As the Iowa caucus reporting debacle dragged out past the time when everyone should have gone to bed, the too-online Bernie Sanders idealists and the old-media dullards of cable news had an odd convergence of mood and interests. Both groups had gone into caucus day buzzing with excitement about finally getting results that would create and justify a narrative: Bernie World expected Sanders to secure a ringing, historic victory, demonstrating the movement’s genuine electoral muscle; cable TV expected to finally be able to declare some winners and losers, to attribute some momentum, to set the plot lines for New Hampshire.
Instead, they got a glitchy app, a long night of confusion, and Pete Buttigieg arbitrarily declaring he felt like a winner. It was natural to be frustrated and infuriated by it. But too often, the Sanders people’s frustration took a particularly idiotic form. As everyone scrambled to understand how the results-reporting software had become a roadblock between hope and fulfillment, the scant facts and abundant feelings came together into an instant conspiracy theory: The Democratic Party, terrified of having the world witness a clear win for the Bernie Revolution, had triggered a cyberscheme to quash the results and sow confusion.
It felt good enough to tweet, if only to signal one’s leftist or anti-establishment sympathies. The app was put together by Hillary people. The app company’s CEO was a Pete supporter. Even its name was suspicious. Surely this all raised questions.
The real question, though, is: Who in the world could sincerely believe the Democratic Party would have had the wherewithal to insert a hidden kill switch inside a hastily thrown together election app? Why embrace the notion of a masterful villainous conspiracy when there was a simpler and more politically meaningful lesson to extract from it all: These people are incompetent!
This alone is a great storyline for Sanders supporters, with the benefit of being true: Yet again, the technocratic establishment of the Democratic Party has demonstrated that it hopelessly bungles the very things it claims to be better at. The centrist brief against the Sanders movement is that it is unserious, too idealistic, addicted to simple slogan-as-policy proposals like “free college” or “Medicare for All” rather than honestly engaging with the difficult business of effectively governing and administering the nation. Yet the responsible professionals and meritocrats, the ones who’ve been entrusted with the political machinery for generations, can’t even figure out how to count votes! It’s the most basic task of politics, and they biffed it! On live TV!
Instead, the aggrieved revolutionaries ended up using the same talking points as Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. For a movement dedicated to mobilizing masses of disengaged voters, it’s essential to identify the real crisis of faith in the machinery of American democracy. The country is now 20 years into a disastrous techno-political spiral, in which the 2000 presidential election disaster led not to a recommitment to proven, verifiable voting methods like marked paper ballots, but to an endless and foolish quest for salvation through better computerization. The result is that each new election occurs as a one-take, high-stakes beta test, involving an ever-changing kludged-together patchwork of variously obsolescing and/or untried technologies, largely operated by confused senior citizen volunteers, to accomplish a task that could easily be done with analog technology. But the media, and campaigns that have internalized the media’s expectations, believe that everyone is entitled to instant results.
In Iowa, a bunch of people visibly sorting themselves out to be tallied in public somehow got transformed, through the app, into an uncountable data artifact. The real unholy conspiracy is pretending the people behind this know what they’re doing at all.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus