Now, I don't often link to Christopher Hitchens anymore, as his long, sad decline from a position as a respected and accomplished writer into neocon thuggery and foolish pro-war rhetoric has been well documented. But he finished up 2007 with a flash of his old brilliance and biting analysis when he deconstructed the Iowa caucus racket.
It is quite astonishing to see with what deadpan and neutral a tone our press and television report the open corruption—and the flagrantly anti-democratic character—of the Iowa caucuses. It's not enough that we have to read of inducements openly offered to potential supporters—I almost said "voters"—even if these mini-bribes only take the form of "platters of sandwiches" and "novelty items" (I am quoting from Sunday's New York Times). It's also that campaign aides are showing up at Iowan homes "with DVD's that [explain] how the caucuses work." Nobody needs a DVD to understand one-person-one-vote, a level playing field, and a secret ballot. The DVD and the other gifts and goodies (Sen. Barack Obama is promising free baby-sitting on Thursday) are required precisely because none of those conditions applies in Iowa. In a genuine democratic process, these Tammany tactics would long ago have been declared illegal. But this is not a democratic process, and besides, as my old friend Michael Kinsley used to say about Washington, the scandal is never about what's illegal. It's about what's legal.
As Hitchens points out, the problems with the caucus system are numerous and should be alarming. First of all, the Republican caucus isn't even binding. No matter who the GOP voters write down on their ballot, the chosen delegates from each precinct can then go on to the district and state conventions and vote for whomever they choose.
The Democratic caucus is even more bizarre. While effectively binding in nature, there is no secret ballot at all. Caucus goers are asked to stand in groups at the "polling" location, to show their public support for the candidate of their choice. This removes the "secret ballot" idea entirely and subjects people to peer pressure from friends, neighbors, relatives and even employers and co-workers. The offering of gifts and non-monetary inducements to get people to come stand in another corner are not only allowed, but encouraged. And following the first count, supporters of non-viable candidates (those getting less than a minimum threshold of votes, which can vary between 15 and 25 percent) are allowed to either leave, or vote a second time for a different candidate.
The fact that the news starved media fawns over this process 24/7, and the subsequent impact this arcane process has on the selection of our presidential candidates is simply insane. And how many people are we talking about making these weighty decisions for us? Hitchens had this to say about how Huckabee has suddenly moved into front runner status.
So, once you subtract the breathless rhetoric about "surge" and "momentum" and (oh, Lord) "electability," it's finally admitted that the rest of the United States is a passive spectator while about half of 45 percent of 85,000 or so Republican caucus voters promote a provincial ignoramus and anti-Darwinian to the coveted status of "front-runner" or at least "contender."
So in a country of more than 300 million people, roughly 20 thousand of them can line up in some tiny rooms to anoint a frontrunner for the GOP. The Democrats turn out even less than that and bestow similar levels of power and influence to their candidate in a flagrantly undemocratic process, open to graft and peer pressure.
We can't stop Iowa from doing this, but as Hitchens points out, we could remove some of the magical power imbued in this process if the MSM would pay a bit less attention to it.