Iowa and the Human Touch of Democracy

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No matter the outcome in Iowa this week, the show of democracy that it represents should make us proud. Polished politicians have been obliged to bow down to the common sense of common people and to the power of the single vote.

This kind of bottom-up politics doesn’t happen anymore in Europe. Here, in the old continent, elections are now fought and won almost exclusively on television, in newspapers and in big partisan arenas.

National politicians in Europe certainly don’t eat in diners. They don’t ride in buses, visit fire stations, or chitchat with the regulars over coffee and donuts. And who would blame them? Certainly not the presidential hopefuls beating the pavement in Iowa! Right about now, you can bet Hillary, Mike, Barack, Fred, Mitt and John are getting tired of staged town hall meetings, downtown walking tours, artificial meet-and-greets, and corny church socials — where candidates are always expected to be on a first name basis with everyone.

American politicians do this dance because they still have to. And for the good of democracy, that’s the way it should stay, even as money and media threaten to take humanity out of the election process once and for all.

Not everyone in America agrees. In fact, some political activists are expressing outright disdain for the tradition of giving little states big roles. Chuck Rocha, a worker for John Edwards’ campaign (the champion of the middle class), told USA Today, “the bad part is 100,000 people in a little state called Iowa may be picking the next president.” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) recently grumbled to the same reporter, “This is a cockamamie system to nominate someone for the most powerful position in the world.”

If you listen to political commentary this week on traditional national media outlets, you will hear much of the same. Scorn for Iowa, because it is only Iowa — and not California, D.C., or New York — is reminiscent of the kind of complaining we hear every four years after the general election, especially when the outcome is close. Some big states hate the fact that they can’t win the general election on their own. They begrudge the electoral system for forcing the presidential candidates to give so much attention to “flyover states” like Ohio, or “ghost towns” like the state of Maine.

At the heart of such discontent — both with the campaigning in Iowa and the electoral system in general — is a misunderstanding of American democracy and the federalist system established by the U.S. Constitution. The president of the United States was never meant to be a national mayor who is to decide what’s probably best for the greatest number of people regarding all things social and political. Instead, the federal government (of which the president is only a part) is to do only those things that have not already been entrusted to the States (oops!). This limitation of federal power was not a random afterthought of our founding fathers. Nor is restraint of power replaceable with another model of governance. American federalism and the importance it gives to local initiative flows from the universal ethical principle of “subsidiarity.” This principle of justice demands that a higher level of government should not do anything that a lower level could do just as well.

I hope these reflections give us pause this week when we are tempted to mock or tire of the admittedly forced and sometimes artificial behavior of our national politicians as they submerse themselves in the daily lives of residents of Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. Certainly each of these presidential hopefuls would prefer to run a campaign from the comfort of a home office, but thankfully, at least for the time being, hanging out in Washington doesn’t make a president.

Whoever the eventual party nominees of 2008, they will be better off for this up-close contact with ordinary people and with the interests, needs and autonomy of individual states.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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