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Saturday, February 9, 2008

In Praise of Chaotic Caucuses

posted by on February 9 at 17:00 PM


I totally agree that Washington State should pick one thing—either a caucus or a primary—and focus on doing that one thing well, instead of having both a caucus and a primary and doing neither all that well. But let me be the lone voice on Slog to speak in praise of chaotic caucuses.

At a time when voting here is becoming mostly a solitary act done through the mail, caucusing is a nice throwback: A forced social event in which one is required to meet, and discuss politics with, one’s neighbors.

Sure, if you have a busy schedule or social phobias or work conflicts or a low tolerance for human interaction in general, then caucusing is not going to be your thing. And for a general election, private voting that can be done in person or by mail definitely makes the most sense. But for the process of choosing a party’s presidential nominee, a caucus is a pretty good thing.

I found the caucus I watched in Iowa earlier this year quite compelling for the earnest interaction it required among citizens. It’s not something you see everyday in this country. And I felt the same thing today.

You don’t get scenes like this from mail-in balloting:


And, sure, you don’t get scenes like this, either:


And there’s not much cause for a guy with a rainbow yarmulke and a tiny bullhorn when you’re doing private, solitary voting:


But here’s what I would have missed if I hadn’t had a caucus to go to today:

I would have missed the young woman who teared up when talking about what Obama’s connection to Kenya means to her.

I would have missed the the parade of people who rose to speak about how they were doing something that went against the politics of their family members in other states, and the reminder contained within that experience: That I live a neighborhood filled with a certain type of young American social refugee. I would also have missed the repeated variations on this theme: “Obama is the first candidate in a long time who is actually bringing my family together.”

Yes, I would also have missed the smell of nicotine clinging to clothes, and the pungent scent of the very literally unwashed masses who were crammed in with me. I could definitely have done without all of that. I might even have liked to see a few more fashionable scarves.

But had there not been caucuses today, I also wouldn’t have been able to hear the intense identification that many women in my precinct—even the female Obama supporters—had with the way Hillary Clinton has been held to what they described as sexist double-standards. I would have missed the guy who said his vote was determined mainly by the design and presentation of the candidates’ web sites, and who had a very reasonable argument to make as to why. I would have missed the man in camo pants who is moving to Canada if McCain wins. I would have missed the people from the South who needed Seattle to know how different the rest of America is from this liberal enclave. I would have missed the black woman who didn’t want anyone to make a decision based on race or gender.

I’ve been covering this presidential race for more than a year, so on an intellectual and experiential level I’m well aware of all the feelings that are caught up in this election. Sometimes I even think that I’ve either read or heard all the possible permutations of reaction and prediction, that there’s nothing new out there to be said by a voter or seen by a political writer.

And, to be honest, nothing that was said today at my caucus was new to me. Neither was seeing a caucus take place; I’d already experienced that in Iowa. But there is something about seeing your neighbors process it all together—the racial element, the feminist element, the connection to the war, the strong hope for a new direction—that is very unusual, and unusually heartening.

My caucus was, by and large, a gathering of people who live in apartments or condos and don’t know their neighbors. My precinct area is tiny, just a few blocks of a densely-populated neighborhood, and in that paradox of urban density, a lot of people were seeing each other for the first time.

Amazingly for this cynical age, these introductions were taking place not in the social arena of the bars and restaurants that fill my neighborhood, but in the political arena, one citizen trying to engage and persuade another inside a borrowed community college classroom.

It’s easy to become pessimistic about American democracy, and I think it may become even easier to be pessimistic when the only engagement one has with the political process is in reading about it online or in print, and then putting a ballot in the mail every once in a while.

By contrast, the messy give and take of the caucus process—or at least the messy give and take of my caucus meeting today—makes people feel like they are intimately connected. To their neighbors. To the slow grind of democratic change. To the direction of the country.

The results in my precinct didn’t surprise me. Hillary Clinton received one delegate, and Barack Obama received five. But the profound sense of connectedness did surprise me. So did my neighbors. They were more interesting, thoughtful, articulate, and politically-engaged than I’d ever imagined.

RSS icon Comments


I felt the same way about it. I may not be able to make a very good rational argument for the caucus system, but goddamn it was FUN.

Posted by markinthepark | February 9, 2008 4:55 PM

Eli you can have a social meeting and talk politics without having a caucus.

