Caucus: The Algonquian Revenge?
Some think the Virginia Algonquian tribe gave us the word “caucus,” meaning a gathering of tribal people to select their chieftains. Indeed, what could be more reflective of a Norman Rockwell-like America than groups of citizens getting together in the evening after work to decide who will be nominated to lead them in the days and years ahead?
The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of political parties. That gives great latitude to the individual political parties within the individual states as to how they go about their nominating processes. The more modern practice is the direct primary election whereby each voter casts, in private, either a paper or electronic ballot. Only 11 states cling to caucus systems.
Writing in 1865, Lewis Carroll thought political caucuses were too complex and un-democratic. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a collection of birds and animals who are all wet. The Dodo Bird decides they should all dry off with a Caucus Race, which has no rules except to run in a circle.
Today, the American workplace has changed. Instead of eligible voters working regular daylight hours and being free in the evenings to take part in presidential nominating caucuses, the job requirements of shift work effectively disenfranchise many workers. On top of that, some state political parties have caucus rules that would dismay even the Dodo Bird.
For example, the Iowa Democrat Party does not allow caucus-goers to vote in private. Attendees are simply segregated into various corners of the meeting place according to whom they support. And, if the caucus leader decides a particular candidate does not have a high-enough percentage of those present, the supporters of that candidate are told to move to some other candidate’s corner or go home.
Iowa notwithstanding, another major problem with caucuses (in addition to excluding many potential voters) is that they are mostly attended by party extremists. With Iowa Democrats, it was the far-left liberal, blame-America-first, cut-and-run-from-the-war-on-terror-crowd that went overwhelmingly for the candidate who promised, if elected, to do just that. On the Republican side, the caucuses were dominated by far-right, evangelicals who were looking for an Elmer Gantry who would promise to ignore the part of the 1st Amendment that separates church and state.
They both got what they wanted; however, in the larger scheme of things, Iowa doesn’t matter other than to be an outstanding example of how un-democratic a presidential primary caucus system can be.
Nevada is a caucus state. Many Nevada voters work in the Las Vegas gaming industry that operates 24/7, 365 days a year. That means lots of shift work, making it virtually impossible for many who work along the Strip to get back home to their local caucus places on a specific date and at a specific time. So, for 2008, the Nevada Democratic Party authorized nine additional caucus places along the Strip.
But then, racial and class warfare raised their ugly heads. The culinary workers union, which has a large African-American and Hispanic membership, was eager to have the additional caucus locations. But when the culinary workers union endorsed the African-American presidential candidate, the mostly-white teachers’ union, which had already endorsed the leading white presidential candidate, filed a lawsuit to prevent the use of the additional caucus locations.
Had the lawsuit succeeded, it would have been a classic case of the courts being used to further disadvantage members of the shift-working, hourly-wage, working-class to the advantage of the 9 to 5 managerial-class.
This suggests the presidential primary process needs reform. Surely, America could have a system that allows qualified citizens to vote by secret ballot, to have their ballots accurately recorded and tabulated, and does not foment racial and class strife. That shouldn’t be rocket science; however, it seems to be beyond the grasp of the 11 Dodo Bird caucus states.
Maybe this is how the Algonquians, long ago displaced by white Virginians, extract their revenge.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today. Writing as William Penn, he is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy -- two novels about terrorist attacks on America.
©2008. William Hamilton