Writers on the Range: A word from the grassroots of American democracy
Ryan Summerlin March 15, 2014
This year, the precinct caucuses — those grassroots exercises in democracy — were held on the night of Mardi Gras. Go figure. All around Colorado, bars and bands were buzzing, but a few folks went to their precinct caucus and missed the party for their party.
Every Western state has some form of political party meetings, but some critics see them as a pointless exercise. The Koch brothers, for instance, simply spend a few casual millions to elect the kind of “right thinkers” they love. Some Wall Street bankers will throw in a million now and then, too, and their money talks. At our precinct caucus, we may have raised all of $500 for candidates, though as a bonus the homemade cookies were great. Thirty-six of us got to talk about everything from a woman having the right to control her own body to the government finding alternatives to jail sentences. I came away from my caucus this week thinking it was worth our time, though the system needs some changes to work even better.
Right now, three things are needed for a precinct caucus: a roll of Scotch tape of the no-stick variety, a fair amount of patience, and a nonjudgmental attitude. You might know your neighbors, but you never know where people are coming from. This year a man came to our Democratic Party caucus wearing a big button that proclaimed “Christian.” Some of us were sure we were in for a lecture about how evil Democrats are, supporting gay rights and abortion, but I was surprised to hear him say: “Jesus would have voted for everything we did tonight.”
About that no-stick tape: Finding a caucus site can be tricky. Public schools often insist that you hire one of their janitors to be present. This must be to guarantee that rowdy Democrats don’t get drunk and trash the place while filling out endless caucus reports. Janitors hate the fact that you have to post a caucus sign on their nice glass doors.
This time, I learned not to judge the janitor, who told us we were “the nicest group who cleans up well.” He said he didn’t even mind scrubbing the front door “for your guys.” So much for stereotypes.
Patience is just as important as a nonjudgmental attitude. Just before caucus day, I opened the local paper to see that our advertisement for the precinct caucuses was indeed run. Unfortunately, the ad was from two years ago.
Even more patience is needed to enable the people new to the process to figure out what precinct they live in. The caucus system is based on the days when you hitched up a horse and buggy to get to one. It’s been suggested that the whole precinct thing be dropped in favor of larger “catchment areas.” Any marketing company can tell a county clerk where those catchments are and how far people will drive to get to a given location. So, critics say, the precinct system is inefficient and could go. Besides, it’s easy for a few people from any organized group to dominate a precinct. Can you say “Tea Party”?
Once everyone found the right precinct last week — and the cookies were passed around again — we got down to building a party platform, plank by plank. A sampling of comments afterward: “I laughed when we put in that plank urging the governor to set up UFO landing areas.” Someone else added, “Of course, that won’t last at the County Assembly, but politics is so deadly serious.” We also passed planks calling for more alternatives than jail for lawbreakers, raising the minimum wage, and slowing climate change by burning less fossil fuel.
One attendee said she was frustrated: “We get together here and try to find some facts in the tornado of misinformation blown at us by all those spook agencies.” Another declared, “If we’re not for trout, why be here?” We all had opinions that could be labeled “strong,” but we also seemed able to listen to other people’s point of view, at least for the duration of the meeting.
Talking about the direction our country was going in and what we cared about was a good experience, and I think the platform planks we came up with were pretty good. I continue to believe that something as grassroots as the caucus system needs to stay the way it is, small and intimate.
But don’t forget the non-stick Scotch tape.
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