Disenfranchised: Night Work, the Not-So Democratic Iowa Caucus, and the Quadrennial Extravaganza

Night Shaft
In Iowa, as across the nation, lots of people work during the early to middle evening, after the traditional dinner hour. Tow-truck drivers. Nurses’ aides. Nurses. Resident emergency room doctors. EMTs. Hotel receptionists. Cops. Security guards. Second-shift production workers. Custodians. Retail clerks. Waitresses. Dishwashers. Butchers at the grocery store. Chicken-shacklers at poultry-processing plants. Cab drivers. Bus drivers. Activity coordinators at retirement homes. Librarians. The people who rent out ice skates at the rink in the Coralville Mall. I could go on.

Many of these folks would seem to be precisely the sort of working class people one might expect to gain from the enactment of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ progressive domestic social agenda, including a significant increase in the federal minimum wage and single-payer (Medicare for All) health insurance. But most early evening workers can’t participate in the Iowa presidential Caucus pitting Sanders against the corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton next Monday night. There’s no federal or statewide Election Day law requiring employers to let those workers participate in the “beloved Iowa political ritual.” The prime-time workers who want to Caucus have to ask for special permission (so their bosses can find replacements) and give up lost wages to go contend with the bossy and mostly middle- and upper- middle- class professional people who tend to dominate the two-plus hour-long Caucus proceedings.

How many of these wage- and salary- earners are there in Iowa? It has to run well into the tens and thousands, perhaps the hundreds of thousands. It’s not insignificant.

Ain’t it strange? The national media celebrates and obsesses over the great grassroots democratic moment that (supposedly) is the Iowa presidential Caucus. Reporters are swarming across the state to capture and reflect upon this purported grand exercise in popular self-governance. Political commentators wax eloquent and practically teary-eyed about the noble quadrennial exercise in hearing “the voice of the people.” And, if I might use one of Senator Sanders’ more annoyingly repeated phrases, guess what? A vast number of Iowans on evening work shifts are effectively excluded from the cherished event.

It’s another among many reminders (e.g., the Democratic Party’s unaccountable presidential convention “super-delegates” and the nation’s ridiculously authoritarian Electoral College, not to mention the completely undemocratic structure of the U.S. Senate) that not all of the barriers to democracy in the U.S. are simply reducible to campaign finance. Wage labor, employers’ reluctance to grant time off for “voting” (well, caucusing), and the absence of state laws requiring time off for workers to join in the presidential candidate-selection process (such as it is) combine here to disenfranchise a large  number of largely working class citizens.

Sixteen Percent: The All Time Caucus Turnout Record!
Thinking about this problem the other day, I did a Google search on “caucus turnout.” I ran across the following depressing findings:

“The biggest and most important difference [between states that select their presidential convention delegates through primaries and those that use caucuses] is voter turnout. Put simply, turnout is much, much lower in states that hold caucuses and tends to be less representative of the general population. Researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School took a closer look at primary election turnouts in a 2009 study. The authors found that presidential primaries have notably low turnout relative to general elections, something that is particularly true for states with caucuses. In 2008, the most recent election without an incumbent president running, in the 12 states where both parties held caucuses, the average turnout was just 6.8 percent of eligible voters. While primaries tend to have higher rates of turnout relative to caucuses, average turnout is considerably lower than general elections, particularly for primaries held toward the end of the primary season.”

“The Iowa caucus had a record-breaking turnout that year, but even then it only reached 16.3 percent of eligible voters. The researchers provide a stark summary of their findings:

‘In percentage terms, Iowa’s turnout was hardly earthshaking—only one in six of the eligible adults participated. The Democratic winner, Barack Obama, received the votes of just 4 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor, attracted the support of a mere 2 percent of Iowa adults. Nevertheless, the 16.3 percent turnout level was not only an all-time Iowa record, it was easily the highest percentage ever recorded for a presidential caucus, and about eight times the average for such contests.’

“Because a caucus is an event hosted and run by political parties, attendance is more than just casting a vote. In fact, the process can take several hours as state parties deal with party business and people have the opportunity to give speeches to try and persuade voters to back their candidate. In contrast, a primary more closely resembles a regular election–you show up to a polling location, ask for your party’s ballot, then cast your vote.”

That’s incredible. The all-time record Iowa Caucus and national presidential caucus turnout was 16 percent in Iowa in 2008. Iowa Dems gave Obama his great Iowa boost with just 4 percent.  Huckabee got his little moment with 2 percent.

As an Iowa friend of mine likes to say, “Think about it!” I just did, and it’s pathetic.

Chomsky Says…
One of the more depressingly amusing things to observe every four years is U.S. liberals and leftists arguing over what Noam Chomsky – the grand old man of the American Left, such as it is – is saying about the presidential election and its candidates. It’s happening this year. It happened in 2012, 2008, and 2004. And if you ask me, it’s kind of a joke. On one hand, you have liberals and progressives claiming that Chomsky has “endorsed” their favorite candidate. On the other hand, you have pissed-off radicals raging that Chomsky has “sold us out” by telling to people to vote to block the terrible Republican presidential candidate in contested states.

