Every four years, the most successful democracy on planet Earth kicks off its most important election with a quirky, undemocratic semi-event in a small Midwestern state. And every four years, the media flocks to Iowa and portrays the caucuses not as a dubiously necessary oddity but instead as a harbinger of the nation’s electoral will.
Marginal candidates (say hello to Mike Huckabee!) can catapult themselves to frontrunner status with a strong showing in Iowa. It’s no coincidence that Huckabee’s most loyal base — white evangelical Christians — is vastly overrepresented (compared to the rest of the nation) among Iowa Republican caucus-goers.
The high turnout in this year’s Democratic caucus was generally seen by the media as a sign of Barack Obama’s transformative effect on the political scene. But a “high turnout” caucus includes less than 20 percent of people old enough to vote (unaffiliated voters are excluded from the system). A “high turnout” in Iowa would be considered laughably paltry anywhere else.
If the caucuses were merely over-hyped and undemocratic, they wouldn’t present much of a problem. The high national visibility of the caucuses may contribute to a better-informed electorate, even though the absurdly early date of the event this year will result in a lengthened election and a correspondingly increased effect of big money on the result. The real issue with the caucuses exists not because of their influence on politics, but because of their undue influence on policy.
Other than its caucuses, Iowa is perhaps best known for corn. According to iowacorn.com, the state produced 2.2 billion bushels of corn in 2005, more than any other state. And because of Iowa’s vastly disproportional importance in presidential elections, presidential candidates across the board promise government aid to keep that corn a-growing. Lately, this obscene pandering has manifested itself in virtually across-the-board support for farm subsidies and ethanol production. This would be fine if massive subsidies for agri-business and ethanol production were part of an intelligent, farsighted agriculture policy. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Thanks to the Iowa caucuses, America hears on a regular basis that ethanol “drives economic development, adds value to agriculture and moves our nation toward energy independence,” according to the conveniently named American Coalition for Ethanol. But according to Union of Concerned Scientists and BusinessWeek, the positive impact of corn-derived ethanol on gas prices, energy independence, and global warming is questionable. The undue political power of Iowa corn farmers has resulted in a policy that places prohibitive tariffs on ethanol imported from overseas and has hindered research into the possibility of deriving ethanol from sources other than corn. Meanwhile, the media’s Iowa-driven fixation on ethanol as the end-all-be-all of sustainable energy draws our attention from other possible solutions to the fossil-fuel crisis.
Farm subsidies, a hot-button issue in Iowa, offer another example of a policy that helps politically astute Iowans but may not be in the nation’s best interest. According to the Washington Post article, “Federal subsidies turn farms into big business” (12/21/06), farm subsidies — often presented as essential to the preservation of the family farms so integral to Jefferson’s idyllic vision of America — promote the concentration of agricultural production in massive factory farms. These agri-businesses are subsequently able to drive small farms out of the market, pollute the air and water and deplete the soil — with help from taxpayer money.
The ever-growing importance of the Iowa caucuses gives a miniscule, special-interest dominated part of the nation an overwhelmingly disproportionate influence on national policy. Despite its small population and few delegates in national nominating conventions, Iowa forces prospective presidential candidates to pay lip service or more to its expensive pet issues. Seen in the worst light, the Iowa Caucuses represent an insidious, extraconstituional exertion of influence by an unduly influential faction in American politics. Thanks to the demands of Iowa farmers, our country spends money and energy transforming mass-produced corn into inefficient ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup, products that get in the way of our progress toward efficient sustainable energy and contribute to the growing obesity epidemic.
A democracy shouldn’t allow capricious procedural quirks to impede sound policy. The Iowa Caucuses themselves are not necessarily the problem, but the excessive media exposure surrounding them certainly contributes to the public’s overblown sense of their importance. As a result, intelligent policy takes a backseat to pandering at the beginning of each presidential election cycle since 1972.
And as long as this remains true, the president will be constrained by a system that unnecessarily privileges certain regional interests over others in our only truly national elective office.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.