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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Iowa First, the Nation Last

Iowa First, the Nation Last
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

If the Iowa caucuses didn't have a decisive, if not deciding, role in the presidential primaries, do you think they'd be willing to hold them last, after all the other states hold their primaries? Of course not — they wouldn't agree to go last any more than they would accept even a single state coming before them. The reason is simple: they know that holding their caucuses first means that they effectively play the kingmaker, deciding who will or at least who will probably be the Republican and Democratic candidates for president.

Is this justified? Is there something special about Iowa or the people who live there which justifies their role? Someone has to go first, naturally, but there is no reason for Iowa to always be first, forever. Iowa isn't especially representative of America and Iowans aren't especially representative of Americans. Even worse, those who actually go to the caucuses in Iowa aren't necessarily representative of Iowa itself. Insisting on having the first votes in the nation smacks of overcompensation about something.

I'm sympathetic to those who support the caucus system, but it's an undeniable problem that it manages to exclude lots of people and thereby denies them a right to participate and vote. It can be difficult enough to get people out to vote, so anything which makes that more difficult or which actively prevents people from participating has to be treated as a bug, not a feature. It would be bad enough if this only affected people who lived in Iowa, but when this is added to the state's unreasonable need to have the privilege of voting first in the nation, then everyone is ultimately affected — and harmed.

The complete disregard and/or denigration demonstrated by many defenders of the current situation towards the harm suffered by others is much like the attitude of those who are trying to defend traditional but unjustified social, political, and cultural privileges. When we think of such privileges, we will normally think of male privileges over women, white privileges over non-whites, and Christian privileges over non-Christians. Here, though, those privileges aren't obviously rooted in the usual sources.

It's a sign, I think, of how such privileges can develop around just about anything. It's a historical accident that puts the Iowa caucuses where they are, but now they are defended as much as any aspect of ethnic, racial, religious, or national identity. Telling Iowans that it would be more fair if states or regions took turns going first is like telling Christians that other religions should receive the same public benefits and rights as Christianity, or telling men that women should receive the same career, educational, and political opportunities as men.

There are interesting arguments in defense of Iowa's caucus system and as I said I am sympathetic to them — in part, because the caucus system replicates some of the benefits of European parliamentary systems. Ultimately I think the arguments against that system are better, but at the same time I believe it's something that Iowans will have to work out for themselves because it's their state. While they are doing so, however, they shouldn't be permitted to hold the presidential primaries hostage to that system by being first in the nation on the basis of...well, on the basis of absolutely no good reason whatsoever. I'd be desperately embarrassed if it were my own state that behaved in such a spoiled, privileged, and selfish manner.

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