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Iowa and the Farce of American Democracy

The Iowa Caucus results reveal a Democratic party in crisis and show that democracy is just a buzzword for the Democrats.

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PHOTOGRAPH: TOM BRENNER/GETTY IMAGES

After a near two-and-a-half year build-up to the Democratic Primary season, voters all over the country eagerly awaited the results from Iowa, which hosted the first contest of the season. But more than a day after the Iowa caucuses closed, there still hasn’t been a final winner declared, unleashing chaos within the party and drawing ridicule from Republicans. 

The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) finally released partial caucus results, which included around 60% of precincts, on Tuesday afternoon. Stunningly, despite a clear groundswell of support for Sanders, the Iowa Democratic Party is reporting that not Sanders, but Pete Buttigieg is at the top of the leaderboard.

At the time of this article, Bernie Sanders has a lead of around 1,200 votes in the popular vote count. Yet somehow, the IDP puts Pete Buttigieg ahead in state delegates, the factor that will ultimately determine the race. Buttigieg was assigned 26.9 percent of delegates while Sanders only 25.1 percent. Despite all of the outcry about Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote over Donald Trump in 2016, Democrats have managed to create a system in Iowa just as backwards as the despised electoral college. 

In Iowa, the deeply undemocratic character of the US electoral system has been highlighted once again. This is because of an Iowa caucus system that, similar to the electoral college, over-represents rural districts and under-represents cities and college towns. So while Sanders earned more the first round and final round votes he ended up with fewer delegates than Buttigieg.  Although some in the Democratic Party say they want to abolish the electoral college, their own primary system is equally undemocratic. This system is a rip-off to those Iowans who spent over two hours of their day after work attempting to vote. The mainstream media is going along with this: on Wednesday morning major news channels were heralding Buttigieg as the winner in Iowa while barely displaying the popular vote count. 

A Sketchy Election 

The results from Iowa are surrounded by doubt. After caucuses closed, the IDP mysteriously stopped reporting results because they wanted to do “quality control.” It turns out that the appropriately-named smartphone app Shadow Inc used to tally results proved to be faulty and the IDP was forced to do a manual count. The mystery does not end there. Shadow Inc’s parent company, Acronym, has several links to the Democratic Party establishment. The company was founded by the wife of Michael Halle, a former lead organizer for Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Halle now serves as an advisor to the Buttigieg campaign. David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager, also serves on the board of Acronym. The firm received tens of thousands of dollars from the Buttigieg campaign for software services as recently as this past July. 

It was highly suspicious then that with 0% of the precincts reporting Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced himself “victorious” in the Iowa Caucus. With revelations of his campaign’s links to Shadow Inc coming to light, the hashtag #MayorCheat started trending on Twitter. Later in the night, the Sanders campaign put out their own internal polling that placed Sanders at the top.

The hold on releasing caucus results came after a swell of early reports that showed Sanders over-performing and Biden under-performing, leading to accusations of election fixing circulating around social media. Even the mainstream media — outlets like CNN and NBC — harshly criticized the IDP for botching the caucus process. Many began to speculate that Iowa would no longer be the nation’s first contest in future primaries. But by Tuesday morning the narrative being put forward by CNN and MSNBC was that the IDP was incompetent and that it was Buttigieg, not Sanders who had been robbed of his moment. It is clear that the establishment and mainstream media are looking for anyone but Sanders alternative, particularly with Joe Biden’s decline. 

The Democrats are in Crisis

Everything about the Iowa Caucuses, from the results to the process, demonstrates the massive crisis that the Democratic Party finds itself in. Heading into Iowa, the race had been defined by a huge number of candidates competing and a fairly steady top two choices: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Sanders and Biden were both “brand name” political figures before announcing their campaigns and they both represent wings of the Democratic party — the progressive wing and the establishment, respectively. For most of the campaign, Biden had been leading in the polls but, in the days leading up to the Iowa caucus, Sanders had been steadily rising. This was due, in large part, to the attempts by Warren’s campaign to appeal to the establishment. Warren was the only other representative of the party’s progressive wing in the race and was splitting the vote with Sanders. However, after backing away from Medicare for All, progressives began to leave the Warren camp for Sanders. An entrance poll carried out by CNN on Monday night showed that three in five Iowa voters wanted to replace private health insurance with a government-run plan.

Despite leading in the polls since he announced his campaign, the establishment has worried about Biden’s viability. Indeed, the day before the Iowa Caucus former presidential candidate (and Biden supporter) John Kerry was caught on tape speculating about running himself to ensure that Sanders doesn’t win, a plan he later backed away from. There was, heading into Iowa, a real feeling among many that Biden was weaker than he looked on paper due, in part, to the preponderance of other pro-Establishment options. The fact that the party’s right-wing hadn’t found a single candidate behind which they could fall in line made the pre-Iowa landscape look positive for Sanders. 

Sanders, the Frontrunner? 

Sanders supporters will rightfully be outraged about the results of Monday’s caucuses in Iowa. By all calculations, he won the popular vote— a story that is developing and being subsequently buried as we write these words.  Indeed, the debacle in Iowa may end up giving a boost to his campaign since it will encourage supporters to mobilize in New Hampshire, Nevada and beyond. But what should be apparent to all of us is that the Democratic Party has no intention of respecting the democratic will of the people.

