The Silly Season: Reflections From Iowa

The presidential election season is already upon the United States, fifteen months before the presidential contest in November 2016.  I have a front-row seat for the candidate-centered spectacle in Iowa, home to the “first-in-the-nation” major party presidential Caucus, to be held in early January of next year.

The “election madness,” as Howard Zinn once called the American obsession with voting, begins early and takes on special vexing force in Iowa.  The only other state that comes close is New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

The leading hog and corn producer in the nation (Iowa) is already crawling with wannabe presidents, many of whom will try to talk to voters – well, to Caucusers (not the same thing) – in all 99 of the state’s counties between now and the Caucus. Along with the candidates come their armies of advance agents, marketers, canvassers, and other staff – and a rising tide of journalists and reporters who feed the national media’s obsession with presidential politics and candidates.  They fill a lot of hotel rooms, restaurants, and bars in Des Moines. Local hospitality business-owners appreciate the business.  So do the owners of the local corporate television stations, who make out like bandits from political advertising. I’ve already seen my first Rick Perry commercial.

Someone should calculate the carbon footprint of all these candidates and their political and media posses flying back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire and to other locations around the nation for six months each four years. The absurd length and geographic spread of this quadrennial ritual is part of why U.S. presidential elections are so absurdly expensive (the current presidential contest will cost at least $5 billion) that no candidate can hope to be “viable” without the backing of millionaires and billionaires.

What’s a leftist supposed to make of it all? Ecological and campaign finance atrocities aside, let me start with some sage words of wisdom from the nation and world’s leading Left intellectual, Noam Chomsky. Here’s a useful formulation from an editorial Chomsky published in the international edition of the New York Times on the eve of the 2004 elections:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses….Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…..[elections] are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

And here’s Chomsky talking to Occupy Boston seven years later:

“We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire? … The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what you want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you’”….

“What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

Translation: don’t get hung up on the major party-big money-big media once-every four years presidential candidates, their marketing imagery, fake promises, and narcissistic display.  The election spectacle is a racket.  It’s a way a way of deterring and taking the risk out of democracy and bamboozling the populace. Focus on developing real and powerful grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the “quadrennial extravaganzas.” That’s the real and significant politics that matters most. If you want to have caucuses or primaries or whatever, make them about policy and issues that matter and put them under popular control.  Don’t go running at the beck and call of the candidates and their advertisers. If you must engage with candidates, make them come and listen to you, to “we the people,” not the other way around, on the major issues.  Stay focused on policy and popular movement-building, not the politicians who are sold like so many brands of toothpaste.

There’s more to say than Chomsky expressed in the two above quotations about the candidates and what they are about.  The only contenders with a serious chance of prevailing in the presidential nomination and election contests are backed with hundreds of millions and even now billions of dollars of campaign funding provided mainly by rich people.   On the Democratic Party side of the circuit – the only side with which I have any experience – the candidates don’t simply say “look how great I am” and “this is what I’m going to do for you.”  They engage fiercely in what the formerly Left Christopher Hitchens once described as “the essence of American politics”: “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”  They claim to embrace the progressive and populist sentiments of the nation’s working-class majority (typically described as “the middle class” in US media-politics culture) – sentiments they have no intention of honoring given their grave financial and ideological captivity to the moneyed elite. Thus it was in February of 2008 that the deeply conservative presidential candidate Barack Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, told Canada’s ambassador to the US to disregard Obama’s populace-pleasing campaign criticisms of the corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The electoral rhetoric was geared toward winning working class votes in Ohio, Goolsbee explained, and was not to be taken seriously as a threat to the corporate globalization agenda that U.S. and Canadian elites shared.

The game is understood by Democratic Party presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s elite financial supporters. A recent report in the Washington political journal Politicobears a perfectly Hitchensian title and theme: “Hillary’s Wall Street Backers: ‘We Get It.’” As Politico explains, “Populist rhetoric, many say, is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich…It’s ‘just politics,’ said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street…Indeed many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay.” One Democrat at a top Wall Street firm told Politico that Hillary’s populist rhetoric “is a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated [rich] people are…If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. The fact is, if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later” (Politico, 4/15/2015).

In a recent silly season essay in the liberal zine AlterNet, Evan McMurry praises the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for “keeping Hillary honest on trade” – that is, for making her stay neutral on the campaign trail about the arch-corporatist authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP – a “NAFTA on steroids” that would impact 40 percent of the world’s economy) that Obama is trying to push through the U.S. Congress. McMurry has it wrong on two counts.  First, it isn’t so much Bernie Sanders as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and majority public opinion (which is deeply skeptical about so-called free trade) that prevents Hillary from openly embracing TPP (which she championed as U.S. Secretary of State in 2012).  Second, Sanders, Warren, and public opinion are doing precisely the opposite of “keeping Hillary honest on trade.” They are compelling the neoliberal Wall Street-funded Mrs. Clinton to pretend on the campaign trail to be skeptical about the TPP, a measure she would be certain to push for as U.S. President.

Nobody, it seems to me, has more responsibility to take Chomsky’s advice to heart and to reject this populism-manipulating game than progressives in Iowa, the top initial staging ground (with a secondary nod to New Hampshire) for the “quadrennial extravaganzas.” From their pivotal role in the nominations of the transitional neoliberal Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1975-76 and the classic arch-neoliberal Bill Clinton in 1991-92 through their critical role in the ascendancy of the monumentally deceptive fake-progressive militant neoliberal Wall Street bailout and TPP champion Obama in 2007-08, the liberal Iowa Democratic Party Caucus cadre has long played a special enabling role in selling the Hitchensian-Chomskyan elections swindle.

