In Defense of the Caucus!

— As an irrationally proud and defensive Iowan, I am annoyed by the headline of the top story on the Slate front page. It says: “The Phantom Pollbooth: Why You’ll Never Know who won Iowa.” (The headline over the story itself reads, cryptically, “The Vanishing.”)

The implication here is that there is something wrong with the caucus system, as if there is some one right, especially legitimate, way to choose delegates for a national party convention. There is no poll booth in a caucus, it’s just a bunch of people hanging out in a room. And your first preference doesn’t necessarily get registered (if your favorite candidate fails to cross a threshold, then you’ve got to wander over to some other more successful canidate’s posse to be counted). And there is no simple constant relationship between the number of people who stand for a candidate at caucus and the number of delegates you finally get.

This all seems to annoy Saletan and Schiller, who apparently think democracy essentially has something to do with adding up raw preferences in order to descry the ding an sich of the general will. They need to get over their journalist’s fetishism for polls, and stop thinking democracy is the same thing as an especially big Zogby survey.

We all should know by now that every voting scheme is arbitrary in its own way, and that there’s no general will to be expressed. Democracy, if it’s worth anything, is only secondarily about counting heads. First, it’s about procedures for social choice that diffuse power, that citizens will regard as legitimate, and which contribute to the stable, predictable functioning of the social order. People in Iowa LIKE the caucus, which is a prima facie good reason to also like the caucus. Iowans like getting together with people in their neighborhood, and talking over issues, and standing for their candidates. And there is a perfectly good procedure for deciding the winner of the caucus, and most everyone thinks that’s just fine, too. Delegates get selected. So it adequately serves the superficial democratic function. But the caucus is also a community experience that brings Iowans togethers, that provides them with a sense of choosing and governing together in a way much more intimate than the casting of anonymous ballots. And in this way, the caucus serves democracy’s deeper purposes very well.

Saletan and Schilller ridiculously compare what promises to be a very close caucus to the 2000 Florida presidential vote count:

Everyone could argue about which ballots should count. But at least there were ballots to look at.

In Iowa, there will be no ballots.

This strikes me as dumb. Given the nature of the Florida debacle, shouldn’t it have occured to them that this is a virtue of the caucus?