As far I can tell, Chomsky’s position on what he calls “the quadrennial electoral extravaganza” hasn’t changed much if at all over the years. Here it is, developed in a 2004 commentary he published on the eve of that year’s presidential election under the title “The Disconnect in US Democracy”:

“Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is a 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 population has been carefully excluded from political activity, and not by accident…Bush and Kerry can run because they’re funded by basically the same concentrations of private power…The presidential race isn’t devoid of issue-oriented activism. During the primaries, before the main event fully gears up, candidates can raise issues and help organize popular support for them, thereby influencing campaigns to some extent. After the primaries, mere statements make a minimal impact without a significant organization behind them. The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centers of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core 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…. As for myself, I’ve taken the same position as in 2000. If you are in a swing state, you should vote to keep the worst guys [the Republicans] out. If it’s another state, do what you feel is best.”

Sorry for the long quote but there it is. You can take this passage and fill in the different major party nominee names for every presidential general election in this century: Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 (okay, that was the end of the last century), Kerry and Bush in 2004, Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, Obama and Romney in 2012, Hilary Clinton (most likely) and Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio in 2016.

The basic Chomsky point has been consistent over time, like it or not: you should block the Republicans on Lesser Evil grounds in contested states. Beyond that, voting in the corporate-crafted big money major media major party candidate-centered electoral spectacles is really a minor and even often citizen-marginalizing activity compared to the more serious political action of popular, rank and file movement-building. Not that complicated!

Not Exactly Ringing Endorsements
Here is how Chomsky put his analysis in relation to the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign in a recent teleSur English interview that some liberal or progressive Democrat put up on YouTube under the rather misleading title “Intellectual Noam Chomsky Endorses Bernie Sanders for President”:

Abby Martin (teleSur English): “There’s this huge amount of grassroots energy, donations, around getting people elected who are believed to be able to give us solutions to the problems that we face now. What do you think we should be focusing our energy on?”

Noam Chomsky: “Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign, which I think is important, impressive. He’s doing good and courageous things. He’s organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement that will use the election as a kind of an incentive and then go on, and unfortunately it’s not. When the election’s over, the movement is going to die. And that’s a serious error. The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle. It’s an extravaganza every four years. You have to be involved in it, so fine. We’ll be involved in it, but then we go on. If that were done, you could get major changes.”

I suppose one can tease an inkling of a Sanders “endorsement” out of this statement, but really that’s quite a stretch. Chomsky’s comment sounds to me a lot more like a backhanded compliment, combined with some fairly major criticism: “When the election’s over, the movement is going to die.  And that’s a serious error.” Some “endorsement.”

Then there’s Politico’s recent headline: “Chomsky: ‘I’d Absolutely Vote for Hillary Clinton.’”  When you look at the article beneath the headline, you quickly learn that Chomsky gave Politico his standard line about the need for progressives to block Republicans during the general election in contested states. “Chomsky, who lives in the blue state of Massachusetts,” Politico’s Nolan McCaskill reports, “said he would vote for Clinton [to block the Republicans] if he lived in a swing state such as Ohio.” A ringing endorsement of the corporatist War Hawk Hillary Clinton by the nation’s leading left intellectual? Of course not. Nobody remotely familiar with Chomsky’s politics over the decades could imagine such a thing.

No Can Do
In case anyone thinks I share Chomsky’s “strategic voting” perspective, I should be honest: I don’t. I will not recommend that others do something I simply can’t make myself do. As a Left radical living in a purplish, presidentially semi-disputed (though perhaps now more blue than red) state (Iowa), I have an honest if visceral response to those giving me Lesser Evilist voting advice: easier said than done, comrade! Try it sometime, oh ye fellow leftists counseling me from bright blue “safe states.”

I’ll leave aside troubling questions about some of the ways in which the Democrats might reasonably be seen as the worse and “more effective” (Glen Ford’s term) evil in the U.S. capitalist party and elections system. Reflecting on the miserable, soul-numbing, fake-progressive, and socio-pathological mendacity of the despicable corporate imperialists that the dismal, dollar-drenched Dems put up very four years, I just can’t act in accord with the Lesser Evil counsel. If you know about all the horrific, power-serving deception and authoritarian politics and policy undertaken and advanced by those evil actors and you still make your hand poke a presidential ballot for a Wall Street-captive war criminals like the Clintons, Kerry, and Obama…well then, sister, you are either a better or worse election “choice”- responder than me. I just can’t pull it off and no amount of liberal or progressive Democratic name-calling – “spoiler,” “Nader,” “racist” (false, Obama was never a serious progressive friend of Black America) “sexist” (false, Hillary is no progressive friend of women) – is going to fix that. Sorry.

The part of Chomsky’s quadrennial elections advice that I share is the biggest part of his argument.  It is the notion that, to use the language of his old friend Howard Zinn, the critical question isn’t “who’s sitting in the White House” but rather “who’s sitting in the streets,” in the workplaces, in the schools, the town halls, and public squares.

