Monday, January 27, 2020

Caucusing in Iowa

I have only been to Iowa once. About 15 or so years ago, I spent several days in Davenport, one of the "Quad Cities" on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River opposite Illinois. Needless to say, however, I have never personally experienced the famous Iowa Caucus, which, since the 1970s, has functioned as the de facto beginning of the presidential primary voting process. Of course, the caucus system is far from flawless. It is obviously less representative than a primary. To which may be added the commonly expressed criticism that Iowa is itself a somewhat unrepresentative state. That said, while I have never participated in an Iowa Caucus,  I would surely have liked to! 

Whatever its faults, the caucus (now just one week away) is an illustrative example of citizen participatory politics. People actually have to show up and listen to one another! (Obviously the caucus system dates back to a time - not that long ago - when conversation was more common, not having yet been destroyed by the ubiquitous cell phone.)

The caucus is sometimes described as "a gathering of neighbors." Iowans gather at a designated location in their local precinct - a school, some other public building (e.g. a library), a church, or even a private home. Caucus goers indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area; and, for some 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidate. Then the supporters for each candidate are counted. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of a designated percentage of participants. So, after this, supporters of non-viable candidates have another 30 minutes to choose another candidate to support. Then a final count is taken, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers the ones reported to the media, which then draws its customarily weighty conclusions from them. 
There are two things that I think are particularly wonderful about these caucuses and that i wish were replicated elsewhere. The first is the level of direct personal participation, which involves not just voting but persuading others and/or being persuaded by others.The second is that (unlike most American voting processes) a voter's second choice may matter and may end up being decisive - an altogether more reasonable way than our usual "first-past-the-post" voting methods.
Like all forms of direct democracy, the caucus calls for a degree of personal participatory commitment in excess of what our typical primary and general elections require, as a well as a disposition toward politics as deliberation and debate in which one participates, as opposed to politics as entertainment which one consumes. Such caucuses may never catch on  more widely and will likely forever remain unrepresentative of the wider electorate. But (along with the personal, "retail politics" campaigning they inspire) they are a valuable and distinctive component of our overall election experience, the loss of which would impoverish the process even further - even more than it has already been impoverished.

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