The results of the Iowa Caucuses are disastrous for the Biden camp and perhaps for the Democratic Party establishment.  Biden — long the front runner who was shown as polling neck-and-neck with Sanders just days before the caucus — came in fourth, behind Warren and barely in-front of Klobuchar. This is a humiliating defeat for the former Vice President who claimed to carry on the legacy of Barack Obama. It remains to be seen whether or not this is a bump in the road on Biden’s inevitable path to claim the nomination or if this is a true collapse of the leading establishment candidate.

Buttigieg may be a rising star for the Democratic Party establishment, homogenizing the “anyone but Sanders” sector of the party. At the same time, he may walk away from Iowa with a tarnished reputation as #MayorCheat who declared victory before any votes were made public. It is also unclear if his win in Iowa is representative of a larger shift of the establishment away from Biden and towards Buttigieg or if it was just a fluke that came down to the Caucus system, the demographic make-up of Iowa, the fact that he is a native Midwesterner, and possible malfeasance from the Iowa Democratic Party. Joe Biden heads into New Hampshire shaken but very much still alive. The race to be the establishment choice for Democratic Nominee is far from over and, as long as that race goes on, Sanders is in prime position to capitalize on the divisions within the right-wing of the Democratic party.

At the same time, the Sanders campaign is counting on not only winning over traditional Democratic Party voters, but also a surge of new, young voters. This didn’t materialize in Iowa to the extent Sanders hoped. Turn-out held relatively steady with the numbers from 2016 and saw a dip in first-time voters. This poses a major disappointment for the Democratic Party as a whole, as they were hoping a “resistance” to Trump would energize their base and bring in new voters. If Iowa is any indication, this is not happening, which is a major stumbling block for the “Anyone But Trump” campaign strategy that the Democratic Party has been implementing so far. It is also a concern for the Sanders’ campaign in the long term which is relying on energizing sectors that aren’t typical voters. Iowa’s unusual system of voting — the more time-consuming caucus system — and demographics — it is disproportionately white compared to the rest of the country — means that these results shouldn’t be taken as being necessarily indicative of a larger trend. However, if these numbers hold in New Hampshire and then in the rest of the contests, this spells danger for both Sanders and the Democrats writ large.

Crisis of the Regime 

The Iowa primary has created a left-wing interrogation of the institutions of the American regime. From the right, Donald Trump encourages his America-First base to question the legitimacy of the FBI and the Supreme Court, as well as of “sacred” proceedings like impeachment. Trump’s shameless and especially his embarrassing tweets call into question the honor of the Presidency, but the Democrats have positioned themselves as attempting to uphold it, spending the last three years talking about Russian meddling in elections and more recently, about “Ukraine interfering in American democracy.” They are the defenders of democracy, of the constitution, and of American institutions.

But Iowa– and the entire primary process– flies in the face of that. The Democrats aren’t interested in democracy. They certainly aren’t interested in accurately representing the will of their voters. To begin with, the entire primary and caucus process is undemocratic: a system in which one could win the popular vote count and not the Caucus or primary. This electoral system must be abolished: no more electoral college or superdelegates. One person, one vote. And then there are various other changes that should be made: all of the primaries should be on the same day and preference shouldn’t be given to two of the whitest states in the country. Furthermore, people should get the day off to vote, everyone over the age of 14 should be allowed to vote, in addition to imprisoned folks and undocumented immigrants.

But beyond the “legalized” undemocratic aspects of the Iowa Caucuses, the entire process is now mired in doubt. Why did Buttigieg donate money to the sketchy sounding Shadow Inc app? Why was it used? Why did it break? And why, over 24 hours later do we still not know the full results of the Iowa Caucuses? It is worth noting that similar inconsistencies in countries like Bolivia have been cause for the Organization of American States to declare elections “irregular”and call for new ones– and for the United States to call elections fraudulent (when it serves US interests of course). It is also worth noting that in 2016, the DNC actively attempted to tip the scales in favor of Clinton, campaigning against Sanders.

We don’t know what is going on in Iowa. Maybe it’s just incompetence in a hotly contested primary. And maybe a few days from now, Sanders will come out on top. But the damage has already been done: Sanders, seems to have won the popular vote did not get his “Iowa moment” in the spotlight. And it points to all of the problems with this farce of a Democratic process. Reformists like Bhaskar Sunkara would have you believe that this is no big deal, that Sanders supporters should stay the course without deeply questioning American faux-democracy or the strategy of working within a part of capital.

But the example of Iowa couldn’t be clearer: the rules of process are deeply undemocratic and rigged against the working class. That’s why the left needs to get out of the Democratic Party.  That’s why the working class shouldn’t be in the same party as Michael Bloomberg, who is buying his way into the spotlight. It’s why we shouldn’t pour hours of energy and funding into their party, or their candidates. We need a socialist, working class party, independent from the capitalists: one that knows that the real, lasting change that we need will be achieved by class struggle and revolutionary politics, one that fights tirelessly for the working class and the oppressed, and one that will reject American imperialism for an international solidarity with all of the working class across the world. The Democrats will never be that party and we cannot waste any of our time or resources trying to reform them. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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