One can “waste” one’s vote on a left third party candidate (that’s what I always do) or even sit the election out completely and still be very much involved in a people’s politics that matters.   The elections are just a very small part of the popular political engagement that counts. And the notion that voting in the “personalized quadrennial extravaganzas” for ten minutes (more or less) once every four years is the most significant democratic thing a citizen can do is offensive, stupid, and dangerously authoritarian.

A Chilling Realization
What about Sanders – could I vote for him as the “lesser evil” against the Republican Party?  Maybe, perhaps, for what that’s worth. Or maybe not, for reasons I’ve elaborated on at length on this and other left venues. I guess I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. It is very unlikely I’ll have the option, however, as Sanders himself acknowledges [1]. Let’s face it: the notion of the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party letting a self-declared “socialist” (in reality, Sanders is at most a New Deal liberal) become its presidential nominee is pretty damn far-fetched.

One thing is clear: I don’t have to agonize much about what to do on Caucus night.  I’m scheduled for work – well, for paid work (employment) [2] – between 2 and 10 pm that day.  I couldn’t Caucus even if I wanted to. (Maybe I should have told the Bernie and Hillary campaigns that before they sent a small forest’s worth of campaign materials to my mailbox).

It’s a chilling realization: I’m disenfranchised as far as the great “democratic” Iowa Caucus is concerned – along with tens of thousands of fellow workers (at least I’m not alone).  Think about it!

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

1. Sanders said the following after a meeting with Obama in the White House last week: “I’m not saying we can do what Barack Obama did in 2008. I wish we could, but I don’t think we can.”  Not exactly the attitude of young Cassius Clay (the later Muhammad Ali) leading up to the Sonny Liston bout.

2. A student of mine once observed that equating work with employment is like equating sex with prostitution. Think about that.


  1. avatar
    Paul Street January 30, 2016 11:07 pm 

    Tom those are great and informative reflections….and these are the kinds of very basic things that upper middle class left intellectual sorts seem to know or care all too little about. If you look at my opening text I talk about “early evening workers” and don’t actually call people working in this time frame night shift workers. You are quite right that the real night shift is yes the graveyard shift (which I have never been able to survive with my health and sanity intact). But I do imply “night shift” by having the section sub-heading “Night Shaft.” People doing the graveyard shift can in fact Caucus, of course. Caucus and then get ready to work 10pm to 6am or midnight to 8 am or worse. I don’t know how they do it.

    • Tom Johnson January 31, 2016 6:38 pm 

      Paul: I apologize if it sounds like I was taking a shot. Maybe I was being hyper-sensitive and I respect the heck out of your work because it is so connected to reality.

      I worked the graveyard in Chicago as a Greyhound baggage-handler and taxi-driver. I drove and wrote all-night while working for/with various labor unions.

      In many ways, I liked it; but you’re right – you have to be insane to do it and it always drives you crazy anyway. Lottsa death on the roads at night. Lottsa blood – literally. I lost some good union and taxi friends there.

      Not to mention what it does when you try to relate with other human beings. But somebody’s got to do it.

      Currently I work as an adjunct Associate Professor teaching writing and preparing students to get Prior Learning credits (credits for life-learning experience).

      My classes are all 5:30-9:30 so now I’m a second shifter. Nearly all my students are full-time workers ranging in age from 25-55 and about half are parents or care for their parents.I don’t know how they do it.

      It’s work I truly love, but as insecure as any contingent work. and it pays lousy. But if I lose it I know I’ll never go back to a taxi.

      Anyway, Minnesota caucuses are in a few weeks and I’m torn about Sanders because of his militaristic and imperialistic positions. And his continuing refusal to go independent after his beloved party deep-sixes him.

      It’ll be an impulse thing I guess, when the Extravaganza rolls into Minnesota. In the meantime, Ill keep reading Z to help me work through this.

      Thanks for your work on this site and elsewhere.


      Tom Johnson
      SaintPaul, MN

  2. Tom Johnson January 30, 2016 10:07 pm 



    Last line omitted: Or anything else for that matter.

  3. Tom Johnson January 30, 2016 7:04 pm 

    Another fine Street article.

    One small correction: what Street calls “night shift” is actually a “swing shift,” “second shift,” or just “afternoons.”

    The night shift usually runs from 11 pm – 7 am or midnight to 8 am. These shifts are called “nights” or more accurately “graveyard” shifts.

    Then there is another category of shifts that have now become prominent in workplaces. These are rotating shifts in which every couple of weeks you change from mornings to afternoons to graveyard. Talk about fucking up human biorhythms!

    Cops have almost always had them. Firefighters are generally on 24 off 48, which are actually merciful hours. Truck drivers are all over the place.

    Many employers use rotating shifts for the following reasons:

    1) They de-stabalize workforce communications and make union meetings harder;

    2) They force workers to be slaves and abandon outside interest (family, community, etc.) and just focus on work.

    And more-and-more part-time and contingent workers face rotating shifts. All in the name of corporate “flexibility” of course.

    It’s really hard to participate in the “extravaganza” or real organizing in the midst of objective conditions like these.

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