Social Democracy in Middle America

Last night’s Iowa Caucus shows promise for radical politics in the United States.

A caucus site in Des Moines. Phil Roeder / Flickr

Iowa has never been shaped much by radical politics.

But on Monday, the state propelled the most progressive presidential candidate the country has seen in decades — proving social democracy can sell in Middle America, and that pronouncing oneself a socialist isn’t electoral suicide. In churches and schools and homes across the state, thousands of Iowans stood in front of their neighbors and announced themselves supporters of a candidate that has called for single-payer health care and attacked the power of high finance.

While a decisive win for Bernie Sanders could have transformed the Democratic primary — generating the momentum he needs to tilt the race in his favor in early contests like Nevada and South Carolina — the Vermont senator leaves the Hawkeye State having nearly bested one of the party’s most powerful politicians. Speaking at a victory rally Monday night, even Hillary Clinton admitted she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”

Turnout, of course, was the key. At my Des Moines caucus site — the brick auditorium of my high school alma mater — an enormous line stretched out the door, fed by a seemingly endless supply of latecomers. By the time everyone signed in, it was standing room only. We didn’t get started until forty minutes after the appointed time. In this middle-income precinct, the most apparent division was along generational lines: older voters vastly outnumbered the millennials on the Clinton side.

After an initial head count, we began the elaborate, laborious process itself: splitting into groups based on candidate preference, determining which candidates had surpassed the 15 percent viability threshold, convincing other supporters of non-viable candidates (and those “uncommitted” to a particular candidate) to join your preference group. Then repeat.

For all the undemocratic faults of the caucuses — chief among them their propensity to exclude those who work nights or can’t find child care or just can’t devote a couple hours to a party meeting — the final step is the most invigorating. Cheers erupted as uncommitteds or O’Malley supporters, often driving a hard bargain, relented and came into the Sanders or Clinton fold. At 9 PM, we at last had a final tally: seven delegates for Sanders, six for Clinton.

There weren’t many precincts like ours across the county. While urban counties (especially those with college towns) largely went for Sanders, his underwhelming performance in Polk County sank his chances of winning outright. Clinton also prevailed in most of the rural southern counties that John Edwards carried in 2008, suggesting Sanders’s populist message didn’t capture voters he might be expected to appeal to.

Still, the outcome — an effective tie — brought out a buoyant Sanders.

Shortly after Clinton spoke across town, he took the stage at a Holiday Inn on Des Moines’ south side. As he rattled off statistics about concentrated wealth and excoriated Wall Street for its misdeeds, I couldn’t help but think he sounded like a modern day soapbox orator.

What’s interesting is that his exhortations gained an audience in Iowa.

Contrary to popular perception, the Midwest is neither incorrigibly reactionary nor a redoubt of bland moderation. But the various left movements that’ve swept through the region over the past century or so have largely passed over Iowa. When the populist movement roiled the Midwest and surrounding states in the late nineteenth century, and farmers and workers in Minnesota were building a third party after World War I, the cornfields and towns of Iowa were relatively quiet.

Farmer unrest in the Hawkeye State during the early years of the Great Depression didn’t leave a lasting mark on the state’s politics. And the agriculture-based economy helped keep the labor movement at bay. In 1947, Iowa joined the first wave of states that passed “right-to-work” laws.

Such a measure would’ve been unthinkable elsewhere in the Midwest — unions were just too strong. Indeed, three of the most important strikes in US labor history took place in Midwestern cities: the 1934 teamsters strike in Minneapolis, the 1934 Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, and the 1936–37 sit-down strike in Flint.

Even in heavily rural states like North Dakota, progressive politics reached a zenith that Iowa never approached. Residents there still enjoy the fruits of the mighty Nonpartisan League, an early twentieth century heir to the populist movement that established the country’s only state bank. Nor did the Socialist Party find Iowa’s famously rich soil to be fecund ground for radical politics. While Oklahoma delivered 16 percent of the vote to Eugene Debs in the 1912 presidential election, Iowa gave him just 3 percent.

Liberals in Iowa are quick to note the state’s history of civil rights milestones, including the 2009 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. And there are certainly laudable organizations doing important base-building work today (the most prominent and effective being Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which endorsed Sanders).

In addition, those looking for a batch of progressive figures can no doubt name some: John L. Lewis, Henry Wallace, Tom Harkin. But even these leaders prove the general rule. The first two spent much of their public life outside the state, and the third, now firmly embedded in the Democratic establishment despite his prairie populism in the US Senate, endorsed Clinton in the presidential primary.

Yet there Sanders was Monday night, putting forth a vision of a more just country before a raucous Iowa crowd.

One year ago, Hillary Clinton boasted a sixty-one point lead over Bernie Sanders. In the ensuing months, her insurgent opponent raised millions of dollars from small donations and attracted thousands of people to a campaign premised on fighting corporate power. Despite near-universal antipathy from the party establishment — and skepticism at best from much of organized labor — Sanders convinced thousands of Iowans to back an avowed socialist.

In polls conducted over the last month, 43 percent of likely caucusgoers described themselves as socialists, and 68 percent agreed “it would be ok to have a president who describes himself as a democratic socialist.”

That doesn’t mean Iowa went from purple to red Monday night. But for radicals who want to achieve Sanders’s aims and much more, those numbers can only be viewed as auspicious.