Thursday, January 03, 2008

The meaning of Iowa

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Being Canadian and living in Canada, I tend to view the political goings-on south of the border, and the goings-on generally, with a certain fascinated detachment. Being in England for a few weeks over Christmas and New Year's, that detachment has deepened to the point where I haven't really been paying all that much attention to them. Being on vacation has a lot to do with it, but so does being much further away from the American vortex. Not that America isn't important over here, it's just that, well, it doesn't have quite the centrality it has even to us Canadians. The talk here has much more to do with Brown and Blair, Europe and Pakistan, than with Iowa and New Hampshire. The U.K. may be a close American ally, but it is also deeply European. It looks west across the Atlantic, but the other side of the Channel is closer, and there is a sense here that events not just in Europe but around the world, such as the Bhutto assassination, are similarly close. In the U.S., if less so in Canada, an event like the Bhutto assassination happens over there, way over there. In the U.K., and more so elsewhere, it happens, or seems to happen, much closer to home. Even if the event takes place in some faraway place, the impact is distinctly immediate.

All of this is to say that the U.S. sees itself as the center and treats the rest of the world accordingly -- namely, with smug, arrogant dismissiveness. The rest of the world recognizes America's primacy in certain regards but knows better than to adopt, to or acquiesce to, such vainglorious self-importance. Being here, as when I have travelled or lived elsewhere in the past, has reminded me of this difference and has restored, I think, a healthy sense of perspective. I am still America-focused, for better and for worse, just not quite as America-centric. I suspect it won't last, however. The detachment will no doubt grow shallow again upon my return.

Regardless, on this massively huge day on the American political calendar -- a massively huge day that seems rather less massive and less huge over here that it does over there -- I am reminded once again that two of the stupidest words in the American political lexicon, at least when put together, are "Iowa" and "caucuses" -- and this for various reasons. Nothing against the state and people of Iowa, but... why Iowa? Why caucuses? Why such disproportionate influence for a small state and for a process engages so few people? -- I don't have the turnout figures for the caucuses, but turnout is always extremely low. And for a process that rewards extensive advertising and ground campaigns in the days, weeks, and even months leading up to the votes? And for what can only be described as a massively huge media event that has more to do with expectations -- meeting them, surpassing them, falling short -- than with the actual results?

Why? Because that's just how it is. And how it is is also why New Hampshire and South Carolina are next. Like it or not -- and who really likes it? -- America's two major political parties (and other parties are largely shut out of the process -- also a massively huge problem) select their presidential nominees in a manner that is deeply flawed. Good, solid nominees may emerge from it, or may not. A good, solid president may get elected at the end of it, or may not. Either way, it seems to me that the American people deserve better. (Or not. One wonders sometimes what the American people truly deserve.)

To be fair, parliamentary systems like the one used nationally in the U.K. for elections to Westminster -- or like the one used federally and provincially in Canada -- have their flaws, too. For example, the British prime minister (like the Canadian prime minister) is never actually elected by the people to his or her position. Rather, he or she is elected by his or her constituents in his or her electoral district and at some point made party leader by party delegates. In the case of Gordon Brown, the current prime minister has never even fought an election as party leader. He was named party leader, and hence prime minister, following Blair's resignation/retirement last year. Regardless, it seems to me that the primary/caucus process used to select presidential candidates is one of the key flaws of the American system.

I am hardly alone in holding this view. As I watch the absurd goings-on in Iowa from a detached perspective across the Atlantic, however, I am reminded of just how serious a flaw it is.

(Needless to say, there is coverage of Iowa seemingly everywhere. See, for example, CNN -- which I tend to pay much more attention to when I'm overseas than when I'm home.)

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CNN is reporting that Huckabee has won on the GOP side. No real surprise there. He's been on the upswing and he's sort of local. I thought Romney would have made it closer, however -- it's 36-23 for Huckabee. The key now will be for Huckabee to build on his victory in Iowa and give Romney a run in New Hampshire. With Thompson finishing third or fourth, one wonders if, as has been reported, he will get out of the race and back McCain, who is right behind him.

Edwards is ahead early on the Democratic side. Go Edwards!

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