Having grown up in Virginia, I never thought I would live in Iowa, mostly because I never thought about Iowa, period. Apparently I am not the only one who simply saw Iowa as one of those nebulous “vowel states.” Walter Mondale once began a speech at the University of Iowa saying, “It’s good to be at the University of Iowa, in Ohio City, Idaho.” There is one thing, however, that everyone knows about Iowa. Every four years the eyes of the nation – at least the eyes of broadcasters – are focused on Iowa and New Hampshire as they host the nation’s first caucus and primary in the electoral campaign.
There is a decided difference between the experience of a primary and the experience of a caucus. A primary reaches more people, since anyone can stop by a polling station throughout the selected day and cast a vote. A caucus requires collective attendance, with everyone gathered in the same room at the same time. For that reason, primaries are more inclusive numerically because the pool of participation is wider. The caucus, however, is much deeper.
An Iowa caucus is a thing to behold. Republicans gather in one building; Democrats gather in another. In my experience, both tend to gather in buildings too small for the crowd, but that ramps up the excitement a bit. After a brief welcome and instructions for the first-timers, each of the candidates running for a party’s election is assigned a location. The candidates themselves are not there, because the caucuses happen all over the state, but their name is posted in this corner or that area, and all the persons who are supporting that candidate are then invited to go and gather in that candidate’s cluster. Then, based on a percentage that is derived by the number of candidates running and those in attendance, there is a “viability” number that each cluster must reach. If a candidate’s cluster does not have viability, then each of those supporters have to go and join another candidate’s cluster. First, however, there are conversations. Folks who support other candidates go over and tell the uncommitted ones why they should come and join their candidate’s cluster. The uncommitted ones go around asking questions of other candidates’ supporters about this or that issue that matters to them. Then, everyone has to re-group and go to a viable spot.
The process is repeated again and again until there is a clear majority for one candidate. At that point, everyone embraces that candidate as their caucus’ candidate and send the results to the state office. It is not a flawless process by any means, but it is high on depth and conversation, low on the ‘here’s my vote; let’s see how it falls’ process of a primary.
Iowa caucuses reflect a quality that I grew to appreciate among Iowans generally – a kind of patience that is grounded in keeping the long view in mind. In the end, each caucus goer knows that they are “in it together” for the long haul. As such, finding consensus was far more essential than getting one’s own way. I guess that’s what I found most intriguing about the caucus process, after years of simply casting my vote in primaries and either winning or losing. The truth is, in most caucuses more people go away embracing the candidate they did not come in supporting. I learned that my position affected the outcome of the caucus, but the caucus also affected the outcome of my position. That’s what conversation does in a way that simply casting a vote does not.
It goes against our nature to imagine that a political system might create a better sense of community or offer better means of attaining the good than some of our church practices. After all, we imagine ourselves to be a prophetic community, having been transformed by the Spirit and offering light to the world. And politic systems are, well, politics, for crying out loud! In this case, however, I suspect the political system may offer us wisdom. For example, what if we approached Presbytery meetings like “a caucus gathering.” What if our assumption was that, in the end, we may not get our way? What if we assumed that our unity at the end of the day is really what matters, more than our specific opinions? What if our conversations were less the “hear my argument for my point of view” and more “tell me how your way addresses the concerns that I bring?” At the very least, such a process would require that our “win or lose” mentality give way to the caucus mentality that we are “in it together for the long haul.” The question becomes, then, “How can we be a community where even the concerns of those who ‘lose’ can shape our path?”
That, to me, seems a very promising idea.