Iowa Caucuses

How Democrats Can Promote Democracy starting with Iowa

Donald Trump uttered the word and visited the place. We’re talking about Iowa. And off we go, the 2024 presidential election is under way.

There is virtually nothing democratic about the Iowa caucuses. But that has not kept Democrats from worshiping at the altar of Des Moines, Bettendorf and Dyersville where there is a Field of Dreams.

At a time when virtually all Democrats in the House and forty-eight in the Senate are strongly advocating strengthening our democracy with The For the People Act (H.R. 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), the party is hamstrung by Republicans and a few of their own, most notably Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ).

The Democratic Party also has a structural disadvantage in the U.S. Senate. While far more Americans vote for the 50 Democrats in the Senate than the 50 Republicans, any gain that Democrats would accrue is negated by the gerrymandered nature of the Upper Chamber. Wyoming has as many senators as California even though California has 57 residents for every individual in Wyoming.

But there is one part of our political process where Democrats can effect meaningful change without constitutional changes. This is the manner in which the party of progressives selects its nominees for president. The method for choosing nominees for president is as archaic and undemocratic as any part of our political process, and Democrats do not seem particularly concerned about it.

The quadrennial nomination process begins in Iowa. With a population of 3.1 million people, it represents less that one percent of the United States. The U.S. is 13.4% African-American; Iowa is 4.1%. The U.S. is 18.5% Hispanic; Iowa is 6.3%. In the U.S. as a whole, 13.6% of the population is foreign-born; in Iowa the number is 5.3%. Oh, and Iowa does not have a presidential primary; it has caucuses in which less than 10% of eligible voters participate.

Just across the Mississippi River from eastern Iowa is Illinois. Like Iowa, Illinois is rich in farmland and rural development. But it also is home to America’s third largest city, Chicago. It is a state that consistently votes Democrat, thus making it an excellent state in which candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination can compete. It has minority representation reflective of the country as a whole. It has strong components of virtually every crucial constituency of the Democratic Party.

It clearly makes sense for the Democrats to open their primary season in a state like Illinois. However, we all know that relegating Iowa to a lower ranking would not play well in Iowa. In the past six presidential elections, Democrats carried Iowa in 2000 (Al Gore) as well as 2008 and 2012 (Barack Obama), so there may well be a price for Dems to pay if they relegated Iowa in the nomination process.

If the Democrats choose to engage in meaningful electoral reform, it will require creating a level playing field across the country. The process of leveling will mean that some states like Iowa will have less clout in the nomination process and other states like California will have far more.

It is quite possible that in the short run, the Democratic Party will lose support in smaller states. But that is already happening, and trends indicate that Democrats will be paying less attention to New Hampshire and more to Texas.

But once the Democratic Party has a clear policy of promoting democracy across the board, it will be easier for it to argue for statehood for the District of Columbia as well as Puerto Rico. Both such developments would help Democrats bring more democracy to the U.S. Senate. Once that happens, our country will be much closer to operating as a true democracy.

It’s a small window of opportunity to talk about Iowa without getting thrown out of the room. Now is the time for Democrats to initiate that conversation. Promoting true democracy should be a consistent goal for the Democratic Party.