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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. 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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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by John Farrell on 02/19/2008 - 12:01 pm.

    A few days after the caucuses I had a surprising conversation with someone who had been a reporter and editor at some of the most important newspapers in the area. This person had only recently become politically active, feeling it inappropriate to participate in party politics while working in news reporting. Although nearing retirement age, this person was really a political “newbie” and regarded the caucus process as a form of disenfranchisement. When such people–who may reasonably be expected to be better informed than the average person–come to regard party activists as a privileged few who are depriving others of the right to their opinions there is indeed cause for despair.

  2. Submitted by Deborah Morse-Kahn on 02/19/2008 - 12:24 pm.

    I absolutely hate going toe to toe with one of family’s most beloved friends. Alas, we do disagree.

    I will cite some excerpts from my own responses to comments to my Community Voices commentary of February 8th:

    “…Let’s make this easy: I divide the entire population of Minnesota’s eligible voters into one-third and two-thirds. I say to the two-thirds group, “Okay, you two-thirds, you can vote in this caucus but only with the understanding that one-third of all state registered voters will be unable to vote. Are you willing?”

    Arvonee, if your answer is “Yes”…what does that mean? We think of voter registration issues has having to do with minorities and new citizens. Who knew it would encompass those who could not make 90 minutes in their day available for a once-every-four-years chance to cast their ballots?

    I think of the word ‘participatory’ as critical semantics here. If I thought the system viable, open to all, working well, and making sense in the long run, I’d be there. I find it nonviable, hugely disenfranchising, grossly inefficient in use of time and energy, and subject to strong cliques and manipulation by agressive insiders. Welcome to high school in the DFL. Been there, done that. Give me a primary every time.

    With huge respect – Deborah

  3. Submitted by Steve Marchese on 02/19/2008 - 02:29 pm.

    Although I have the utmost respect for Arvonne Fraser and her husband, I think she misses one point of the criticism of the caucus system.

    Caucuses are predicated on the notion that anyone can participate — as long as you are willing to invest the time and effort to participate. However, the reality is that there are significant barriers to participation for many people and these barriers are not solely ones based upon convenience, ease or social pressure. If you are disabled and can’t get a ride to the caucus site during the caucus time, you are disenfranchised. If you are a single parent and can’t find child care, you are disenfranchised. If you have a family with two parents and both want to participate and you can’t find or afford child care, you are disenfranchised. If you work late into the evening because your job requires it, you are disenfranchised. If you are the primary caregiver to someone and can’t locate temporary assistance, you are disenfranchised.

    My concern about caucuses is not that they demand too much. Political participation is demanding. It is that the barriers to participating are actually quite real and pretty high. I have chosen to participate by attending my caucus because I don’t want to be disenfranchised. But I am lucky — I have financial resources, education, and a supportive spouse. What about the thousands of others who deserve to participate and can’t. A process that ultimately determines the choices to be made on Election Day shouldn’t be designed with high built in barriers to participation. For the educated, affluent, and resourced, it might be about choice. For many, many others, that is not so.

    We should be about designing a candidate selection system that enables as many people as possible to give meaningful input. That is the purpose of popular democracy. Instead, the caucus process rewards the people with the ability to “chose” participation with a greater say in the process. I think that is very problematic.

  4. Submitted by Jackley Jackley on 02/19/2008 - 06:05 pm.

    As a DFL intern dealing with questions and complaints from this year’s caucus-goers each day, this commentary touched a special place in my heart.

    While I completely understand the notion of “disenfranchisement” being expressed because of the (admittedly) large amount of chaos in the state of Minnesota on the eve of Feb. 5, as a participant I have to pose several rhetorical questions in response:

    1. Aren’t the caucuses completely dependant on volunteer organization on the district level, and the availability of local spaces? (answer: yes)

    2. Wasn’t this year’s turnout the largest ever–in terms of sheer numbers and percentage of eligible voters? (answer: yes)

    3. Weren’t quite a few of the people participating brand new to the notion of “caucusing”? (answer: yes)

    The simple fact is that resources were overwhelmed. The DFL estimated, on the high end, that around 100,000 people would show up to caucuses–the last count was around 213,000. It’s very encouraging, and wonderful to see; and it was an unprecedented event in our state’s voting history. For the first time we even got some attention (due to the caucuses being moved up to Super Tuesday)! But when will we see this kind of participation again?

    Everyone needs to chill out a little bit and take a long, rational look at our system. I think perhaps a solution most befitting will involve a combination of an open primary, with evening caucusing for those who want to be more involved. Reform will most certainly come in time, but pointing fingers–as we all seem to REALLY like to do whenever politics is involved–is just dumb.

  5. Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 02/19/2008 - 06:32 pm.

    You go g’rl! I don’t feel it necessary to dissect every point, the one I most like and most agree with is: If you don’t like the process or think it could be better, GET INVOLVED! We need volunteers! I was personally confronted with complaints by several people about why didn’t we do this or that — but thankfully many more people recognized that this was way bigger and thus way more chaotic than we had ever dealt with!

  6. Submitted by Deborah Morse-Kahn on 02/20/2008 - 10:33 am.

    Arvonne, Andrea, Lyn:

    Disenfranchisement. Now you’re no longer being pushed to the outside due to the color of your skin, you’re simply out of luck if you cannot meet a 90-minute window in time.

    Disenfranchisement. No amount of enthusiasm makes up for loss of voter participation opportunity. The list so far (want to add any we haven’t thought of?):

    – First-responders (fire, police, emergency personnel)
    – Anyone working the 11-7 second shift (caucuses began at 6:30), including a vast number of medical and service personnel
    – Anyone working a second job (numbering in the untold thousands and thousands)
    – Anyone with dependents who cannot find substitute care
    – Anyone who is disabled and unable to find transportation
    – Anyone who must be away from the home precinct for any reason (no absentee ballots)

    Disenfranchisement. If enthusiams and sheer raw energy could widen this tiny 90-minute window in the middle of winter to a full day, we’d all join you. Glad you could get away. We’d like to see EVERYONE have that chance.


  7. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 02/20/2008 - 11:57 pm.

    I really am proud of the article you write, here. This is an important item to understand about the caucuses. They provide a real opportunity to be active in the party at a grassroots level.

    The comments here opposed which refer to “disenfranchisement” are missing the point completely. People that have difficulty attending should contact their local senate district party organization. Most have volunteers to provide rides, and the caucuses are held in ADA accessible locations. And, as I have pointed out in other comments, which Morse continues to ignore, is that the parties allow for proxy letters for people who can’t make the caucuses to be delegates to the next level of convention.

    Getting rid of the caucuses would only serve to further disenfranchise activists who don’t have pre-existing connections.

    Being involved in politics can be difficult, but the hurdles are not insurmountable. Our precinct caucus had a baby in attendance because both of her parents (one of whom normally works nights) could attend. And as far as the “financial resources” which one of the commenters here raised as a “hurdle” is nonsense. One of my friends, who has been seeking meaningful work for two years, came and brought his 17-year-old daughter because the issues discussed at the caucuses are meaningful to him.

    The call against the caucuses is what discourages people from participating, if you keep on telling people that they are “disenfranchised” then they will start to believe you.

  8. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 03/12/2008 - 04:53 pm.

    I don’t have a comment on the substance of this post, but the line about not belonging to any organized party is from Will Rogers, not Mark Twain. Hope the caucus thing works out to everyone’s adequate satisfaction.

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