In recent years, fears surrounding the legitimacy of elections has resulted in greater partisan conflict in the United States. The nation has become consumed by accusatory rhetoric and constant denunciation, rather than policy. Thus, there lays justifiable claim for the presence of democratic erosion, a gradual decline in the quality of democracy from internal forces, in the country. This polarizing behavior has only heightened since the commencement of the presidential election process. Last week, the Iowa Caucus faced massive issues after a new smartphone app, designed to process results, failed, which resulted in massive delays and questions regarding the legitimacy of the entire event. Traditionally, the Iowa Caucus assists in spotlighting the most salient presidential candidates leading into the primary season. However, the recent caucus’s failings combined with politicians’ inflamed reactions highlight democratic erosion in the United States.
Democracy is often defined as a system of government that reflects the common will of the people; however, this definition excludes the minority by suggesting a unanimous opinion is possible amongst the masses. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter defies classical definitions by arguing democracy is less about the “common will” and more about the competitive struggle for the people’s vote . Similarly, in Polyarchy, Robert Dahl describes the most fundamental component of democracy lies in citizen’s inalienable right to formulate their own preferences, signify those decisions, and ultimately have them weighed equally in the context of the government  Therefore, the implementation and acceptance of free and fair elections are necessary for all democracies.
The Iowa Caucus’s structure highlights democratic erosion by preventing voters from properly signifying their preferences to the government. Unlike primaries, caucuses are often seen as undemocratic because citizens must vote publicly in large gatherings typically during a week day evening. The lack of privacy can force voters to make decisions based off of personal allegiances, rather than opinion. The extensive process often dissuades people from participating, typically lower-income and underrepresented groups, as they often have more pressing commitments, like work and childcare, that takes precedence over the election. There has been immense speculation surrounding the legitimacy of the Iowa Caucus in regards to technical issues and delayed results, but it is important to recognize the failures within the process itself. The recent shortcomings in Iowa have highlighted fundamentally issues within the caucus process.
According to Dahl’s definition of democracy, the Iowa caucus has contributed to democratic erosion by creating doubt in citizens’ ability to signify their own preferences, while also having those preferences weighed equally in the process . The Democratic Party implemented a new strategy, meant to streamline the tally process, by allowing precincts to submit results via a smartphone app; however, the strategy proved ineffective when volunteers began reporting issues with the app. Volunteers were forced to call in results, waiting on hold for hours, with some even having to email photographs of their tally sheets to the headquarters in Des Moines. Several days after the Caucus, the Democratic Party released new results, after updating data from 55 precincts, but the errors have made it difficult to establish a winner. Therefore, many participants are unclear if their votes were counted or merely lost in the stream of errors. In turn, this risk puts into question the fairness and legitimacy of the election.
In the days following, politicians’ public reactions have propelled democratic erosion by highlighting the parties’ inability to accept the opposing side as legitimate. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe “mutual toleration” as the belief that we can disagree with our rival, but “we nevertheless accept them as legitimate .” Several days after the Caucus, President Donald Trump tweeted, “The Democratic Caucus is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing works, just like they ran the Country.” Trump highlights his lack of mutual toleration by saying “nothing” the opposing party does “works.” Trump’s comment suggest he believes the Democrats are unable to perform free and fair elections; therefore, insinuating the party’s actions are illegitimate. Through the lens of Levitsky and Ziblatt, Trump’s rhetoric contributes to democratic erosion, because “democracy is hard to sustain” without mutual toleration .
On the opposing side, Vice President Joe Biden’s recent rhetoric has lacked mutual toleration. On the evening of the Caucus, Biden emphasized “character is at stake on the ballot…literally, democracy is at stake.” For context, these comments were made shortly before the president was acquitted of impeachment charges by the Senate. Biden’s statement lacks mutual toleration by suggesting the president is neither a “law-abiding” citizen or respectful of the Constitution .
The Iowa Caucus is merely one example of democratic erosion in a series of distressing events that have recently plagued American democracy. The significance of this case lies in the background context of a nation unsettled by fears of populism and foreign interference. Consequently, these realities have increased national anxiety and polarization. Leading to the election, the outcomes of the next nine months will directly affect the role of democratic erosion in the United States. Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.  Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.  Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
It is interesting to think about how many forms of democratic erosion occur by complete accident. The faulty app, while it poses a real problem for the fairness and legitimacy of the caucus, was only a series of technical errors. No malicious intent on the part of any incumbent is necessary for democratic erosion to occur; this really says a lot about the fragility of democratic regimes and the care that must necessarily go into preserving them long term.
Very interesting article on how the Iowa Caucus can be seen as undemocratic and the app being the part of the process of backsliding. I though would disagree with you, the Iowa Caucus in my opinion is a very democratic, its a free and fair election and has complete suffrage, the problem that the caucus had was the faulty app. The app was the reason why it was deemed fishy and caused doubts to the legitimacy of the caucus. Nevada just recently had their caucus and things ran very smoothly without much dismay except for the length it took to count the votes. There has been no call of the lack legitimacy to the Nevada Caucus.