IOWAt The Fu*k?
February 11, 2020 | by James G. Dalton
If a brand is a function of promise (imagery) and performance (interaction), then the brand Iowa is largely a function of the promise. The Hawkeye state is one of the least visited states in the union, attracting fewer tourists than Nebraska or Kentucky. The promise/perception: the caucus and dead baseball players emerging from a cornfield.
YTD, with this week’s debacle, the Iowa brand has suffered an erosion in equity greater than any geography other than the Wuhan region.
The Iowa primary is first for little other reason than it’s first, and has been since the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention, where the DNC decided it needed a more egalitarian process. So it let Iowa go first, as they had a quaint (antiquated and stupid) caucus process that required more time. The contrast of candidates and deep-fried Snickers was a media hit that cemented the process as “American.” If “American” means damaging and irrational then, yes, go Hawkeyes.
Intimacy = Contact
I write about tech executives, and (no joke) refuse to meet with them. Mostly because I’m an introvert and don’t enjoy meeting new people. But also because intimacy is a function of contact. Often when I meet someone, I like them as a person, feel empathy for them, and find it harder to be objective about their actions. I was recently invited to an “intimate” dinner with the CEO of Uber orchestrated by his PR team, who were looking to spread Vaseline over the lens of the exploitation that Uber levies daily on its 4 million “driver partners.” As Gladwell writes, the people who did not meet Hitler got him right.
It’s difficult for our elected leaders not to shape public policy around the concerns and priorities of the super wealthy when they have more access to their senators. It’s easiest to identify with those who are most like us and those we spend the most time with. The median wealth of Democratic senators is $946,000, Republican senators $1.4 million.
A National Bureau of Economic Research study of the 2004 presidential primary estimated that people in early-voting states had up to five times the influence in candidate selection of voters in later primaries. Since 1972, the Iowa caucus winner for the Democratic party has become the party nominee 70% of the time.
The most influential people on the planet, who decide our laws and wars, spend way too much time interacting with Iowans. Over the last year, the top six candidates for the Democratic nomination collectively spent a year in Iowa. So, who has influence over the most influential people in the world? Old white people. Specifically, about 171,000 of them, about a quarter of the population of Washington, DC, and just 15.7% of Iowans — a state with less than 1% of the U.S. population, and just 1.1% of the electoral votes.
The Iowa caucus has more sway over who gets the nomination than any media firm, ethnic group, or other state, as it provides focus and momentum in the all-important attention graph. So a state with the population of Chicago, whose inhabitants are 90% white, does what almost every policy and institution in America does: transfer wealth from the young and non-white to the old and white. Even in the land of old and white, it gets whiter and older — caucus attendees must have the time and money to caucus. Show me a single Latina mother, and I’ll show you someone who can’t make it to a caucus.
It Gets Worse
The second primary is where a candidate can get real momentum, but it’s also a chance to check and balance Iowa. Unfortunately, New Hampshire boasts the second-oldest population in the union and is even more monochrome with 93% white residents. White households commanding 8x the wealth of black and Hispanic households, skyrocketing student debt, anemic home ownership among millennials, and an agricultural sector where 15% of income is government subsidies — these are not a function of chance.
A democracy on its own is dangerous, as it creeps from egalitarianism to a mob mentality. A liberal democracy is supposed to slow our thinking by inserting institutions and laws that provide guidance and balance. Each of us didn’t send a text message on whether we should launch, on September 12, 2001, nuclear-tipped MGM-52 Lances into Kabul. Our slow thinking saves us from ourselves. But now, our institutions have transformed from bodies of nuance to vehicles of discrimination and cronyism.
Ingesting deep-fried Snickers and town-halling with old white people for a year inhibits our leaders’ ability to move where the puck is headed. Ideas worthy of consideration aren’t heard, and outdated thinking becomes a pillar of our union. For example, Social Security should be disbanded. Yes, I said it. The wealthiest cohort in human history (US baby boomers) should not be the recipients of the largest transfer payments in history.
Without Social Security, senior poverty would escalate from 9% to 39%. This isn’t evidence of the program’s veracity, but its inefficiency. Lifting 15 million seniors out of poverty is noble, but not worth $1 trillion a year, escalating to $1.8 trillion over the next decade. So, each year we are spending $16,500 per person to pull these Americans out of poverty, vs. $5,700 per person for recipients of Medicaid. A targeted program for seniors, similar to most other social programs, would end the universal basic income program that Iowa and New Hampshire have essentially secured for one demographic: seniors. A better investment would be guaranteed income for Americans in their first decade of life vs. their last.
18% of children live in households that are food insecure. We could likely reduce this by two-thirds if we dropped groceries on the front door of every household with children, every day. However, this makes no sense, and neither does Social Security. For two-thirds of seniors, Social Security has detached from the program’s original mission — to eradicate senior poverty — and is now the world’s most expensive upgrade from Carnival to Royal Caribbean for Nana and PopPop. Senator Michael Bennet is correct when he says the reason we don’t discuss universal Pre-K is because toddlers don’t vote. They do, however, caucus. But only when cake is involved.
Racism, income inequality, and a generation less prosperous than their parents are complicated problems with no silver bullet. A decent place to start is to reorder the caucuses. Put Iowa and New Hampshire last. Kevin Sheeky, a Bloomberg advisor, suggested that the three closest states in the previous presidential general election go first in the next primary. This year that would mean Michigan going first, then New Hampshire and Wisconsin. That seems a lot more dynamic and strategic.
Or … eliminate the caucuses altogether. Caucuses are undemocratic in that they require hours of participation that only those with the freedom not to work can afford. Older, wealthier, and more highly educated Americans punch above their weight in electoral terms — they have time to vote and stay engaged politically. Younger, poorer, and less educated Americans punch below their weight; they don’t have the time and resources to be politically involved and to go to the polls. Democrats need to get young and diverse voters to the polls. The Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses accomplish the opposite.
Dems also need to be more strategic. Millions of dollars, hours, ads, and corndogs are concentrated on small states that don’t make a big dent in the effort to organize and activate the national voter base. There are nearly twice as many registered Dems in Brooklyn as the entire state of Iowa. Iowa has a population of 3.2 million, New Hampshire 1.4 million, Nevada 3.1 million, South Carolina 5.1 million. Iowa is currently a non-competitive general election state, and little of all this work can be harnessed in November.
And the strongest cautionary tale of the Iowa caucus — the fallibility of technology. The app, creepily named Shadow, by a firm formed five months ago, was barely tested and crashed. In addition, 4chan users conducted an operation to clog the phones and stop precincts from reporting. All this confusion without a hack.
Technology is hackable, glitchy, and dependent on WiFi, which itself is vulnerable to attacks. An 11-year-old hacked a voting machine prototype in 10 minutes. Ivanka Trump has shown a peculiar interest in trademarking voting machines. The only safe election is a paper ballot election. Count them twice. Leave Russia, tech hubris, and Ivanka’s trademarks out of it.
At the State of the Union, the president honored 13-year-old Gage Hake and his mom, and recognized their father/husband, who was killed in Iraq. Gage was present, in the moment. But he wasn’t focused on his deceased dad or the recognition. Gage was 100% focused on consoling his obviously distraught mother. Any child of a single mother knows what it means to have your entire universe collapse to one thing: the well-being of your only remaining parent. A 13-year-old boy trying to be the man of his house and comfort his mother is instinct. Our institutions and idolatry of the dollar have arrested another instinct — to ensure the next generation prospers.