What we saw at the Democratic Party’s Iowa caucuses wasn’t a failure of technology. It was a failure of values.
This failure casts a shadow on the party’s ability to carry out its basic responsibilities. Worse, it suggests that its leaders care more about helping their friends than serving the public interest.
It’s no exaggeration to call this a crisis of legitimacy. Like the GOP, the Democratic Party holds a position that is unique among democracies. It is, in effect, one half of a state-sponsored duopoly that controls electoral politics. That kind of unaccountable power is detrimental to democracy. As long as it exists, however, it confer an obligation to serve the interests of democracy.
The Republicans have made it clear they couldn’t care less. But the GOP’s abdication places an even heavier burden on Democrats to uphold basic democratic standards: by rejecting cronyism and oligarchy, promoting transparency, and ensuring that every person’s vote counts.
They failed to uphold this burden in Iowa, and not for the first time.
This kind of behavior undercuts Democrats politically. To put it in today’s corporatized vocabulary, “democracy” is the party’s brand—and lately they’ve been trashing it.
On its face, the level of incompetence leading up to the Iowa fiasco seems almost incomprehensible.
First, a party that has spent the last three years talking about data hacking took a manual process and shifted it onto on one of the most hackable devices in the world: a cell phone.
Then, having created a vulnerability where there had been none, it spent more money protecting itself from this self-created vulnerability.
The technology in question was then rushed into production without proper training for its users, when the stakes for democracy were high—and the whole world was watching.
Crazy, right? Actually, no.
It all makes perfect sense—once you realized that the software was only a secondary concern for the people involved. Max Blumenthal reports that Shadow Inc, the software company that produced the app, had ties to the Buttigieg campaign both as a contractor and (through its top funder) as a donor. ( “Shadow Inc”? Really? Were all the best evil names taken, like “Spectre” and “Hydra?”)
Shadow Inc’s website says that its employees are veterans of the Clinton and Obama campaigns, as well as the DNC—although, like the Men in Black, it refuses to identify its operatives by name. This reinforces the sense of an insider clique with an interest in the caucus results, rather than a team of the most qualified tech experts.
As Blumenthal observes, “the conspiracy theories write themselves.”
The technology failed, but the deal-making worked just fine. Its underlying purpose wasn’t to produce an app, or any other product. The deal was the product. The app was merely the residue of an agreed-upon cash transfer among insiders. Its functionality was a secondary concern.
Not that this was necessarily a conscious choice. I keep hearing that many of the people involved in these deals are good folks: nice, decent, friendly, likable. I don’t doubt it. You can be all those things and still be part of a culture with misguided priorities and broken values. But the longer you’re part of that culture, the more likely you are to lose sight of your own basic values—or, worse, to delude yourself into thinking you’re still living by them.
Nice or not, they take care of their own. What else explains Iowa’s hiring of Robby Mook, the manager of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign, as a cyber security consultant? Mook is widely considered one of the nice guys (I’ve never met him). But his flawed data analysis is seen as playing a major role in her loss. Later, he even misattributed the actions of Macedonian teenagers to Russian government operatives. That doesn’t suggest an excess of cybersecurity talent.
That, too, is secondary. The party establishment runs itself as a private fiefdom, one whose primary purpose is to take care of its centrist allies. Think of it as a Jobs Guarantee for people who are against a Jobs Guarantee for anyone else.
The Democrats may present themselves as the party of meritocracy—a neoliberal notion that can be found in its longstanding rhetoric about a “level playing field” and “giving everyone a fair chance.” Within the party itself, however, merit often takes a backseat to connections and cronyism. The centrist Democratic belief that competition breeds excellence—a variant of what Thomas Frank called “the ideology of professionalism”—doesn’t seem to apply to its own operations.
Sure, most political machines take care of their own. But even the most corrupt, like Boss Tweed’s in New York, also managed to do things with at least a modicum of efficiency. If you handed your alderman a few bucks and told him the sewers on your street needed fixing, he’d take your money. But the sewers would get fixed. This machine takes your cash and hires consultants. Maybe the sewers get fixed, maybe not. It doesn’t matter much either way, as long as the right people get the gig.
That’s why so many Democratic campaign managers run one failed campaign after another, and keep getting hired anyway. There’s nothing wrong with letting consultants make a decent living (as long as they don’t get greedy and make millions doing ad buys). But shouldn’t they earn these important jobs with a record of accomplishment? Where’s that “level playing field” we’ve heard so much about?
The Worst Worst-Case Scenario
The New York Times reported last month that Mook’s firm ran a “drill of worst-case scenarios” on cybersecurity for Iowa’s Democratic and Republican parties. “We ran them through the ringer and pushed them really hard,” Mook was quoted as saying.
By consulting on cybersecurity threats, Mook was cashing in on a wave of exaggerated fear he played an major role in creating. And while everyone focused on cybersecurity, the Democrats neglected basic functionality. Some reports said that party officials didn’t even want anyone to download the app or be trained on it until the very last minute, because they were so worried about interference.
That seems like a metaphor for the last three years: Democrats focused on outside threats while overlooking their own job duties.
It’s not that they’re indifferent to those duties—like winning elections, or crafting policies that serve the majority’s interests. On balance, most insiders would undoubtedly prefer winning to losing. And they’d probably rather accomplish good things for the electorate than not. It’s not that they’re indifferent to these things. They just don’t let them interfere with their self-interest.
Democratic activist Nomiki Konst, who knows a lot about the party’s operations, tweeted that “All roads lead to budget oversight and conflicts of interest… Who signed the contract for this app? And what bidding was there?”
She’s right, and rules changes like the ones she proposes are urgently needed. But that’s only part of the solution. The Democratic Party must confront this crisis of legitimacy by changing an insider culture that serves it, and the public interest, poorly. If it doesn’t do that, and soon, the result may well be another victory for Trump and his party.
They may deserve that, but we don’t.