Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why Caucuses Suck in Big Cities in the Wintertime (Also, My Obama Vote)

6:33pm: I hit the road, after eating a quick dinner (mm...jambalaya; well, it is Mardi Gras, after all) and making some last minute phone calls, passing along the news that a church youth activity scheduled for tonight (one that I was supposed to be in charge of, but had passed off to other people so I could attend the Democratic caucus) was being canceled on account of sleet and slick roads. It doesn't look that bad, I think to myself, as I turn down Tyler street heading for Kellogg, Wichita's main east-west corridor.

6:37pm: I'm backed up to a near-complete standstill on Kellogg. I check my watch. The caucus rules said that if you weren't in line by 7:00pm, you couldn't participate. My district's caucus is taking place at Newman University, right across Kellogg from Friends University, where I work (the school's have a friendly rivalry); normally it's only a five minute drive. I should be ok, I think.

6:49pm: I'm still basically stuck. This is insane. I can't ever see the accident yet. At least, there had better have been an accident; if all this is because somebody is making a really slow entrance off the on-ramp, I'm going to be pissed.

6:52pm: I'm not going to make it. I call home, telling my wife that I'll be able to help her put the kids to bed after all (give me break: times are tight, we couldn't afford a babysitter this week, and she told me to go, saying I cared more about the process than she anyway).

6:54pm: A miracle. There's an opening in the backed up traffic, and suddenly I can see the accident (yep, it was a serious one) and freedom beyond. I disregard safety precautions and gun the motor, sliding a little as I go.

7:00pm: I pull into Newman University's main parking lot. There are no spaces available anywhere.

7:03pm: I pull around to the back parking lot, and park illegally, blocking several cars in. I rush towards the De Mattias Fine Arts building, and find it open. The place is a madhouse, with hundreds of people forming, breaking, and reforming lines in a cramped main hallway, all shouting loud enough that the too-few volunteers with megaphones cannot be heard. I squeeze myself into one line, than another. I'm registered to vote, but not registered as a Democrat. I need a form. Does anyone have a form? Anyone? People are heading into their caucus rooms! I'm going to be left behind, after having endured the ice on Kellogg! Please! My kingdom for a form!

7:10pm: Someone finds me the right form. I fill it out, hand it off to a volunteer, and I'm on my way.

7:13pm: After having lost my way twice (I've never been on Newman's campus before, despite the fact that this building is located only about a half-mile from my office--hey, I said we were rivals), I find a Clinton supporter who points me the right way. But first he wants to know: why support Obama? Clinton has the experience; Clinton has fought for children and education; Clinton's a moderate (turns out this guy's a pretty conservative Democrat); and Obama's a big mystery. So where's the appeal, beyond his persona?

I wonder if I should get all Ph.D.-ey on the guy, and lecture him about the role of persona, character, and image in moving democratic majorities, and the importance of such movement to accomplishing anything in our less-than-responsive representative system. But I decide not to, since I'm not sure I really believe that. I also decide not to argue about Clinton's vs. Obama's policy recommendations; neither of them have really done or said anything that makes me think there's any great ideas waiting to be discovered there. So, in the end, I just say what my heart tells me: that we need new blood. That we've had a Bush and a Clinton and a Bush and the ongoing arguments and prejudices and hates between those families need to end. Completely aside from her substantive political positions (both those that I like and those that I hate), she's a Clinton; it's not necessarily her fault that she's found herself drawn into a bit of good-old fashioned dynastic ambition (though she certainly hasn't gone out of her to reject it either), but still, there's a reason old-school small-r republicans are suspicious of power being concentrated in any one family's hands, and there's a reason why committed small-d democrats shouldn't want an aristocracy. In the end, frustrated social-conservative-economic-liberal that I am, I figured I could at least do my part to help the Democratic party not foist the 1990s on us again.

My interlocutor wasn't convinced, and he lectured me for a while on this policy and that. Eventually he gave up, and we parted amicably. That was the only conversation I have all night.

7:28pm: I'm in the Obama room, being counted. Everyone is talking loudly and no one knows what is going on.

7:42pm: We're being counted again.