What if Iowa “progressives” decided to skip the Iowa Caucus in protest of what John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney have rightly called “the money and media and elections complex [that] is destroying America”? Perhaps they could hold the alternative people’s primary that Chomsky suggested in Boston four and half years ago.  Such a gathering wouldn’t just have to focus on national issues.  God knows there’s more than enough for concerned and progressive  Iowans to focus on just in their own state: the sorry pollution of Iowa’s many hundreds of rivers and dreams by unregulated corporate farming fertilizer run-off; the incredibly high racial disparities for arrest and incarceration that make Iowa’s criminal justice system one of the most discriminatory in the nation; Iowa’s status as one of just four U.S. states to bar people with felony records from voting for life; the setting up of a U.S. drone warfare base in Des Moines; the proposed building of a vast pipeline to carry fracked oil and gas through 17 Iowa counties from North Dakota to Illinois.

“But,” I can already hear a “progressive Democrat” saying, “you are too cynical.  Haven’t you seen that the great democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is already making headway as a presidential candidate right there in your state of Iowa?” I do not have time and space in this essay to explain precisely how and why the Sanders phenomenon complements rather than complicates the Clintonian “manipulation of populism by elitism” and the “marginalizing of the population” by “the quadrennial extravaganza.”  I have already written about this topic at length hereherehere, and here. Please read each essay carefully.

In the meantime, Iowa progressives caught up in the candidate-centered major party electoral obsession might look at some recent history one state to their Northeast. Let us never forget the shut-down of the great early 2011 Wisconsin Rebellion when union and political leaders moved to channel the remarkable populist social movement energies that had emerged in response to right-wing Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights into a doomed and ridiculous campaign to electorally recall Walker and replace him with a hapless and dismal Democrat (Tommy Barrett) who Walker had already trounced. It is one of recent history’s classic textbook studies in the Democratic Party’s ability to move workers and citizens off the “urgent task” by shutting down social movements with candidate-centered major party politics and electoral spectacles.  It is a monument – one among many – to Zinn’s “election madness.”

Walker, by the way, is now a top dark-horse candidate to seriously challenge Jeb Bush as the Republican presidential nominee for 2016. Iowans can now behold in their own state the presidential preening of Scott Walker, a national monster that silly liberal-Democratic electoralists helped create in Wisconsin.

Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, Iowa.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).


  1. avatar
    Carl Davidson June 14, 2015 7:53 pm 

    Paul’s position fits roughly with what I call one of the two ‘default cul-de-sacs’ of the US left, ‘street syndicalism’ You rarely take elections seriously, but ‘build a movement’ with demos that get bigger and bigger and more militant, until you force a break at the top, and get some liberals to turn your demands into law or policy, at least for a time,

    The other default cul-de-sac is to ignore elections until a few weeks before November, then do one of two things. Vote for the Dem or denounce those voting for the Dem–both are ways of tailing the Dems.

    What we really need to do is build organizations at the base, that can win elections and take positions of governmental power with our own organizations and candidates, inside or outside the Dem tent, with the aim of breaking it up and creating something new,

    ‘Building a movement’ has more uses than aspirin. But without a political instrument of our own, it may make a few liberals more powerful, but getting power ourselves becomes elusive, Movements ebb and flow; it’s organization that consolidates the flow into lasting power.

  2. Fred Bourgault-Christie June 14, 2015 5:34 pm 

    Paul: You know I love ya, man, but you’re conflating two big things here.

    The first is the election show and dance, which is deeply problematic.

    The second is actual populism.

    Let’s say we did have a functioning representative democracy (or even a parpolity, it actually doesn’t change much). Someone is passionate about a policy, wants to be elected.

    They SHOULD press the flesh. People SHOULD be excited to meet them. Journalists SHOULD be following them.

    The fact is that functioning democracy will probably have a few ecological costs to go along with the benefits. Democracy means coverage, debate, transportation. Experts have to go testify. If we had a dictatorship, the dictator could just make whatever choices seemed sensible. It’d save some bucks on gas, but that’s hardly uplifting.

    I think the focus we have should be on how bankrupt the electoral system is, and why people are psychologically so disengaged. But elements like caucuses, blogger coverage, in-depth analysis, etc. is actually positive. It’d be even better for the system of power if they could just get people to vote like American Idol, with absolutely no real debate or input, no factions emerging, no discussions, no citizen lobbyists (which do exist alongside the corporate ones).

  3. avatar
    David Jones June 14, 2015 1:57 pm 

    A further point to consider: Chomsky’s analysis (of manufactured consent) is basically that modern propaganda is effective. Yet his “democracy deficit” account says people are “rational actors ( as with capitalist economic theory) and understand their own self interest.

    I would argue the psychological effects of capitalism negate that rationality, that this is the reason those in Occupy were actually unable to “talk, discuss, and decide what policy should be”.

    To break through this rational/irrational contradiction you need more than progressives to “withdraw”, you need an Event which throws throws the logic on its head.

    • Fred Bourgault-Christie June 14, 2015 5:38 pm 

      To me, I think this is an extremely elitist view. Occupy was a movement going up against massive odds, and even without what we might have hoped as leftists, we now have “the 99%” in popular culture. I’ve never seen people more attentive to the idea of inequality and social immobility, and even some of the studies are starting to show it. It’s even entering the political mainstream a little.

      Yes, I do think people are as much emotional as they are rational, and we in the Left ignore that too often. But people have all sorts of quite understandable and rational reasons why they do almost anything, especially why they are so disengaged, why they view election politics as generally so useless and yet sometimes get sucked up in the hype, etc. What’s astonishing to me is that, even with all this election hype, we still see so little of it actually breaking through to much of the mainstream. On my Facebook feeds, I have a good cross-section of people, and almost none of them are posting much about the elections or will be up until pretty close to the election.

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