the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2007 November 22


There are two kinds of people in Iowa and New Hampshire: those who are willing to surrender the privilege of voting first in the presidential primary system, and tyrants. At question is not whether Iowa and New Hampshire rule the United States (and by extension much of the world) through force, or whether they would even want to. Tyranny as a condition of the world, therefore, is not taking place. But intentions matter. The people of Iowa and New Hampshire want to rule us. They feel themselves entitled, superior, divinely ordained. Those who challenge this will be told off. Better still, they will be disenfranchised. Iowa and New Hampshire will use their influence to see that any rival’s voters are ignored, and their votes not counted. Tell me again how Iowa and New Hampshire set a civic example for the rest of us.

Any student of world affairs could point out that there are many examples throughout the world of states controlled by a fraction of their populations. There are one-party states, military dictators, and even, incredibly, hereditary ruling monarchs. In the democratic West we see plentiful cases where a majority rules or attempts to rule an unwilling minority. Spain must have the Basque Country. Serbia must have Kosovo. The Greeks must have all of Cyprus. But what we seem to have dispensed with, at least, is pure minority rule. We no longer believe, in the West, that we can have democracy at home while broadcasting our choices to a larger population that is never consulted. Gone are the days when Britain ruled India and much of Africa. Gone are the imperial assertions of advanced civilization, better education, and refined sensibility, gone the social Darwinist suggestion that the élite have demonstrated their superiority by rising to the top. That sort of Tory nonsense is not even heard from the Tories any more. We only hear it from Iowa and New Hampshire.

It would be one thing if the argument for “retail” politics were made in its pure form. Let us suppose, but only for the sake of argument, that our governmental system benefits when candidates who are unknown nationally can break through by spending a couple of years shaking hands at picnics and barbecues. Let us suppose that voters exposed to that sort of attention will decide better than the voters who decide the general election and must make do with thirty-second television ads. If we bought the argument, would we not insist, as a condition of the system, that the site of this candidate-vetting be moved from one part of the country to another, giving each region its fair turn, and allowing smaller parts of larger states to be considered equally with small states? New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner said that the system is “about the grass roots and the little guys and the tradition”; but as Monty Python’s noble highwayman Dennis Moore discovered, if you steal from the same rich and give to the same poor long enough, you will find yourself stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.

We are told that we need a miniscule fraction of the electorate to vet, and effectively to choose, our candidates, and that that miniscule fraction must always reside in Iowa and New Hampshire. We are told that those few are uniquely qualified. They take their role so seriously. They consider things so carefully. They do such a good job. But this is demonstrably false. Most of the country would agree that the system has produced at least one grossly-unqualified president, even if we consider only the last two. And the idea of careful consideration is inconsistent with the precipitate change of mood that led to Howard Dean’s collapse in 2004 and John Kerry’s compensating ascent. Results aside, it would be hard to conclude that Iowa and New Hampshire had really given the matter a lot of thought.

The little guy? That is one way to put it. The combined population of Iowa and New Hampshire was estimated last year as 4,296,980, which is 1.4% of the total population of the United States. For comparison, 1.4% of the world’s current population is about 95 million, which is roughly the same as the combined total of England and Spain. I’ll be bold and guess that if I nominated England and Spain to make decisions for the rest of the world, there might be objection.

If we raise the specter of European dominance, it is reasonable to proceed to racial issues. The US census estimates that New Hampshire is 95% white, and Iowa is 93% white; they are the third and fifth whitest states in the union. The country as a whole is 74% white. But the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the United States in conventional racial terms of white and non-white is only a small part of the problem. The bigger part of the problem is that Iowa and New Hampshire are composed entirely of people who are citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s 100%. While it is true that I can move to Iowa or New Hampshire, it is equally true that as a white person I could have moved to South Africa under apartheid. Should I, in doing so, have acquired the authority to impose my will on the country’s black majority?

Either you think that minority rule is repugnant, or you don’t. I am not going to, and I shouldn’t have to, haul out statistic after statistic to demonstrate that Iowa and New Hampshire are not a cross-section of the country. Even if they were, they would still be just a fraction of the country. It is true that candidates who do badly in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary can still win their party’s nominations; but in practice, they don’t. And it is true that candidates in the general election can get elected without representing one of the two major parties; but in practice, they don’t. Our electoral system is winner-take-all, which raises the risks of voting for a third-party candidate. For that reason our system tends to settle on two parties, and it’s been these two parties for the last hundred and fifty years. No presidential candidate, or potential candidate, or potential hanger-on of a candidate ― which is to say, almost no politician or political operative at the national level ― will fight against the Iowa-New Hampshire system. They wisely fear to be punished by it. And if only some politicians risk that punishment, it gives a strategic advantage to those who do not. Thus the national parties help perpetuate the system, and thus candidates have pledged not to campaign in states that fight against the system. Blame the rest of us for letting the system have that power.

But again, my point: the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire could not overcome a concerted resistance, but their actions, and, baldly, their rhetoric, show an undemocratic desire to do just that. The arguments they are making are patently aristocratic. The arguments can, and logically must, be extended to the complete abolition of the general election and its replacement with another round of house parties in Des Moines and Manchester. Naturally, when Gardner triumphantly announced that yet again his clan has successfully arranged to hold the first primary, he referred to this arrangement as a “unique and important American tradition”, like Thanksgiving. And how much Iowa and New Hampshire have to be thankful for. They have bountiful privilege, ceaseless power, and they thank divine providence for the gift. All right, then. God loves them. But Iowa and New Hampshire want us to be thankful as well, that God loves Iowa and New Hampshire so much. These civilizing missionaries are offering us nothing but eternal inferiority to a self-righteous élite, and I must say it lacks a certain something. It makes me imagine the Indians, sitting down to a harvest festival with the Pilgrims at Plymouth, being told that, as a reward for their guidance in the ways of the New World, they could expect to be subjugated from one end of the continent to the other. And the Pilgrims would have been serious; it was a reward.

Iowa and New Hampshire are not scrappy underdogs. They are colonial masters. Eventually we will look back on this system as the abomination that it is. For now, we must listen to its pampered beneficiaries lionize each other for outmaneuvering and bullying the rest of us, as when Gardner praised all of the New Hampshire officials who so eagerly colluded this time. “That’s what’s so special about this state. Everyone has been in this together.”

I bet.


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