Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why People Avoid Neighborhood Caucus Meetings

I attended my first neighborhood political caucus meeting when I was 18 years old. I didn't understand many of the issues, I knew little about the candidates, and I didn't understand much of what was going on.

I did, however, comprehend that the meeting progressed according to parliamentary rules. My relative ignorance apparently decreased the likelihood of bias enough to qualify me to help count votes for county and state delegates.

Since that day of long ago, I have attended many neighborhood caucus meetings. I have held precinct leadership positions and I have attended party conventions.

But frankly, I detest going to neighborhood caucus meetings. I'm not alone. I yawned when I saw the headline for this KSL article, which reads, "Most Utahns won't attend party caucuses," because this statement has a pretty high "duh" factor. In other words, it's not really news. It's been this way for decades.

I opened the article anyway and could tell right away that it was more of the standard bashing of the caucus system that has been promoted by the media and the political elite establishment for some time.

While I think political lawyer Kirk Jowers is pretty sharp and has some interesting ideas, some of his professorial reasoning cited in the article deserves derision. As Jowers tells it, the problem with Utah's caucus system is not how many people attend, but how few delegate positions are available to attendees—fewer than 4,000.

Perhaps Dr. Jowers is unaware that we live in a constitutional republic. At each level of government a relative handful of representatives wield the power to vote on behalf of their numerous constituents.

Why is it OK for 29 politicians to represent all Utahns in the state senate and for 75 politicians to represent all Utahns in the state House of Representatives, but it is bad for about 4,000 Utahns to represent their neighbors at political party conventions? Dr. Jowers doesn't say.

According to the article, Jowers and other critics of Utah's caucus system essentially gripe that too few people control who can get on the ballot. As opposed to what?

A close reading of the article reveals that caucus critics are not really concerned about the number of people that have a say in who gets on the ballot, but rather who those people are. The caucuses—or at least the Republican caucuses, they complain, are controlled by "extremist elements." That's how the media and members of the political elite establishment describe those unenlightened troglodytes that dare to hold differing views.

The real problem with the caucus system to Dr. Jowers and his ilk is that people that don't think like him are likely to get a greater say in selecting who gets on the ballot than do members of their smartypants club. It doesn't matter that all viewpoints within the GOP have equal opportunity for representation at neighborhood caucus meetings. It's just that Jowers' viewpoint wins far fewer delegate positions than do those he contemptuously labels extremists.

Jowers would prefer "more primaries" and he has pretty much made it clear that he would like to scrap the caucus system completely.

Let's explore how that would work. Lacking a caucus system, party bosses would essentially control who gets on the ballot for primary elections. Only candidates with lots of money could then hope to compete in a primary. The system would naturally favor incumbents far more than the current system. And anyone that gets on the ballot would have to be cut in the mold of the party's establishment leaders.

So, candidates would have to kiss the party boss' butts to vie in a party primary election. I'm having difficulty seeing how this would be an improvement over candidates having to appeal to a majority of some 4,000 delegates.

Or perhaps caucus critics would prefer an open primary followed by a run-off, like they have in some other states. This creates an incredibly expensive multi-tier system that would eliminate all but the wealthiest campaigns. To top it off, run-off elections tend to attract so few voters as to leave a rational person wondering how this could possibly be an improvement over the caucus system.

Of course, if you are a lawyer specializing in election law (as is Dr. Jowers), you naturally want more elections and fewer grass roots efforts. More elections means more clients. Perhaps Dr. Jowers' intentions aren't nearly as pure as portrayed in the many articles in which the media glowingly holds this lawyer up as a paragon of political virtue and a voice for the underrepresented 'reasonable' Republicans.

Let's put it bluntly. The caucus system is unwieldy and difficult for members of the political establishment to control because, in their view, political decisions come down to the whims of a mass of extremist rednecks. This lack of control irks the elitists to no end. They are still angry that Sen. Bob Bennett was turned out by those unwashed ruffians in the last go-around.

Let's get back to the original question of why people don't attend their neighborhood caucus meeting. While the poll cited in the KSL article suggests no single clear reason for this, I believe that the real number one reason is that people feel uncomfortable doing so. They don't feel like they belong.

One of the reasons for this discomfort is that many people don't like to discuss politics with their neighbors. Exposing one's political leanings to be different from one's neighbors can make for less congenial neighborly interactions. Moreover, most are not deeply political animals and they feel out of place among a gathering of those that are.

While many people have strong feelings about political currents, much of this rides at a relatively shallow level of consciousness. The vast majority of people simply don't have enough interest in politics to deeply explore such issues. They aren't about to go to a meeting and expose their relative political ignorance. Thus, they are quite content to allow their more politically informed neighbors to handle this for them.

Then there are people like me. I go to the caucus meetings and listen to people speak their mind. Some are deeply informed on one or two issues but are quite ignorant of the rest of the political spectrum. Some 'feel' strongly about some things (they've read lots of nasty chain emails), but they haven't really backed this up with much reason. Some come with an ax to grind. Some come singing the praises of some politician without recognizing that he's just another politician.

Very few seem to comprehend the basic rules of all politics:

  1. Politicians act in their own personal interest, even if they claim to be acting on behalf of their constituents, and even if they refuse to admit to themselves that they are acting in their own interest.
  2. No politician can successfully represent the interests of all of his constituents. Thus, they are required to pander to different groups to remain in office. All successful politicians are masters of chameleon-like behavior.
  3. Politicians respond to the incentives inherent in the political system. Thus, the politician's behavior is mostly determined by the political culture than by the person's personality. Candidates mostly differ on style rather than on what they substantively do while in office. Frequent change can circumvent deep entrenchment in the political culture.
  4. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. The politician responds to those that get in her face with persistence, whether it be constituents, lobbyists, fellow politicians, activists, etc.
  5. The best a voter can hope for is for the politician's interests to occasionally intersect with his own, hopefully on issues that matter most to the voter.
Too many people—even those classing themselves as conservatives—expect far too much from our political system, when a reasoned look at history should engender the greatest caution in granting any politician the tiniest bit more power than is absolutely essential to protect individual liberty. Expectations of the political system should be minimal. And so should the system's power.

But to convey these thoughts to one's neighbors in a coherent fashion in a 90-minute meeting dominated chiefly by competing emotions is a task for someone with much greater talent than me. Thus, I dislike attending political caucus meetings. My greatest hope is to escape without being given too much responsibility. I know that rule #1 above applies to me just as much as anyone else. Knowing the rule does not render one immune to it.

Sill, I am not nearly as dour about Utah's caucus system as are Dr. Jowers and the system's critics that the media continues to parade around at every opportunity. While it is true that the system is deeply flawed, so is any system that critics have suggested should replace it. There is no clear evidence that these systems, which can be seen in other states, produce superior outcomes.

Only those filled with hubris would claim to be able to remedy the current system's flaws without producing other equally nasty problems. While those that wield unjust power under the current system should be appropriately regarded with disgust, those that present themselves as political saviors should be regarded as highly dangerous.

Either they are too conceited to recognize their own faults or they are disingenuously hiding those faults because they expect to increase their own power. Either way, they should be regarded with the highest levels of suspicion.

Keep that in mind every time the media does another caucus system critic parade.


Jeremy said...

This is a great post. I completely agree with you about Jowers and his ilk.

Is it ok if I steal a bit of your verbiage from this post to use in my speech at my neighborhood caucus meeting?

Scott Hinrichs said...

Sure. Be my guest.