Here's how you do it:

print up 300 ostcards

drop them off at yoru neighbors'
tell them you'll have refreshments

tell the sbuject is politics and the pres. election.

Call it a preprimary party to talk thru things on the neighborhood level.

why not??

I was getting calls from highly educated friends who read the NYT every freakin' day who were shocked, shocked to hear that their vote in the primary won't count.

You don't need chaos to have a social meeting. Just have a meeting.

Posted by unPC | February 9, 2008 4:56 PM

Well said, Eli. I felt the same way. It was a real connection with neighbors who I've lived near for years but only talked to on a non-superficial level for the first time, today.

Posted by Steve | February 9, 2008 4:56 PM

I completely agree. This is the best (only?) chance we have to discuss politics with our neighbors. It was great to see folks elbow in next to each other to share opinions about health care, Iraq, etc.

We need to hold onto this passion and this networking for 8 more months.

Posted by MJ | February 9, 2008 4:57 PM

Megadittos, Eli.

Posted by Big Sven | February 9, 2008 4:57 PM

Actually, except for rock shows, I get pretty sketchy in a crowd. And I'm not a joiner and generally don't play well with others, but I really dug it. It felt like the "Everybody Hurts" video to see all these people emerging from their homes and converging on the school. As the room got more and more packed, I got more and more excited. It felt like something was happening.

Posted by skweetis | February 9, 2008 4:58 PM

All very well and good, but when do they start releasing preliminary results?

Posted by johnnie | February 9, 2008 4:59 PM

What's the old Lefty parade chant? "THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE"

Messy as this might be in the United States, at least there were no bloodletting bullets or bomb--or even, god forbid, hanging chads or hackable Diebold machines...

Posted by Andy Niable | February 9, 2008 5:00 PM

Absolutely with you, Eli. I came away with a lot of respect and affection for the ol' 46-2341. The level of passion and interest was a beautiful thing.

Posted by Tina | February 9, 2008 5:01 PM

well said eli. It was great to meet people in the buildings next to me and a few new ones in my building thbat came out.

I agree that it was chaotic but this definitely played into my egotistical desire to be a big fish in a snall pond. I am a delegate for obama too. if obama wasn't in the race I wouldn't even have come out.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | February 9, 2008 5:01 PM

I wholeheartedly agree, Eli.

When I left my caucus, I felt inspired and excited about the political process and the future of America, but possibilty more importantly, I felt a connection to my community.

It's something that we're completely lacking, and I'm all for an event that encourages (forces?) us to leave our apartments and actually talk to each other-- to engage in valuable, meaningful discourse.

A massive hurrah for caucuses!

(Beautiful post, by the way.)

Posted by Samantha | February 9, 2008 5:02 PM

I could not agree more. We should do it every weekend!

Posted by Caucus Romance?ClickHere | February 9, 2008 5:02 PM

100% co-sign on that, Eli. I LOVED our caucus... although it sounds like my tidy whitey caucus up at Prospect Church was a little less chaotic than others nearby. Regardless, I definitely felt a sense of community for once, and it was a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Posted by Katelyn | February 9, 2008 5:03 PM

Thank you for this post. My thoughts exactly. I had fun at mine too. A++++++ would attend again.

Posted by crk on bellevue ave | February 9, 2008 5:03 PM

I loved my caucus -- even though I was the only NONWHITE in my precinct. It was still cool to meet all my neighbors and gossip about other neighbors who didn't attend ... probably because they were McCain fans.

Glad there were no Jews with bullhorns at my caucus spot, too.

Posted by horatiosanzserif | February 9, 2008 5:05 PM

I felt the same way. I'm not actively social, but there's something so connected about a group of people, my *neighbors*, who feel passionate enough to venture out, suffer the crowds and the chaos to make their voice heard. It's hard not to get caught up. We had to vote for seven delegates for Obama, and 12 people threw their hat in. Each one made a speech right there on the spot, adlibbed from the heart, followed by genuine applause. Even though we were (mostly) all strangers, it felt wildly intimate. I am so totally down with the caucus.

Posted by kid icarus | February 9, 2008 5:05 PM

This was my first caucus and I likely won't participate in another. It was ridiculous and only further reinforced my lack of faith in local Dem party leadership-- which was mostly eroded by their lukewarm ability to pass any legislation that is meaningful to me as a socially progressive young person who is active in their community.

