An Inconvenience Truth

By Don Rollins

Populism is at a crossroads in my state. In the wake of the record-setting attendance at the 2008 presidential caucuses, some Minnesota muckety-mucks want to scrap the caucus system in favor of primaries. Seems that all it takes to derail the few remaining cars in our populist train is some critical mass of crowded gyms and community centers in some critical number of well-heeled Twin Cities suburbs. All that trouble to find a parking space. All that chaos to register. All those one-minute sales pitches on behalf of the candidates. All that time. Mighty inconvenient, that caucus thing.

But the train-robbing pols in St. Paul — a few Republicans and several DFLers (Democrats, Farmers and Labor) — have lost some steam. To be sure, they’re still calling for us to get on board with the more efficient (and dare I say, infinitely more sterile) primary, but those of us who dwell in the “out-state” hinterlands are not quite sure we want our ticket for the primaries punched just yet; we have the temerity to think that grassroots politics is a necessary, worthy check on the excesses of representative democracy. We’re not about to be complicit in the watering down of local responsibility and power. And so it is that we’ve become “conservatives” on behalf of the newly orphaned, suddenly inconvenient caucus.

But the “we” here is not just a few prairie hayseeds stuck in a twentieth-century political time machine. Hardly. We are populist-leaning DFLers — politicians and party officials who prefer a messy democracy to a tidy oligarchy. We are farmers — men and women who prefer practicality and fairness to ideology and hierarchy. We are labor — folks who understand the value of having direct, grassroots influence in matters that affect the greater good. We are rural populists — ministers, teachers and small business owners turned hell-raisers on account of our state’s ever-increasing bias for cities and suburbs. And, much to the chagrin of those liberals who like their conservatives to be wrong on every issue, we are Republicans – some nuts-and-bolts types who know that real people need real power in order to become invested in a real political process. So, the “we” that I’m talking about is a budding, motley alliance against the usurpation of influence in the name of convenience.

But the statistics are not on our side. At least not according to recent poll of Minnesotans.

But would progressives really abandon the caucus? Hell, two DFL congresswomen have taken the point in this assault on the caucus model! Between the polls and the pols, the caucus may soon go the way of unscripted national conventions and soft-power American diplomacy. It’s just nostalgia. Inertia.

But just in case there’s anyone still listening up there in our fair capital city, let me tell you what went on in our little caucus down here in Fly-Over Land. Call it anecdotal evidence that the caucus is still worth the inconvenience.

Cold, cold night. The little municipal center that sets on the corner across from the municipal watering hole and just up the block from the municipal bowling alley, was lighted on two levels: Republicans on top, DFLers on the bottom. (Uh, insert your own joke here.) Downstairs, between the weak coffee and the stale doughnuts, caucus rules were quoted, floated and noted. Candidates were simultaneously beatified and crucified. Green, unwitting newcomers were drafted to represent the local precinct at the county convention. Intra-family political rivalries were renewed. Tattooed teenagers were dragged there by well-meaning parents, hell-bent on showing their offspring “democracy in action.”

And those speeches! Man, time crept once the speeches began. Babies spit up. Old folks fell asleep. I still swear that, just across the room, the longstanding, cobwebbed, pictures of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone checked their watches and winced. Twice. And the Norwegian farmer to my right allowed as how “caucus meetings ain’t for recovering cardiac patients or organizational consultants.”

Still, I wish that the St. Paul pols could have been there to see the sense of empowerment that registered on the faces and in the voices of frontline DFLers, young and old, first-timers and party vets. For those couple of hours we — all of us — believed that our two cents mattered; we knew we weren’t to control much of anything beyond recording and sending our vote tallies to the county seat, but, by God, we had done our part. We had done our part.

Had I been among the suburban swells that cold, cold night — if I couldn’t find a parking space for my Lexus, then spilled a five-dollar latte while waiting in the registration line with the great unwashed — maybe I’d scream for a primary, too. But I wasn’t. I was sitting between that Norwegian farmer and the wacky, first-caucus kid who kept saying, “This caucus thing is the bomb!” and, “This is just phat! Crazy phat!”

He’s right. The caucus is one of the last vestiges of Minnesota’s populist past. It was instituted, not all that long ago, under the rubric that why we vote is every bit as important as how we vote. And it’s inconvenient. So, too, is civic duty. So, too, is listening with an open mind. So, too, is being a progressive. So, too, is being an American.


Rev. Don Rollins is pastor of the Nora Unitarian Universalist Church in Hanska, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2008

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