7:49pm: We're still being counted; I can't tell is they're still on the second time around or have started on a third. (We are spread around the bleachers, supposedly gathered in groups of 100, but there are still plenty of people milling around on the floor of the gymnasium.) The natives are getting more and more restless. There are occasional attempts to get some "Obama!" cheers going, but they always peter out, as no one is staying in their place and the volunteers keep shouting instructions which no one can hear because only one of them has a deep and loud enough voice to actually make the megaphones work instead of just spit static. Whenever he speaks, everyone applauds, because we can at least make out what he says.

8:12pm: We think we have final count. Maybe.

8:22pm: People are leaving. Someone came in from the Clinton room, and a result was announced--500-something for Obama, with 300-something for Clinton. There were whoops, and then a lot of folks decided that was it for them, even though the volunteers were apparently attempting to get some voting going on who the delegates from our district are actually going to be. Let's give them credit: they've worked hard, they've put up with a lot of hassles and stress and chaos tonight, it's not their fault that the machinery they're working with is clumsy and confusing. But still, 90% of done what we came to do and want to head home.

8:27pm: I make it to the parking lot. The sleet has turning into about 2-3 inches of slow, and it's coming down hard. I clean off the car (no ticket, thankfully) and slowly make my way home.

Christopher Hitchens ripped the Iowa caucus apart as "undemocratic" last year, and he was right to lay into the caucus system in general. They are demanding and convoluted and difficult to present as even a snapshot of the will of (part of) the electorate; at best they a kind of hazy, best-count guess. But let me give caucuses this much credit: if we still lived in the kind of decentralized paradise some of my more-authentically-populist-than-me friends long for, with small communities and intact, familiar neighborhoods and town meetings familiarizing the voters with the issues and each other, than the caucus system really could work. And who knows? Maybe it really does happen that way in Iowa, or even maybe elsewhere in Kansas. But when confronted with modern life--when one accepts, whether happily or angrily, that some form of representative democracy, supported by elections, is what we're left with--then the argument for just a straightforward primary system, with the polls open all day and counted all at once, seems pretty damn compelling. While I'm happy I participated, even if it did mean I had to actually register with one of our dominant political gangs parties (something I'm willing to do when necessary, though I'll probably never be really at peace with it), I don't think what I went through to participate was all that meaningful or important; I would have been just as happy with a simple vote. More happy, actually: if there'd been a primary, rather fixed-time-and-place meeting during the kids bedtime, then Melissa would have been able to vote for Obama too.


John B. said...

I (a fellow Wichitan of Russell's) caucused as well, though I was out at Wichita State University's whatever-they-call-that-place on 29th and Oliver. I'll post something at my place tomorrow, but I'll say here regarding the caucus system that I actually liked seeing people, as opposed to numbers on a tally sheet. True, we overwhelmed the volunteers running things--I got the feeling they were expecting a few hundred people but around 1600 showed up, over 600 of them brand-new registered Democrats--but seeing that auditorium full of people was a simple but powerful literalizing of the body politic. It was chaotic, but in a good way. I felt like part of the process in a way that a slip of paper placed in a box, much less a touch-screen voting machine--doesn't achieve.

Russell Arben Fox said...

John, your language moves me, especially your line, "a simple but powerful literalizing of the body politic." In principle, that should be everything that someone like me--someone who professes to be a believer in participatory democracy and populist self-government--wants to see happen in an election. Perhaps, upon reflection, I'll change my mind. But I still think, basically, that the caucus model is one that was conceived for smaller, more compact, more unified and trusting neighborhoods and communities than most people live in today; in urban or more conjested/diverse areas, it seems to me that the requisite face-to-face interaction, supposedly the sign of caucuses' democratic bona fides, becomes replaced by head counts, mass cheers, and lots of hurry-up-and-wait, not to mention that the process is naturally dominated by those who can manage to get to one place and stay there for an hour and a half. I don't know; certainly it's "democratic," but maybe other forms of democracy are just better suited for different types of living arrangements.

John B. said...

I'll respond more fully in my promised post, but I'll just quickly acknowledge that caucusing in principle does have more of a pastoral feel to it than an urban vibe. However, it sounds as though our respective experiences were not terribly pastoral but more like visiting a stockyard. Still: as the chair of the caucus committee running my caucus site said last night, the big crowd was "a nice problem to have." Hard to argue with that--but, as you say, it was still a problem.