I'm glad you feel reinvigorated, but I wonder how many young voters are turned off by this lack of organization and heading into the actual election-- I wonder if our state has the capacity to handle this kind of voter turn out efficiently. If it doesn't, I'm worried about all the voters who won't bother the next time around.

Posted by christopher hong | February 9, 2008 5:06 PM

@17 - Young voters are turned on by organization?

Posted by skweetis | February 9, 2008 5:09 PM

Excellent post, Eli. It was amazing to crowd into a classroom with people I usually see on the bus and at the grocery store and engage in a spirited discussion. It was confusing and there were some cranky outbreaks but by the end we all applauded and cried, "Yay for democracy!" I'm glad I got to experience a caucus, but for all those who had to work today I'd prefer we go back to a primary.

Posted by madamecrow | February 9, 2008 5:10 PM

well said Eli!

we just need to change the "exceptions" rule so people who are at work or school during caucus can still participate in selecting their presidential preference. currently only military service, disability, and religious restriction are reasons that are permitted.

Posted by LH | February 9, 2008 5:10 PM

I could not agree more. We should do it every weekend!

Posted by Caucus Romance?ClickHere | February 9, 2008 5:11 PM

I could not agree more. We should do it every weekend!

Posted by Caucus Romance?ClickHere | February 9, 2008 5:11 PM

@17 I'm a young voter and the chaos felt vital and creative to me -- certainly not stagnant.

Posted by Katelyn | February 9, 2008 5:11 PM

Wow, GWB has finally done something I can feel good about; No way this many people would have showed up without him.

Posted by six shooter | February 9, 2008 5:11 PM

There was very little discussion in our precinct. Maybe this was because it was mostly younger people who didn't want to discuss; they just want to sign-in, hear the results, and leave.

The 10 or so hillary people really did nothing to convince the 68 obama people to change their vote. They basically just sulked against the wall.

One obama person did talk with one uncommitted person, and I think a few obama people tried to talk to Hillary people.

Of the originally 4 uncommitted people, seemingly 2 went to obama and 2 to hillary.

I would have loved to have heard more stories or participated in more discussion. But when half the people are standing and half are sitting and when people are unclear on the rules and when other precincts are walking through your area and when the "losers" are passive and don't try to grab some more votes, then people lose interest in the discussing part.

Posted by stinkbug | February 9, 2008 5:12 PM

Right on, Eli! I feel the same way. It was exciting...I've been glued to the computer/TV/phone tracking reports and results all afternoon. Haven't been this OCD about politics since I was in college.

Posted by Hernandez | February 9, 2008 5:15 PM

Oh, I should also add that I'm in a precinct with many many students. So I didn't see them 4 years ago and I doubt I'll see them 4 years from now. It's hard to build a community when your neighbors aren't your neighbors for all that long. That stifles interactions too.

Posted by stinkbug | February 9, 2008 5:15 PM

Christopher, if you don't like it, you should volunteer and change things. It is a club, not a government running this.

You made it sound like the state organized this. If so, you would be wrong. The government didn't run these, the democratic party did and likewise the democratic party will not be running the general election, the government will be.

Posted by crk on bellevue ave | February 9, 2008 5:15 PM

That was a touching post, Eli. I agree completely. Besides taking part in the Democratic process today, I also met a cute guy named Scott. God bless America.

Posted by Bub | February 9, 2008 5:17 PM
Posted by M | February 9, 2008 5:18 PM
Posted by LH | February 9, 2008 5:18 PM

total agreement with eli. the process is messy and fun and powerful.

Posted by Kevin Erickson | February 9, 2008 5:19 PM

I had a great time.

My precinct had about three times as many people as in 2004, and split our delegates 4-2 in favor of Obama. Another precinct split 5-1 for Obama.

I went for Dodd.

Posted by povertyrich | February 9, 2008 5:20 PM

nice post -- that's my awesomely thoughtful and polite precinct in the first photo!

I agree wholeheartedly about the benefits of caucuses. It was a really good experience to see so many neighbors engaging in political discussions. Still, sitting through almost three hours of process, I can also see how the time, commitment, and patience required to participate can end up leaving out a whole lot of voters.

