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Friday, January 4, 2008

Iowa caucuses while the culture wars rage

The Iowa caucuses have kept viable, at least for a time, the participation of voters in the process of screening and vetting candidates for office. That process has been largely subsumed by the political parties and their need to raise huge amounts of money that is spent mostly on campaign advertising. Television changed the political process drastically, just as George Orwell and other critics of culture predicted it would.

Orwell recognized the power that a totalitarian force --whether a government or a corporation--could exert over people if it gained control of the media. His portrayals in 1984 show television as a tool to spy on the people as well as to condition them into accepting a party-line of thought and talk. Orwell's perspective on the matter grew out of his experience in the Spanish civil war when he joined the communist loyalist forces, and found that the leadership was no more interested in democracy than were the fascists, who eventually won the war. Ernest Hemingway covered the war as a correspondent and favored the communist loyalists, but he also saw that the war was not over democracy as much as which political faction would exercise totalitarian control over the people. That same battle is being fought in America.

The idea behind caucuses and primary elections is to provide forums for information and decision-making that result in the election of delegates to state and national conventions where the candidates for the office of president will be selected. The process used to involve a lot of caucusing, but that process is too disorganized and messy to make "good" television. So, our national conventions have been scripted to meet the prime-time and show-business demands of television. The electronic media have appropriated the process for their rating needs.

While some campaigns poured an immense amount of money into Iowa for advertising and telephonic campaigning, the focus was on the way the candidates traveled throughout the state meeting with people on their own ground--in school rooms, warehouses, ballrooms, convention centers. Television was present, but not in control.

Conservative commentator Bill Bennett remarked on the contrast of watching Iowans gathering in homes and school rooms in an amiable and respectful manner to express their preferences while the news shows broadcast clips of Kenyans hacking away at opponents with machetes to protest an election.

The caucus process held the anger-and-hate rhetoric in check. The media tried to inflate every difference of opinion and comment by the candidates into a fight. The candidates resisted being goaded into rhetorical excesses that are the stuff "good" sound bites are made of. The media was confounded when Mike Huckabee showed them a television ad that he ordered not to be broadcast. He used the media to show his resistance to the demands for personal attaacks. The incident elicited criticism from pundits but it delineated an issue of style and purpose amd character.

The restrained and controlled rhetoric preceding the Iowa caucuses contrasts sharply with the mean, angry, and incoherent comments on the blogs and discussion boards about them in South Dakota. Our legacy is the Thune campaign of 2004. It was an expression of essential character.

The Internet is an emerging factor in the way people assess candidates, but if one looks at blog aggregators, one finds that most of the effort is put into repeating and reinforcing the party lines. To find pertinent and incisive discussion on the Internet, one must be very selective and that takes more time than most people have.

Something else went on in Iowa. The word "caucus" comes from an Algonquian word and custom. When the Native American people needed to make decisions and negotiate treaties, they held caucuses in which spokespeople would gather in small groups to hash out matters and come up with a decision, if not a consensus, to be presented to a larger decision-making body. It is one of the many customs American democracy emulated from the indigenous people.

It is working in Iowa. At least until television producers find a way to script the caucuses. It is a way of communicating that is a terrible annoyance to those with totalitarian ambitions.

But the caucuses provide a contrast and, perhaps, a suggestion as to how the people may retain and regain control of politics.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States