We are living in an era of what political scientists describe as “strong partisanship and weak parties” — or, alternatively, as “negative partisanship.” The electorate is polarized into opposing camps, but their emotional impetus is driven by hostility to the other party rather than trust in their own. The Republican Party’s solution to this predicament has been to fashion itself as a cult of personality devoted to Donald Trump. The Democratic Party’s solution has been a series of technocratic fixes intended to increase its own legitimacy. But the Iowa caucus is the latest indication that the effort is collapsing.
One of the oddities of the 2016 presidential race is that, while the Republican Party was taken over by an outsider initially viewed as dangerous and unacceptable by its party elite, it was the Democratic Party that concluded its nominating process had failed. Supporters of Bernie Sanders repeatedly applied his trademark phrase — “rigged” — to explain a primary they clearly lost. Complaints about “rigging” began with an agonizingly narrow Sanders defeat to Clinton in the Iowa caucus four years before. They continued throughout the contest, with every routine snafu — in Nevada, New York, and the possibility that party superdelegates would provide Hillary Clinton the winning margin — held up as more evidence of the conspiracy.
Sanders himself has toggled between cooperating with the party and stoking the paranoia of his supporters. He never fully abandoned the claim that — despite losing by a double-digit margin — the party robbed him. “Some people say that maybe if the system wasn’t rigged against me, I would’ve won the nomination,” he insisted last year.
The party instituted a number of changes intended to inoculate itself against accusations of rigging. In Iowa, the Democratic caucus instituted new rules, “mandated by the DNC as part of a package of changes sought by Bernie Sanders” and “designed to make the caucus system more transparent.” The new rules required reporting several different sets of numbers from every precinct. This reflected a long-standing proclivity in left-of-center politics to meet every demand for fairness with new layers of complexity. Anybody who has witnessed or participated in a grassroots progressive organization has seen this intricate, rules-based method democracy in action. Monty Python lampooned the tendency in Holy Grail. (“We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune,” a peasant explains to the impatient King Arthur. “We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major …”)
Still, the caucus failure ultimately boiled down to a banal organizational failure. The party attempted to introduce a new app to report precinct results, which its older precinct captains largely failed to master, and its phone-reporting system buckled under the weight of the elevated confusion. There is no evidence voting results themselves have been compromised (at least not beyond the normal levels of confusion produced by the chaotic process).
What may turn a routine bureaucratic failure into a larger Democratic crisis, though, is the Bernie movement’s preexisting suspicion. Sanders is not alone in this — the Biden campaign shamefully issued a statement calling the results into doubt, in a transparent effort to discredit a vote it clearly lost. But the bulk of the suspicions came from Sanders supporters, who quickly reprised their 2016 rigging claims.
Trump has seized upon the Sanders supporters’ propensity toward grievance. Republicans began spreading the message in mid-January that impeachment was a plot by the party leadership to take Sanders off the campaign trail, a theory also echoed by some of Sanders’s nuttier fans, like Aaron Mate and Krystal Ball. In advance of the Iowa caucus, Republicans switched over to spreading the message that the voting process itself had been rigged. Republicans began circulating baseless claims of vote fraud in Iowa. When the first problems appeared in Iowa Monday night, Republicans like Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, Senator Lindsey Graham, and independent operators of the Trump-family blind trust, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, gleefully charged that it was all rigged to stop Bernie.
In the end, the Iowa Democratic caucus will probably report accurate results. But the corrosive damage to the legitimacy of the system will remain. What ought to terrify Democrats is that the process is only beginning. It will be, by design, more elongated than 2016, and party leaders will have even less influence over its outcome. So far, the attempts the party has made to stave off challenges to its legitimacy have only exacerbated them.