I trust you are all wearing your “Go Iowa” tee-shirts and buying corn chowder to serve at your Iowa Caucus cocktail parties tonight! That’s right, Californians, its time for that quadrennial political celebration in which the Golden State is reduced to an impotent spectator while Iowa and New Hampshire boldly lead the nation forward.
When I was in Russia during the 2000 Presidential primary season on a Fulbright lecture fellowship I discussed with my Russian students how the US picks its candidates for its highest office. The Russians were, at that same time, electing the successor to Boris Yeltsin.
Their approach was straight forward: each of the recognized parties put forth a candidate – usually their leader—and a national election was held. Whichever candidate received a majority of the vote became President. If no candidate did, the top two candidates would go on to a runoff a few months later. Yeltsin resigned at the stroke of midnight, New Years Day, 2000. By March Vladimir Putin had won the first round of the election—and the Presidency—with over half the vote (albeit it thanks to no small share of vote manipulation, to be sure.) While the integrity of the Russian process is problematic, the process itself—similar to that which most elected democracies use—is simplicity itself. Any candidate who wants to run is on the ballot and then the whole nation gets to chose from that list.
I described our less than simple system for my Russian system thus: Imagine you picked the President of Russia by going to a couple of the remotest Oblasts (kind of like a state) in Siberia and asking the residents there—people whose opinion you would never otherwise rely on to answer questions of national importance because they are so removed from the mainstream of your society as to make the notion that they are a bellweather of national opinion entirely laughable—and ask them who they think the candidates for President should be. And, based on their opinion, you pretty much select your candidates.
My students thought that was crazy. They’re right.
It is amazing to me that the so-called leader of the Free World is selected in a process so Byzantine so as to make the selection of Pope by the College of Cardinals seem absolutely straightforward and transparent.
And it increasingly amazes me that California, a state which, if independent, would have the world’s sixth or seventh largest economy (putting us somewhere between Italy and Canada), a state in which just one county—Los Angeles–has a larger population than the forty smallest states, a state with a population equal to that of Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West, Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, District of Columbia, and Wyoming combined, a state seventy times the size of the smallest state (Wyoming), twenty seven times the size of New Hampshire and twelve times the size of Iowa, has less say in the selection of the US presidential candidates than a handful of farmers in the Midwest and dairymen in the Northeast.
Iowans and New Hampshirians (Hampshiri-ites? Hampshirers?) of course, love the system as it guarantees that every four years the rest of the country has to give a damn about them when the rest of the time they are about as relevant to our national debate and experience as is Andorra. And, as they like to point out, they represent the heartland of America—real Americana—so it’s only fitting that the citizens of these fine states full of Real Americans like in Iowa (state motto: “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain”), New Hampshire (state motto: “Live Free or Die”) and South Carolina (state motto: “Slavery Wasn’t All THAT Big A Deal”) should go first in leading a nation they so demographically represent.
Give me a break. Iowa is the beating heart of 21st century America? Please. Iowa is—and no personal insult to Iowans intended here as I’m not an expert on Iowans (though I did stay at the Howard Johnson’s in Iowa City in 1983!)—an inflamed boil on the buttocks of America. The same for the rest of the so-called Heartland States. Iowa is not where the ideas that made Americ the world’s leader in innovation and technology came from. Iowans thought the Ipod referred to a new kind of pea. New Hampshire is not the economic engine that made the United States the wealthiest nation on earth—and helps to keep it there. You don’t look to the so-called heartland states for new vision, energy and entrepreneurial drive. Their vision is “moving forward into the 1950s!”
You find the true, beating heart of modern America in Silicon valley and the rest of the high tech Bay Area, in the research and development springing out of UCSD and Sorento Valley and in the 21st century Megalopolis of Los Angeles , not in Rapid City or Concord. Same for the rest of Heartburnland. It is in the thriving cities of the Coasts and lakes – Chicago, New York, Miami, Seattle—that modern America was built and now thrives. It is in the high tech and university corridors like Raleigh-Durham and Austin that the America of the mid-21st Century will be born.
Iowa’s state motto, meanwhile, should be “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain thanks to massive Federal subsidies of ethanol and for anything else we say we’ll threaten to grow and crash farm prices unless we’re paid not to, said agra-welfare money coming from states like California who get less than eighty cents back from the Feds for every buck of taxes they fork over so the Feds can spend it all on us Iowans even as we proclaim just how much we don’t like big welfare government while taking more money per capita than those big states full of evil city slickers.” Then again, that could be the motto of just about every heartland state. Or they could just reduce it all to “Screw California.”
So even as California has moved its Presidential Primary up to the first week of February in a desperate but, ultimately, vein attempt to be politically relevant, the choice for the next candidates to be leader of the Free World still lies in the lands of Lilliputian states like Iowa and New Hampshire. And California—far more representative of 21st Century America than any and all of the Heartland states, remains consigned to political irrelevancy.
My remaining question is how long will Californians—should Californians—put up with this manifestly unfair, undemocratic (less than 4% of Iowan voters will even participate in the caucus) and plain old asinine political process. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that, when the Presidential selection is over, California will still be part of a political system in which it gets the same number of senators as states which it is fifty times or more larger than. Has anyone ever stopped to think of the political—and constitutional, as in crisis—implications of what happens when by 2050 California has a population of 60 million and South Dakota has a population of fifty people all working at Walmart in Pierre but California still has the same number of senators as them?
At some point more equity in the distribution of power between the states of this American political union will have to be addressed least the seeds of disunion be sown.
For the short term, however, California will, once again, have to suck it up while the know-nothing states of the heartland pick another batch of fine candidates on the order of George W. Bush, John Kerry, Bob Dole and Michael Dukakis and then inflict them on the rest of us.
In the longer term I have a simple suggestion for California: start preparing for the 2012 elections now. Buy Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest of the heartland, sell it all to the Chinese, take their Senators, electoral votes and Primary primacy and start throwing your thirty six million people’s worth of weight around in this Republic.
Viva la Revolucion.