Primary Racism?

With political attention focused on the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire are rapidly disappearing in the media’s rear-view mirror. But before we bury ourselves in more current analyses and prognostications, it might be well to consider the peculiar order of America’s primary lineup.

I thought about this because I recently came across a post raising an issue I had not previously considered; that the choice of Iowa and New Hampshire as the sites of our earliest political primaries operates to support racism—or at least white privilege—in American life.

This is my epiphany of 2016. Our primary system – like the rest of our political system – is one more example of the racism we so deeply entrench and protect. I don’t pretend that moving the first primaries to more representative states would end racism, but, like pulling down Confederate flags, it couldn’t hurt.

In defense of this conclusion, he points to media coverage of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries—coverage strongly suggesting that the results from these two states tells us something important about the desires of the “American people”— and he places the outsized importance attributed to those contests alongside voting requirements, slating, and gerrymandering, as examples of structures “designed to exclude minorities and protect white privilege.”

Frankly, it would difficult to find two states less representative of America than Iowa and New Hampshire. Only 3% of Iowans and 1% of New Hampshire residents are black in contrast to 13% of the nation. Only 5% of Iowans and 3% of New Hampshire residents are Latino in contrast to 17% of the rest of America. Indeed, having our first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire is a little like reserving the front of the political bus for “whites only.” When the political parties suggest America has spoken in Iowa and New Hampshire, they imply that white America- the America that really matters to them – has spoken.

Indeed, Iowa and New Hampshire represent an America that hasn’t existed for two hundred years. Thirty-six percent of Iowans and forty percent of New Hampshire residents live in rural communities while only 19% of Americans are rural dwellers. Claiming white farmers and woodsmen are the most politically important people in our nation may have made some demographic sense in the 1800s, but it is patently ridiculous and racist in 2016. Allowing the opinions of whites in Iowa and New Hampshire to have such an inordinate influence on our national election is wrong.

I am less inclined to attribute the structures the author identifies to conscious racism; they are equally likely to be a result of partisanship and happenstance. That said, his larger point is worth considering: although this country has eliminated most of the legal disadvantages and inequities that operated to tilt the playing field in favor of white Americans, even people of good will have yet to recognize–let alone disassemble–the myriad social structures that facilitate racist practices and foster racist assumptions and stereotypes.

There are actually all sorts of good reasons to revisit the importance of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries—reasons having little or nothing to do with race. Even if one finds the post unpersuasive, even if moving the primaries to more representative states wouldn’t really represent a blow against racism, the author is clearly right about one thing: it sure couldn’t hurt.


  1. Thank You Prof. I wonder if we would not be better off if the entire primary system went away. The smoke filled rooms seemed to work better than what we are doing now. As it exists now, the primary system rewards the most extreme versions of the left and the right. I am not sure we are getting the best options this way. And 2 years of this ???

  2. Frankly, the entire system is out of whack. We don’t need two years of posturing to pick a President. Let’s have one day for primaries. Have it in May or June. That would leave more than enough time for each party to have its convention. The campaigns can then swing into action on Labor Day, giving two months for the Presidential campaigns.

    I actually admire the way the Brits run their elections; 5 weeks with no television ads. That last bit is particularly interesting. I’d love not seeing political commercials.

  3. We like to pretend that our country was founded on democracy but it was most definitely not. When George Washington was elected President only 6% of the population were eligible to vote which translated into about 15% of adults.

    Of course then voting was entirely the prerogative of the states, a practice that has largely continued through today.

    The culture of the day was that only white wealthy males could make good decisions on important stuff.

    Our overly complex largely nonsensical national electoral process is more or less a holdover from those days. However we have added new obstacles to democracy too like gerrymandering.

    To me “structural” is an apt name for the resulting racism. It is built in more than planned but that doesn’t make it less effective as a pillar of white privilege.

    It’s a battle worth an ongoing fight. While not being our highest priority problem today, if we’re going to live up to our potential, full freedom for all, equality is a requirement and that can only come from full democracy.

  4. Makes a lot of sense. I’ve always wondered while Republicans would subject their candidates to Iowa and New Hampshire, knowing the winner would very likely be less electable for the rest of the country.

  5. Sheila: When I saw the title of your post I thought that you were going to refer to the CNN exit poll in South Carolina about the issue of barring Muslims from the U.S. 75% of the primary voters favored barring Muslims while 25% opposed. I found it interesting and perhaps ironic that 75% of the primary voters supported Trump, Rubio, and Cruz…. Those numbers speak equally loudly to the issue of racism and we Americans need to be concerned about the direction our country is taking.