Posted by josh | February 9, 2008 5:21 PM

WOOO! 67% for barack with 30% reporting! Washington is Obama country!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by markinthepark | February 9, 2008 5:22 PM

nicely put! And the pledge of allegiance made my hubby a bit weepy.

Posted by katrat | February 9, 2008 5:24 PM

I didn't have fun. I could deal with the crowds and the heat, but there was no discussion. There were no uncommitted, and while my roommate tried to engage people, I just sat there waiting for it to be over.

It was too loud, and yet I couldn't hear anything. The organization of it took so long, there were no speeches.

there were 8 -ish precincts in one big room, and when the 82 in mine got together in our little 'circle', I couldn't hear anyone.

Since everyone already knew who they were voting for, what's the point of a caucus?

I did have fun discussing it at the bar last night, trying to persuade people to my side.

Maybe they just needed alcohol.

Posted by Tizzle | February 9, 2008 5:25 PM

Very well put, Eli. I agree with everything you said.

I hate to say that I didn't make it to my caucus: I woke up this morning feeling like death, and then started to physically express that feeling, if you know what I mean (delicacy forbids me from saying more) so I needed to stay home.

I still feel like death, but less so, and it perks me up to read that many people liked it. I lift my mug of Theraflu to you, and may very well do a shot of NyQuil in celebration.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | February 9, 2008 5:31 PM

cant wait till 2012....for another round
speaking of which we should go old school
and cacus in bars...NOW THAT WOULD BE INTRESTING

Posted by linus | February 9, 2008 5:44 PM

Excellent post, Eli.

Posted by Ryan | February 9, 2008 5:47 PM


Posted by tamara | February 9, 2008 5:53 PM

My caucus was chaotic, but not in the sense that people were talking/arguing. It was chaotic in the sense that no one knew how to run the thing. Like which form do we fill out, what order do we do things in, do we award delegates for undecideds, do we round up/down, etc.

If anything this chaos hurt the political discussion because too much time and energy was focused on figuring out how to do things. People who wanted to talk politics were waiting around to fill out forms and it just wasn't a smart way to run things.

Posted by mrobvious | February 9, 2008 6:04 PM

Nice, Eli. I too liked the caucus process (my first time through it). It was nice discussing things with my neighbors.

Logistics could've been better, but that was due to increased participation. If anything, the large crowds added to the excitement and the idea that we're trying to build something here. It was also a good opportunity to recruit volunteers for GOTV campaigns prior to the general election.

Posted by Mahtli69 | February 9, 2008 6:05 PM

Well said, Eli. I, too, was energized by meeting my neighbors and talking to them about politics. However, I have to say our precinct was pretty lame and unorganized. We had one sort of impassioned speech for Obama, and one incoherent speech for Clinton, and then we separated into groups and mostly just socialized for the rest of the time. Our split was 71-29 for Obama.

Posted by kebabs | February 9, 2008 6:08 PM

@43 I am definitely more motivated to volunteer for the party after seeing the caucus gathering today.

Posted by Katelyn | February 9, 2008 6:09 PM

Great post Eli.

I really enjoy the caucus process -- especially on days like today, where it really matters and pretty much everyone in the hood turns out and talks to each other. Big fun.

And that Craigslist posting is a hoot. I saw several possible hook-ups take place and I left with 3 phone numbers. Who knew?

Posted by gnossos | February 9, 2008 6:09 PM

Beautifully said, Eli. I am in complete agreement with you.

Posted by kerri harrop | February 9, 2008 6:34 PM

I appreciate the sentiment, but having actually chaired one of these chaotic caucuses today, I'd be far happier with a primary.

But you know what's great? Democracy's fun again.

Posted by dw | February 9, 2008 6:37 PM

Best post in a long time.

My caucus site was chaotic, but once we broke into precincts I really enjoyed the process. So many more people were showed up this time compared to last, which is probably contributed to the chaos. Talking to my neighbors about the candidates and issues just felt right. I didn't change my position, but some did, and I will be very happy to vote for either person come November.

Posted by Lanik | February 9, 2008 6:47 PM

Right on Eli! I also enjoyed my (first) time at the caucus. Surprisingly, I ran into a number of my neighbors from my condo building in Greenwood, and it reminded me that we have more in common than just a dilapidated roof and ever increasing home-owners dues.

