View from the inside

As the Iowa Democratic Party considers reforms to the caucus system, here’s a case for Democrats to “reset our priorities” and get back to basics to make the event about “our caucus attendees first, the nation second.” -promoted by desmoinesdem

Let’s take off the sunglasses; close the makeup trailer; and put the script away. What would the Iowa Democratic Caucuses look like if there were no camera lights, reporters, or news media satellite dishes affiliated with the quadrennial event? The Iowa Democratic Caucuses might be boring, but they would be functional, effective, and ours.

Like many star struck Hollywood wannabe who suddenly reaches fame, Iowa’s Democratic Caucuses forgot who brought it to the dance. Over the past few decades, Iowans have given the Coastal Media some discretion as to how the caucuses function in return for cheap national publicity. Is it worth it?

Today, we have to stop the caucus in the middle of the event to get the numbers to the Party so that it can get the numbers to the media. People get restless and begin to leave. And a Des Moines Register editorial had the nerve to say that members of the editorial board “saw opportunities for error amid . . . chaos.” Of course they did. If we went back to reporting numbers at the end of the caucus the actual event would run uninterrupted. That was the process way back in the 1980s.

Tip O’Neill wrote that “all politics are local”. That’s what caucuses are all about. Or, that’s what they used to be about. Caucuses are grassroots events that used to take place in neighborhood homes, with cookies and badly brewed coffee. It was a time for people in the neighborhood to determine who they wanted to represent them in party politics for the next two years. It was about drafting a party platform at the bare-bottom local level. It was about determining which residents would volunteer their time to spend a weekend afternoon at the county convention. And all of this business was conducted on sofas, dining room chairs, and window ledges. It was completed in the spirit of camaraderie.

Things are not too much different today. A caucus still has three parts: Choose delegates to the county convention; propose resolutions to build a party platform; and select precinct leaders. But today’s Democratic caucus seems to end after alignment and delegate selection.

Since sometime in the 1990s, and every so often after, I have had someone from the media ask for “raw numbers”. Nowhere in any definition of “caucus” will you find the word “election”. Yet, most reporters seem to want to turn the caucuses into an election, as if everyone understands an election, but no one really knows the meaning of a caucus. “If it’s not a vote it must be crooked. Or, it needs to be fixed so that everyone can understand it.” The best argument of all is: “It doesn’t sound very democratic.” Actually, it is the most democratic method of representation that you can find. If Iowa changed to make the process more understandable, it would be an election.

There is nothing wrong with the Democrats’ version of the Iowa Caucus. It’s not an election; it’s a mini-convention. It isn’t broken; it’s been manipulated by the bright lights of stardom. We need to get back to the fundamental purposes and keep the glitter at a distance. My recommendation is to tweak the procedure slightly: 1) select the permanent chair and secretary; 2) select the precinct committee persons; 3) adopt resolutions; 4) align and realign into preference groups; 5) elect delegates to the county convention; 6) select Platform and Committee on Committee members; 7) Adjourn; and, finally, report results to the County Party.

Just because we have an app to report results, it doesn’t mean we should interrupt the business of the meeting to placate the media. It is hard to believe that an app was developed to report results before anyone dreamt of creating an app to better register voters or an app to move registration lines. We Democrats need to reset our priorities. Our allegiance should be to our caucus attendees first, the nation second.

We don’t have to go back to drinking bad percolated coffee and sitting on uncomfortable dining room chairs, but there are basics that we need to rediscover. The caucuses are ours.

About the Author(s)

Marty Ryan

  • Maybe I missed something

    Your suggestions to tweak the current procedures are fine, but I am not sure how they represent a substantial difference to what happened one month ago. What did I miss?

    How do your changes respond to the need to be more inclusive, especially those who may agree with the candidate’s values, but who are not registered Democrats? What about all those folks that are turned off by the too often overcrowded caucus sites this election cycle and the paucity of physical sites available? Sure there were a few experiments in satellite voting sites this caucus cycle. But what of the chronic issue that only those dedicated few who are able to attend a several hour closed door event have any say. And what does it mean to the average person when they realize that the overwhelming complexity of delegate distribution essentially makes their measly single vote irrelevant? What of the uneven one person/one vote issue such as what happened in Johnson County where it was more like one person/one-half vote?

    I agree with you that the current system is not running on all cylinders. I posit that the caucus seems to be more exclusive than an inclusive environment and a more radical change needs to occur. Most people don’t have the will or ability to change their entire lives to show up at the anointed time. Perhaps the dilemma of a democracy is too many choices that the electorate is simply spoiled. Kind of like if you were to go to a all you can eat buffet and find out they offer only two entrees? When I saw the long lines for people to check in at my caucus, I saw a lot of frustration at what appeared to be a cumbersome and antiquated system. When I was looking around the overcrowded library there were too few happy faces brimming with thankfulness of their freedom to openly reveal who they support, sometimes often in opposition to neighbors. Seems like there should be follow-up surveys to find out how the rank and file would like the caucus to be run rather than the state party board of directors. The all too often timid incremental approach to change flies in the face of how our 21st century lives move faster than the glaciated bylaws of both Democrat and Republican parties. If the Democratic Party truly wants to grow they will have to substantially embrace change, and fast. Perhaps the caucus format was more suitable to mostly rural and low information past. In paleogeology there are often citations to mass extinction events that cause profound and lasting changes to the demise of the then dominate creatures. We could very well be witnessing such a metaphorical political event. “If not now, then when?” should be our adopted catchphrase, [sic] Gar Alperovitz. The Midterm elections in 2018 could be as or more important to the functioning of our country in the next 20 years than this presidential cycle. We all know too well how 2010 and 2014 turned out for us.

    I understand that the caucus is not really intended to do anything more than to build party ranks, but at what cost? The young people making decisions what to do in response to overwhelming forces have to choose and hopefully choose to act rather than not act at all. I hope the introspection that may or may not be currently going on with the party elite goes much further than the PR imbued justification by Dr. Andy McGuire that everything is fine, and if we tamper too much she fears of our losing the coveted first in the nation status (why we cannot change argument). Is our collective ego threatened? Is it fear of losing all those precious temporary quadrennial dollars pumped into the local economy clouding our moral outrage of inequality created by the strong and resourceful Republican and Libertarian political forces? Should not that be our driver? Perhaps we need to show the strength and confidence that focusing on inclusive innovative strategies by making the caucus more accessible is the real priority. Even if it is at the risk of being thrown into an early primary status with New Hampshire.

    • Inclusive?

      People don’t seem to want the caucus to be more inclusive so much as they want it to be more convenient—more like an election so that they don’t actually have to put any skin in the game.

      It is not a closed meeting in any sense, as you assert. It’s a lot like any school board meeting. It takes a while to build a school and to build a party.

      Delegate selection is just as complicated in primary states. But the press ignores it, as do the voters, so no one complains about primary votes being unequal from district to district.