  6. I have a large problem with the caucus process because it’s so exclusive. If you do not have transportation, can’t see well enough to drive at night, are homebound due to infirmity, or work the night shift, you don’t have a way to vote absentee to have any input into the nominating process. Hillary Clinton made similar comments in 2008, and she was right. These problems remain still.

    Primary elections are not a cure-all, but they are a lot more representative and inclusive than caucuses.

  7. In reading the post that you referred to Sheila, Jim Mulholland makes a great deal of sense, both in what he said about the primary system but also in his observations regarding racism in this country. His advocacy of moving our first primaries of the Presidential election process to New Jersey and Illinois, based on their respective demographical compositions, would hopefully end the farcical nature of what we started this year off with once again.

    As for our racism it is stunning that all of what we see today in regard to it never really went away. Nope, we just needed the current crop of provocateurs to bring it out of the proverbial closet so it once again stares us all right in the face. All of the various attempts by political campaign spin meisters and all the others that continue to push out hate and fear on the American electorate in getting them to vote against their own best interests and each other have truly succeeded. We have voters in South Carolina stating publically in interviews that while they don’t agree with all that certain presidential candidates say on the stump it makes them feel good in hearing it.

    When you appeal to people’s emotions as opposed to their aspirations this is what we end up with. What’s truly sad is that all of those that have bombarded us all with their fear and hate laden propaganda for short term partisan ends and who have also created this awful mess are likely very proud of themselves. It is disgusting.

  8. I’m not really surprised by that Pete as much as I am with people that have no scruples at all in regard to what they think is appropriate conduct in orchestrating political campaigns. These people have gone way, way, way beyond the bounds of what even the late Lee Atwater might think is acceptable and he stretched that boundary pretty far, so far that his name still comes up in discussions of political dirty tricks.

    The “slash and burn” philosophy that these people obviously have used to soften up the electorate has no place at all in this country. It has ended up wrecking any semblance of rational political discourse and threatens our whole political system and the efficacy of our culture to its roots.

    Where do these people, that feel that it’s appropriate to run the risk of wrecking the whole show to push agendas that the vast majority of the American people would reject wholeheartedly if they were told the truth about it, come from? While some urge that CEO’s of corporations need to be subject to psychological evaluations, perhaps political consultants and those shadowy people that pay their salaries should be subject to the same sort of evaluations.

  9. I agree Tom. How could anyone choose party over country? Political strategies are the second oldest profession but only prioritized above the good of the country by tyrants.

  10. I don’t understand why we don’t have one or two primary election days and then the General Election in November (somewhat like they do in other countries). Let all of the states vote on the same day like the General Election with round one in one month, round two in another.

    And Trump is getting plenty of air time because of the bombastic crap he spouts and it’s getting ridiculous. He is going to win the GOP nomination and take our country back to the Bush era of America being the laughing stock of the world. *Facepalm*

    Polls are conducted and the pundits on TV spout those results like they are real but they don’t represent American voters 100% of the time. Amy Goodman was on CNN yesterday asking if the media is trying to tell people how to vote! Indeed. Infotainment.

    My mother lives in northern IN and I asked her the other day if she would vote in the primary and she said, I don’t like to because you have to declare your party in IN. Yes, that removes your anonymity and frankly, I thought our elections were anonymous, no? That’s voter suppression!

    So glad your blog is back on-line as I was trying to access the site while you all slept yesterday and couldn’t get it to come up. I nearly had a panic attack, just kidding. 🙂 Guess your voice is getting out to more and more folks across the country (and world) so cheers to that!

  11. AgingLGirl: I think it’s all about giving the news media something to drone on about and providing the networks with a reason to raise the price of advertising. At every caucus or primary, someone usually says: “the reason this primary is so important is that they selected the winner in the last election” or similar.

    If the media would provide more information of value to voters and less valuable to the network marketing department, we would be better informed.

  12. daleb: And they (MSM) will meet their demise for not providing the public with information that they need in order to vote for the candidate that represents their interests! But we have information at our fingertips now so hopefully, that will help us select candidates that work for the people and not the MSM.

    I can’t wait for that to happen actually.

  13. I agree with Peggy Hannon about the current system the Brits have for elections.
    I also admire the Parliamentary system where more parties can be represented and the Prime Minister must often form a coalition government.
    I often wonder if we had a system like that if it would be more representative of the voting population?

Comments are closed.