, let’s count every vote from Monday night’s Iowa caucuses and then quickly kill it, for good, so it can never hurt our democracy again.
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.