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Politics: A serious game, not a spectator sport

All the furor over the presidential primaries makes politics look like a spectator sport.  Deborah Morse-Kahn (MinnPost, Feb. 8) can’t bring herself to attend a precinct caucus, but she stays up half the night watching the returns.

All the furor over the presidential primaries makes politics look like a spectator sport.  Deborah Morse-Kahn (MinnPost, Feb. 8) can’t bring herself to attend a precinct caucus, but she stays up half the night watching the returns. Doug Grows scoops his old paper in presenting the superdelegate lineup (MinnPost, Feb. 15) as we wait breathlessly for those delegates to decide whose team they’re on. The pundits spent months examining the horses in the race before discovering the odds-makers — aka pollsters — weren’t always right. Finally, as we watch the final laps in this nominating game, we’re beginning to learn the rules and argue about whether they’re fair.   

I admit, it is exciting. But remember two things: We’re only in the preliminaries, and politics isn’t just a spectator sport. It’s a deadly serious game — sometimes literally deadly. Think Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan or Jack and Bobby Kennedy. 

In the United States all adults are qualified players. We are free to play — to run, work, contribute and vote; or to sit on the bench or bleachers, commenting freely as we watch. We can even make the rules for the next match four years from now if we get organized. (But getting organized takes time and effort — and even thought.)

As we head into the finals of this year’s game, however, maybe taking a time out to think about the game and why we play or watch it would be useful.

Politics, according to my dictionary, is the art and science of governance. It determines how we live together in our cities, counties, states and nation and with the rest of the world. Like marriage, that isn’t easy. In the United States we seem to have decided to divide up into two political parties, plus independents and those who don’t play or watch at all. The Democrats tend to be more liberal; the Republicans more conservative. The independents want the best of both worlds — or just can’t decide. 

Political parties are organized groups — unless you, like Mark Twain, believe that if you don’t belong to any organized party, you’re a Democrat. The Democrats do have trouble.  Their members want mass participation but often not the bother of working for the organization year around.  They want to be on the nominating committee and then sit on the sidelines until the next time they get excited about a candidate or an issue.

“Don’t bother me with the details,” they seem to say. “I know whom I want for president and I want to get it over quick. Don’t ask me to go out in the dark. It’s cold in Minnesota and there are not enough places to park. I don’t want to wait in line or sit around where it’s noisy. I don’t care who’s running for senator or the state Legislature or the school board or party office (boss), I have a TV program to watch. Why can’t these precinct caucuses be at my convenience and better organized?”

Most caucus organizers and convenors — Republican, DFL or Democrat — also have paid jobs, hence the evening hours. They get no thanks, only grief if the line doesn’t move fast enough or there aren’t enough ballots. The caucus system depends on parties and their volunteers. Each party finances its caucuses — rents the hall, pays for the ballots — and finds volunteers (party activists) to convene and lead them.

Folks who want convenience and big money out of politics should understand primaries are expensive — for parties, the public and candidates. State-run primaries open long hours for the convenience of everyone cost taxpayer money. Voting machines and election judges don’t come free or appear at the polling place miraculously.

But the biggest expense in primary states is borne by campaigns and candidates. With primaries — “wholesale” politics — money and celebrity count. To reach the largest number of possible voters, candidates rely heavily on the media and mailings. Candidates have to sell themselves to the bench warmers as well as party players. Advertising involves not only paying for space or time, but also for consultants expert in projecting images and creating sound bites. Candidate appearances are concentrated in the major media markets for maximum coverage. In states with primaries, new candidates with little money have little chance of nomination.   

It’s time for a time out. Politics is about the kind of government and governors we want.  If you don’t want superdelegates or party bosses or money deciding close races — and the kind of government you want — then invest a little time, put up with inconvenience or get in a party and work. Maybe even offer to be a caucus convenor.   

Arvonne Fraser, a longtime DFL Party activist and a political appointee in the Carter and Clinton administrations, is the author of a recent memoir, “She’s No Lady: Politics, Family and International Feminism.”

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.