Posted by Dale | February 9, 2008 6:56 PM

I liked how, even though reluctant at first, people stepped up to help out when it was needed.

Sure, mostly the Obama people, but the reality is people had this sense of community for the most part, and were fairly patient considering.

We didn't really do speeches per se - we had one Uncommitted person and we all know she's a Kucinich person who didn't want to change her mind, so it wasn't too important - but some of the other precincts supposed to cram into a teeny room at Fremont Public Library that met outside in the park or in the parking lot next door did.


Posted by Will in Seattle | February 9, 2008 9:12 PM

Right on! Reminds me of this passage from Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2 (1840), Part 2, Chapter 4:

"Despotism, which is fearful by nature, looks upon the isolation of men as the surest guarantee of its own duration and ordinarily does all it can to ensure that isolation. No vice of the human heart suits it better than egoism: a despot will be quick to forgive the people he governs for not loving him, provided they do not love one another. He does not ask for their help in conducting the state; it is enough that they do not seek to run it themselves. Minds that aspire to combine their efforts to promote the common prosperity he calls disruptive and restless, and, altering the natural meaning of the words, he calls those who keep strictly to themselves 'good citizens.'


Of course one might object at this point that elections give rise to endless intrigues, that candidates often resort to disgraceful tactics, and that their enemies spread slander about them. Elections are occasions for hatred, and the more frequently they are held, the more often such occasions arise.

These are no doubt great evils, but they are temporary, whereas the goods that attend them remain.

The desire to win an election may induce some men to make war on one another for a time, but in the long run the same desire leads all men to lend each other mutual support. Furthermore, while an election may accidentally divide two friends, the electoral system permanently brings together a multitude of citizens who would otherwise remain strangers. Liberty engenders particular hatreds, but despotism gives rise to general indifference."

Posted by Alex | February 9, 2008 10:16 PM

What Eli said. Our caucus was horrendously chaotic, but still really wonderful. I probably had a stupid grin on my face half the time, just from seeing so many people getting involved.

Posted by litlnemo | February 9, 2008 10:42 PM

You're a great writer, Eli. This post made me all tingly inside and made me wish we had caucuses around here.

Posted by ms | February 10, 2008 2:24 AM

I bought that bullhorn in order to compete with the radical Christian fundamentalists who sometimes are out on the streets talking about their view of the Bible. So call it small if you will, but it can hold its own. Great article, and glad you enjoyed the chaos today.

Posted by Jeremy Sher | February 10, 2008 4:16 AM

These caucuses would have been SOOOOOO much better with cocktails!

The party official gave a little speech talking about how the party had spent so much money on facility rental and so on.

Hell, I'll bet Sun Liquor would have loved the chance to host our neighborhood caucus. And provide the space for free.

Posted by oneway | February 10, 2008 6:21 AM

Sun Liquor is so my precinct--yes!

Although I try not to get too drunk by 1:30. Even on a Saturday...

Posted by NapoleonXIV | February 10, 2008 9:21 AM

With Top Pot next door - what better nooner than a martini and a jelly donut?

Posted by BELMONT PLACE | February 10, 2008 12:38 PM

I was at the same caucus that Dan Savage attended (hi, Dan!) and, while the caucus was without a doubt a chaotic experience, I agree wholeheartedly with Eli about the opportunity to meet with neighbors and debate something meaningful in a public space. It was wonderful, and while this was my first caucus I plan to be a proponent that we continue the process here in Washington.

One thing I will add, however, is that the state needs to get its act together to make the process clear. Having Sam Reed, the secretary of state, publicly comment in the Seattle Times that all voters should vote in the primary and that, by his count, it's a more important event is downright shameful. It did nothing but confuse people who wanted to participate in the process and have our voice heard.

Bottom line: The state and the Democratic Party need to get their act together, both with better communications and better organization. But the caucus itself--let's keep it around.

Posted by Nick | February 10, 2008 1:59 PM

The night before the caucus, I dreamed that all of the power on Capitol Hill was out (which was partially true in real life!), and that everyone was eating dinner together on long long picnic tables down the middle of Broadway. It made me so happy! The dream put me in the mood for the caucus, which had the same feel. Loud and messy and great.

Posted by Tarvie | February 10, 2008 9:37 PM

Oh, hey, neighbor!

Posted by Jasmine | February 11, 2008 11:59 AM

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