Caucus, caucus, rah, rah, rah

I do not consider myself a political person although I am deeply concerned about the state of American and global politics. I have experienced first hand Vermont Town Halls, Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, the Florida debacle, and now I am living in Iowa. Tonight, my first caucus.

So, I’m here to say I don’t get the fuss. Grassroots? I don’t get what that even means in this context. My experience was that I went in to the caucus, voted for the candidate I would have voted for but spent a good hour and half standing against a wall to do so. There were 450 of us crowded into the Washington high school cafeteria in Cedar Rapids. We actually counted off, one by one through the crowd to determine the crowd so that we knew how many people it would take to confirm a candidate as “viable.” A candidate, it turned out, needed 68 people. Obama was clearly viable, but none of the others were that clear. So we counted off in groups, one by one, until we were sure. I stood with the Biden group who had 64 people. A few of us cajoled others from across the cafeteria to join us until we had 68. We counted ourselves off. We counted again. People yelled at other people across the cafeteria. The Richardson and Dodd group dissolved and joined others. I had heard so much about the debating, the civic engagement, of the caucus, but this was counting with some indecipherable yelling across the room. It was chaos, and although I loved to see the people out en masse, I must say it was fairly boring. My legs got tired. I was waiting for the impassioned speeches, the real debate. We voted pretty much as everyone had originally voted. But it took a good hour and a half of annoying chaos. The one actual “speech,” given by a John Edwards caucuser to sway a few people to keep his candidate viable rather than having to dissolve (stunning given the numbers across the state, but yes Edwards was not going to make it in Cedar Rapids) was completely inaudible for half the room. Hmmm, this seems like great democratic discourse I thought.

I know, I know, it’s heresy to say in this state, but this seemed like the most inane, backwards system I could imagine. Turnout apparently was good this year. Last I heard, we were in the 20% range. Fine, but why so much emphasis on this state then? Iowa has roughly 9% of the U.S. population. The number participating in the caucus, then, is roughly 1% of the U.S. population. The caucus system itself keeps people from voting rather than encouraging it, and it then ends up being a less than representative sample of a less than representative state. Furthermore, the candidates chosen in the caucus rarely end up as either party’s candidate, let alone the actual president. What Iowa does then is winnow the field rather than bolster the leader. Mike Huckabee just won the Republican caucus. Raise your hand if you think he’ll be the Republican nominee. I thought so. If what we’re doing is winnowing out potential candidates, don’t we want a few more people involved in that process? I’ve heard all the arguments about this being some purer form of democracy, but I’m sorry, it feels like feel-good backslapping to me. There is nothing I just experienced that said this was any different than walking into a booth and casting my vote (and, again, judging from what happened in my precinct, this is exactly what 99% of the attendees did, walked in and waited around to cast the vote they knew they were going to cast). In fact, if the system actually keeps people away, it’s worse. Barack Obama says that it’s a much more direct system: if the first state were a larger state then it would be all about money and advertisement but I’ve yet to see the difference here. We’re supposedly more savvy in Iowa because we’re used to the attention of being first, but the debates seem just as hollow, just as based on sound bite as I’ve seen anywhere else I’ve lived. Just like everything, it comes down to money and Iowa understandably doesn’t want to give that up. But come on country, we’re a small state–no one can come up with the argument to change the power we’ve got in our hands?

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