THE BLOG
01/26/2016 11:46 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

Democracy's Shadow: The Republican Iowa Caucuses

Imagine you are in a room with 100 people. Ninety-nine people are white, two-thirds are 45 years or older, 57 are men, and more than half are born-again or evangelical Christians. Are you at the Oscars, a retirement seminar, a Rick Warren sermon or the Republican Iowa caucuses?

If you guessed the Republican Iowa caucuses, you win a Bible with a quote from Donald Trump's recent speech at Liberty University: "Two Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ballgame."

Trump may be correct, although not about the Bible. The presidential ballgame starts in Iowa, and the news media cover it as though it's spring training. Hope springs eternal if you can hit it out of the park or you can strike out trying. In 2012, Michele Bachmann took the early lead but faded quickly, soon after appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, dropped out, declaring that he thought he brought a "rational, established, credible, strong record. ... But I think the audience ... was looking for something different." What was this audience looking for? And to what degree does it even reflect the state of Iowa?

In 2012, they found their winner in the figure of Rick Santorum. He had 29,839 votes, beating out by 34 votes Mitt Romney, who in turn beat out Ron Paul by a few thousand votes. Together, their total vote represented less than 14 percent of Iowa's registered Republicans, less than 4 percent of the total registered voters of Iowa. The caucuses vote captured spectacular national media but reflected little beyond the tastes of a very small minority. We call this our democratic process. We shouldn't.

Democracy depends on educated citizens broadly participating in the electoral process. The reality is, very few actually do. As reported in the New York Times, the number of eligible voters casting a ballot in 2014 dropped below 50 percent in 43 of the 50 states. In New York, California, and Texas, it hovered around 33 percent. In other words, we are reaching a point where two-thirds of all eligible voters believe their vote does not make a difference.

The shadow of democracy is that low turnouts create big opportunities for manipulating outcomes. The focus shifts to polarizing issues, such as race and immigration, in order to galvanize the angriest voters to show up for the vote. Trump unapologetically declared himself in a recent debate as "very angry" and insisted that "I will gladly accept the mantle of anger." He speaks out loud what has become obvious. The duty to be outraged has become a qualifying attribute for presidential ambitions.

How low can the voting go? This is a question that preoccupies political consultants. In the last presidential election, many pollsters were beside themselves, not because their predictions were off regarding demographic groups, but because the total number of voters ended up being larger than expected. From the presidential election of 2008 to the midterm elections of 2010, there was a decline of 36 million voters, two-thirds of whom were Democrats. The prediction was that they would mostly stay asleep through the 2012 presidential election, but not nearly enough did -- and President Obama won a second term.

The upcoming Republican caucuses in Iowa reveal challenging dynamics within our democracy and a clear distortion relative to Iowa's overall voting population. Consistently with past caucuses, we can expect more men to vote than women and a disproportionate percentage of whites to vote relative to minorities, although the white population in Iowa is already close to 92 percent. Caucus voters, on average, have higher average incomes and a higher percentage of college degrees than Iowa's general population, which may surprise people who think that poorer, less educated voters are driving the election. And finally, born-again and evangelical Christians vote in the Republican Iowa caucuses at double their percentage of Iowa's population, 57 to 28 percent, based on results from the last cycle. White, Wealthy, and Born Again may not make a good bumper sticker, but it reflects a particular audience that may feel it has been pushed to the side and now seeks to reclaim a dominant position.

We see similar trends nationally, though with greater nuances. Women vote more often than men, whites more so than minorities, and the wealthy in greater proportion than the disadvantaged. Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, reports that the number of Hispanic people who could vote is growing far faster than those who do vote. In 2012, less than 50 percent of eligible Hispanic voters cast a ballot, and in the 2014 midterm elections, the number dropped to 27 percent. Also, Hispanics are concentrated in states such as California, New York, and Texas, where presidential elections have not been heavily contested. This creates even greater opportunity to ignore them as a national constituency.

Democracy's shadow is known through its distortions. Rather than being a vital force for collective participation, it is increasingly a tool for oligarchy and collective madness. As the wealthiest and most powerful fight among themselves, throwing billions of dollars into the process, they trivialize the democratic process by turning it into personality contests and opening the door to demagogues. And the Republican establishment, while capitalizing on issues that draw together those who fear government, is deeply aware of the lucrative partnership between government and business that butters their bread. Wealthy individuals remain a core Republican constituency for both donors and voters.

Nor have Democrats been immune to the influence of the wealthy. They rely on donations from wealthy corporations and constituents as much as Republicans. Robert Reich noted that Democrats have done little to "change the vicious cycle of wealth and power that has rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top, and undermined the working class." Bernie Sanders has struck a powerful chord among Democratic voters for just this reason, and Republican candidates want to cash in as well. Trump certainly plays up how he is owned by no one. Being his own billionaire has its financial advantages, but the opportunity to manipulate voter sentiment is priceless.

One of the core practices of collective wisdom is seeing whole systems. This requires us to step out of our particular bubble and ask essential questions, to diagnose critical relationships within a system, and to work in subtle realms, including what is not immediately apparent. Most significant, seeing whole systems asks us to embrace both the light and the shadow of human interactions, having faith that greater coherence and healthy-functioning communities can be a result.

On February 1, Republican caucus voting will take place in rooms across all of Iowa's 99 counties. But despite the diversity of geographic locations, the people in the rooms will be remarkably similar to each other. And the outcome will be predictable as well. A few candidates will divide up two-thirds of the caucus votes but represent only a small fraction of Iowa's total population. They will not even represent the largest political party in Iowa, which is neither Republican nor Democrat -- the plurality of Iowans register as No Party. And of course they will not even remotely represent the diversity of voters nationally.

Yet the symbolic importance cannot be discounted. In the days after the caucuses, there will be little reporting of the small number of actual votes or analysis of voter diversity. Instead, there will be self-important pronouncements of winners and losers and differing percentages thrown around that appear to make mountains out of molehills. And then all will be forgotten and the media will be on to the next show, or primary in this case. Let's keep our larger perspective intact, and if possible, our sense of humor.

Mohandas Gandhi was once asked what he thought about Western civilization. He said that it was "a good idea." Democracy is also a good idea, but one we will have to strive toward, recognizing the reality as it currently exists.