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U.S. Politics: Hurrah For The Red, White And Screwy

"Occupy Iowa caucuses" activists were on nobody's side when they marched through the streets in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
"Occupy Iowa caucuses" activists were on nobody's side when they marched through the streets in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.

The American political system — as corny, eclectic, chaotic and screwed up as it is with its straw polls, caucuses, primaries and contested elections — somehow gets the job done time after time.

It's weird, really: In this country that celebrates unity and national spirit, a president is chosen via quirky, jerky state-by-state (sometimes precinct-by-precinct) methods. In this society that seeks perfection, the leader is selected in a painfully imperfect process.

But, to paraphrase the old saw: Our funky form of democracy may just be the least worst way to govern.

"For all its flaws, warts and craziness," says Julian E. Zelizer, an American history professor at Princeton University, "we still pick new leaders on a regular basis, based on the decisions of average voters and without any bloodshed."

The democratic process, Zelizer says, "is not pretty, and it can certainly be improved, but it is a democratic process nonetheless and something that deserves some praise."

So we come not to berate the system, but to praise it — somewhat.

It Could Be Worse

Just look at what's going on in other parts of the world.

In Syria, more than 5,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, in an uprising that began in March 2011 against the autocratic regime of President Bashar Assad.

In North Korea, when Kim Jong Il, known as the "Dear Leader," died last month, his inexperienced, 20-something son Kim Jong Un was swiftly declared the "Great Successor." One dictator replaced another.

In Russia, throngs of citizens are staging public protests against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin because they believe that recent parliamentary elections were a sham.

Meanwhile, longtime leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen were ushered out of power last year, and citizens in each of those countries are struggling to create new forms of government.

Will their election processes include some of America's more arcane practices? Caucuses in community centers, delegate selections in high schools, goofy buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts that read "Ron Paul Is My Homeboy"?

Will they be free to muck things up with butterfly ballots, hanging chads and potentially hackable voting machines? Will there be secret ballots and canvass-free zones at polling places? Will there be parades and stemwinder speeches and bunting and backslapping and baby-kissing?

Looking At The Upsides

Presidential election pandemonium does have its upsides. "While the process may seem confusing to some," says John C. Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, "we are one of a few countries that give voters a direct role in selecting the nominees of the party. In most other democracies, party insiders select the candidates."

Sure, there are drawbacks to having a primary or caucus occur on one day, Fortier says. "But one great advantage of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first is that it forces candidates to engage with voters one-on-one and to run a grass-roots organizing campaign."

Eventually, he says, in the primaries and the general election, successful candidates will "need to show skill at running a national media campaign, but the attention to these two small states for an extended period of time shows us another side of the candidates that we might not see in the national campaign."

The primary process also helps Americans get to know the candidates better — and sometimes for the worse. "In America, we often nominate relative outsiders, or at least governors, who have not worked in Washington before," Fortier says. "This means we often nominate people unfamiliar to most Americans."

Again, he points out, this is in stark contrast to the modus operandi of many other countries, "where party leaders are often well-known nationally before the campaign," Fortier says. "This getting-to-know-the-candidates feature is especially important for the party out of the White House, as the out-party has no leader for most of the four-year term of an incumbent president."

He says, "As messy as it seems with all of the debates and then the many primaries and caucuses, it gives the out-party nominee exposure that he or she would not have had."

Still and all, Zelizer says, "we have a long way to go until this process is as good as it can be, particularly as private money continues to wield excessive power in decision-making. But it is worth taking a moment to remember what the system does right that is still lacking in other countries."

OK. We've taken a moment.

Now back to kvetching.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.