If you’re MSNBC, I guess this is what you wanted when you hired Zerlina Maxwell as a political analyst.
.@ZerlinaMaxwell: The Iowa caucus is essentially the perfect example of systemic racism. 91% of the voters in Iowa are white. The reason why you see a drop in turnout, I’m just speculating here, it could be perhaps that white children are not in the cages. pic.twitter.com/P6ruOIQCcx
— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) February 4, 2020
Maxwell announced ahead of time that this is what she would be saying:
I’ll be on tv with @craigmelvin in the 11am hour talking about how this should be the very last time Iowa goes first and also how it’s the perfect example of systemic racism. Tune in!
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) February 4, 2020
After her appearance she tried to clarify what she meant about the kids in cages:
My point being that the urgency and pain isn’t felt in the same way. That matters even though no one will want to admit it.
I also noted that the caucus system is UNDemocratic & suppresses votes of historically marginalized like folks with accessibility needs and single parents https://t.co/UPidSfWzOb
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) February 4, 2020
I see a couple of obvious problems with her point about who feels the pain. First, the people she’s talking about were Central Americans apprehend after crossing the border. So it’s true that “white” kids were not in cages because the kids were all Hispanic. But it’s also true that black kids were not in cages because the kids were all Hispanic. Maxwell glosses over this saying “black and brown” people are seeing “their kids…put in cages.” But that’s not really true at least for the most part. Unless she wants to extend this argument for low turnout to black people too, she isn’t really being consistent. Here’s the other obvious problem with her argument:
The people voting are Democrats. She knows that…right? https://t.co/x1N1WYzXUl
— Emily Zanotti (@emzanotti) February 4, 2020
I’m sure she believes white Democrats are part of the systemic racism problem, but in this case she’s really indicting the Democrats. And maybe that’s her point. There are a lot of progressives saying today that Democrats should stop participating in the Iowa caucus. The fact that it’s not demographically representative of the party is just one more reason to add to the pile.
Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher tried to help clarify Maxwell’s point by offering up an alternate segment from the same appearance (which Maxwell then retweeted). “The makeup of the electorate [in Iowa] doesn’t reflect the makeup of the Democratic electorate, which the base of the Democratic Party is black people,” she said. She added, “You’re just going to have a complete disconnect in terms of any predictions you could make out of Iowa…”
Here’s the clip (top one):
She's not saying Iowans are racist. Clearly @ZerlinaMaxwell is talking about centering a white state in a diverse party, using an undemocratic process. Here's a little more context from the show. https://t.co/w3VmYSeatC pic.twitter.com/NCHsDEHBQ4
— Tommy X-TrumpIsARacist-opher (@tommyxtopher) February 4, 2020
I guess Maxwell’s analysis is arguable, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some major problems with it. First, it’s overstating things quite a bit to say that Iowa is perpetuating systemic racism simply because it has a lot of white people in it. Democratic voters in the state handed Barack Obama a resounding victory in 2008 (38% of the vote) that helped propel him into the White House. The runner up was John Edwards at 30 percent. So it seems white voters don’t necessarily equate to voting for white candidates.
Second, it’s not true that the Iowa caucus has no value simply because it’s not a perfect demographic representation of the party. In fact, Iowa has a pretty good record, on the Democratic side, of narrowing the field to the winner and a couple of spares:
Since 1972, no Democratic or Republican candidate who finished worse than fourth place in Iowa has gone on to win their party’s nomination. And both parties have only had one case of fourth-place survival: Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and Republican John McCain in 2008. For the other ten caucuses during this time, the eventual party nomination was always awarded to a top-three candidate in the Iowa caucus.
I guess you could argue that Iowa is so powerful it’s making this happen rather than reflecting the will of the electorate. Maybe Maxwell believes that? But that’s a different argument from the one she made, i.e. that there is a “complete disconnect” between Iowa caucus-goers and Democratic Party such that it has no predictive value.
Third and perhaps most importantly with regard to this year, Democrats pushed Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, the leading black candidates, off the stage before they even reached Iowa. So Iowa didn’t play any role in discouraging black candidates. All of the top four candidates were white before we got this far. That decision was made by donors and poll respondents around the country. If the party chose from a group of white candidates that obviously isn’t Iowa’s fault.
Which leaves me to wonder what actual racist impact the Iowa caucus had yesterday? Once we have results, Maxwell ought to explain how the results would actually be significantly different if the demographics of the state had been different and then also explain why primaries in other states can’t further refine that result?
In sum, there are a lot of problems with Maxwell’s claims, but I guess if the goal was to create a viral clip that people would talk about she seems to have accomplished that.