Thursday, February 7, 2008

Has the Caucus System Outgrown Its Britches?

According to their official party websites, at last counting, some 212,079 Minnesotans attended Tuesday night’s DFL precinct caucuses and 62,421 attended their Republican counterparts. These numbers smashed all time attendance records. While this is great news for political participation in very troubled times, there is one big catch: many more wanted and tried to attend, but could not.

This criticism, and it is a big one, comes down to a fairly solvable solution, one of logistics. The far more intractable problems and criticisms that have been percolating up over the past 36 hours are those involving the very nature of the caucus system itself. With participation levels such as those described above, is it really fair and/or practical to have neighborhood-sized forums and procedures for small arena sized attendance?

The analogy that comes to mind is that of what kind of participation is more meaningful to you: your local neighborhood church congregation or the mega church, money-oriented superficiality of say, the Mac Hammonds. Paul Wellstone grass roots politics or Michelle Bachman's current game of hide and seek.

Many frustrated caucus attendees and those unable to attend for logistical reasons have opined that the time has finally come for us to switch to a primary system. This has been met with a chorus of resistance from traditionalists who like the town hall, neighborliness of the caucus system and I suspect, reluctant feelings on behalf of those who have been running the shows over the years to give up what little power fiefdoms they have in life. While that criticism may be a little harsh on those truly heroic volunteers who have run mundane caucuses during off year elections, anyone who has attended a caucus and suffered through interminably long, not well thought out or even ridiculous resolutions, knows what I am talking about.

For example, at my local DFL precinct caucus the other night, about half a dozen of my neighbors and fellow citizens got up and made resolutions on a variety of subjects and topics. There is something truly admirable in seeing regular citizens muster up enough courage to get up in front of an audience and speak from the heart. The other night I heard my neighbors speak on everything from changing the negotiation level for local government employee benefits from the state level, governor appointed negotiator down to a local government appointed negotiator, to a ban on torture by the CIA and armed forces, to impeaching Cheney. Some of my fellow citizens resolutions were incredibly well thought out, detailed and some even had copies of their proposed resolution that they handed out so we could quickly move along, God bless them. But, while not trying to be mean here, because these people were obviously very earnest in their desire to right some wrong, whether real or perceived, some were just plain old, down right, nuts.

A nice, older gentlemen (who must have ate too much of that bad brown acid that was going around at the original Woodstock), got up and read his five resolutions with whereas clauses that implied that the U.S. government was behind 911 and the collapse of the twin towers. It is precisely this kind of lunacy that allows the blow hards on the far right to portray liberal Democrats as wing nuts. Frankly, it is this kind of wasting other peoples time that pisses people off to the point where they are ready to scrap all the good, positive, community oriented aspects of the caucus system for a primary system.

The most serious and on target criticism that I have heard came from those DFLers who attended their precinct caucus for the main purpose of expressing their preference for party endorsement for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Norm Coleman. Those unfamiliar with the caucus system or those who did not have access to caucus training materials were totally clueless as to the selection of state senate district convention delegates being the key to expressing their desires.

At our precinct caucus there was absolutely no discussion regarding the positions of the proposed delegates with respect to their leanings of which U.S. Senate candidate to endorse: Ciresi, Franken or Nelson-Pallmeyer. This should have been explicitly explained before the delegate selection process. I intend to bring this issue up in the appropriate committee prior to the next election cycle.

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