This Thursday, January 3, marks the first major contest in the 2008 road to the White House: the Iowa caucuses. Today, I am driving down to Des Moines to run my romantic visions of American democracy into the cold snow bank of reality.
“The Iowa caucuses are a process so bizarre and byzantine it is either, depending on your outlook, the essence of grass-roots democracy, a quaint anachronism, or perhaps just plain crazy,” Mark Coultan wrote for the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald. My image of the caucuses comes from the Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom of Speech,” where a man in a blue-collared work shirt stands up at a town hall meeting. I imagine the man as a farmer, nervously shuffling his feet, saying to the politicians, “Now, I may not know much, but one thing I do know is that the Washington fat cats aren’t looking out for us simple folks.”
That sentimental version of Iowa politics may never have existed. Today, millions of dollars are being spent on advertising and organizing to sway the people of a state with less than 1 percent of the population of the United States. And that state, according to the US Census Bureau, is 94.9 percent white.
Even knowing this, Rockwell’s middle-America imagery remains powerful, at least for me. That’s why I’m headed down there, with visions of democracy dancing in my head. Lacking in both plans and credentials, I’m going to Iowa to see what I can find. You can follow the progress here on the Utne Politics blog.