There Is No App for Self-Government

There is, at present, a widespread sense among Americans that something has broken politics. Most people think the problem is unchecked partisan rancor and escalating ideological warfare between Democrats and Republicans. Yet the reaction to what happened last week in the Iowa Caucuses suggests that the underlying problem is something else. It suggests that Americans no longer have patience for what it takes to participate in politics. Their present emphasis on technological shortcuts may make politics more orderly and predictable. But in doing so, it undermines participation in the act of self-government.

Technical mishaps plagued Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary this year. “Methodological irregularities” first led the Des Moines Register to forgo releasing its much-anticipated poll on the eve of the caucuses. Then more technical difficulties on caucus night forced the Iowa Democratic Party to delay announcing the election results for several days. Volunteer leaders in each precinct had trouble submitting their final numbers to state party headquarters due to a technical problem with the app newly developed, ironically, to make the process easier. Calls from over 1600 precincts around the state then overwhelmed the party’s backup reporting system.

While the state party eventually released the caucuses’ final results just three days later, critics still called the entire episode an “inexcusable failure.” They argued that the three-day delay “caused distress and confusion, set off innumerable conspiracy theories, and started the 2020 election season by undermining trust in the democratic process.” Critics also accused the Iowa Democratic Party of placing the app into the field before testing it thoroughly and without training volunteers in each precinct on how to use it. Others even raised concerns about the cybersecurity threat posed by the app, even though there is no evidence that it was hacked. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, called on the Iowa Democratic Party to recanvass the entire state to reassure voters of the integrity of the caucuses’ results.

Such critiques mask the significance of what really happened in Iowa. The party’s reliance on quick technological fixes and the media’s demand for instantaneous results suggest that Americans have lost patience with the trials and tribulations associated with political activity. To the extent that Americans today think about politics at all, they generally see it as an inconvenient afterthought. Americans increasingly consider the political process to be inferior to the essential things in life. Yet thinking about politics in this way transforms it into a process that one engages in only out of necessity to produce an outcome.

Viewing politics in this way is very different from how the founders understood it. Far from being an inconvenient activity that should be completed as quickly as possible, the founders considered politics to be an essential element in attaining and maintaining human happiness. Far from being an inferior enterprise to other things in life, they understood politics to be the way in which people make self-government work. Throughout American history, politics represented the activity by which Americans’ lives unfolded in the community with others. Politics was about action, not outcomes. As John Adams observed, “It is action, not rest, that constitutes our pleasure.”

This sentiment is reflected today most fully in the Iowa Caucuses. They epitomize the spirit of civic republicanism on which this nation was founded and without which participatory democracy cannot work. Every four years, Iowans gather at predesignated caucus sites located around the state to select the candidates who will run on the Democratic and Republican tickets in the upcoming presidential elections. Unlike in most other states, where voters cast a ballot anonymously and go home, caucus-goers in Iowa begin by organizing themselves by their preferred candidate. Volunteer leaders then count the number of supporters in each group to determine which candidates meet the minimum threshold of 15% of all participants. If a candidate does not reach that threshold, his or her supporters then reallocate themselves among the other candidates and volunteers then conduct a second assessment. Throughout the process, the supporters of viable candidates try to persuade their fellow caucus-goers to join their group. The candidate with the most supporters at the end of the night wins.

Iowa Democrats turned to new technologies in response to criticism of how the caucuses unfolded in 2012 and 2016. In this case, they hoped that a new app would speed up this year’s caucuses and make their outcomes known more quickly. In doing so, party officials hoped that technology would minimize the inconvenient aspects of collective decision-making. They wanted to make politics more convenient, and therefore more automatic and certain, by reducing the possibility of unpredictable developments that would delay an announcement of the caucuses’ results. The universally negative response of commentators and the media to the technical mishaps associated with the app underscores the extent to which these concerns are shared widely. Broadly speaking, Americans have little patience for uncertainty in politics. When it comes to elections, they want their results immediately. They turn to technology to make politics more certain and to learn the results of electoral contests as soon as possible.

By viewing politics through a technological lens, Americans fool themselves into believing that they can eliminate the uncertainty in political action. That can only be done by controlling politics’ adverbial nature. Consequently, the instrumental quality of technology leads Americans to change how they understand the act of self-government. That is, technology transforms politics from an activity in which equals participate into a production process designed in advance for manufacturing outcomes. In Iowa, Americans see the caucuses as an inefficient way to produce a winning candidate. Party officials shared that view and wanted their new app to help speed up that process, thereby making it more efficient and orderly.

But technology cannot free Americans from the inconvenient realities of politics. Self-government is not about producing specific outcomes. It is about an ongoing activity that never ends. Self-government is nothing more than the ability to act alongside one’s peers to make collective decisions. In Iowa, self-government is present in the act of caucusing to determine which candidate will emerge victoriously.

The origins of American self-government are not located in the instantaneous conferral of freedom represented by the Declaration of Independence. Self-government emerged long before 1776 through the actions of Americans in their colonial assemblies. What made Americans free was their participation in speech-making and collective decision-making.

Technology is not a substitute for political activity. While it can help facilitate action, self-government ultimately requires dedication to an ongoing activity in which Americans make collective decisions in perpetuity.

There is no app for that.