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Even when raucous, keep the caucus

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March, 1968: I walk into an Iowa City living room where I’m welcomed by a tiny group of “regulars” — longtime Democrats — already in their seats. They are there for a Johnson County Democratic precinct caucus. I’m uncomfortable when they smile at me, because I know something they don’t.

They’re for Hubert Humphrey. I’m not only for Eugene McCarthy, I’ve organized over a hundred McCarthy supporters to join me. In the next half-hour, the regulars stop smiling. My people pour in, sit on the floor or on the steps to the second floor, engage in sometimes raucous debate — and swamp the regulars’ slate of delegates with our own. 

I float home thinking I’ve learned something basic to politics: how to win. 

It took years before I became perceptive enough to see something more important, something I hope others watch Monday night. 

They’ll see a tradition that others mock. New Hampshirites say, “Iowa picks corn. We pick presidents,” pointing out that finishing first in Iowa doesn’t mean a clear road to the White House. It doesn’t; in the past six elections, Iowa Democrats have picked presidents just 50 percent of the time. 

But Iowans caucus to pick nominees. In those six elections, Iowa Democrats picked their party’s nominee each time. A win Monday night is a big deal. Even fourth place keeps a Democratic candidate alive. 

Critics are right about other problems. They argue that the caucuses are not “inclusive,” ignore independents, sacrifice substance for organizing, and turn out far too few voters.

All true. But except for turnout, an Iowa primary would be flawed in the same way. Primaries turn out more people — 29 percent of eligible voters nationally to Iowa’s 16 percent in 2016. But turnout, pathetically low for both caucuses and primaries, reflect the abysmal way the United States conducts elections more than flaws in the caucus system. There are many ways to fix that — and other countries have. Still, in one OECD 35-country study of turnout, the U.S finished 31st. Our system cries out for reform. 

Even if reform comes, though, Iowa should keep the caucus — especially in this era when so many Republicans and Democrats hate each other.

The U.S. is hardly free of hatred. The depth and bitterness of our hatred in politics, though, is relatively new. Yes, President Trump’s rhetoric plays a role. Take this rant: “Our radical Democrat opponents,” he says, “are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage … They want to destroy you and … destroy our country as we know it.” 

Democrats will rage at this litany of ad hominem attacks. But they can’t put the blame solely on Donald Trump. Hostility between Democrats and Republicans has built steadily since about 1960. One Pew survey examines how Republicans and Democrats view the other: favorable, unfavorable or “very unfavorable.” Between 1994 and 2016, the “very unfavorable” percentage just about tripled for both parties. 

Here’s another interesting way to measure hostility. Back in 1958, researchers asked partisans the “in-law question.” Would they want their daughter to marry someone from their own political party? Only about one-third said yes, they’d like an in-law from their own party.

In 2016, researchers asked the in-law question again, with a question revised to include sons. How many Americans want their in-laws thinking like they do? This time it was about two-thirds. 

In one 2016 survey, half of Democrats said they not only oppose Republicans but “fear” them. Think about the effect on those Americans who “fear” their in-laws’ views, whether at Thanksgiving or the ballot box. 

Yes, politics revolves around issues of life and death. It should make us mad, and sometimes afraid. That’s how I was, listening to Lyndon Johnson’s assurances about the Vietnam War. 

But is it possible we will ever see rising numbers of Americans who get mad at opponents without demonizing them? 

I think it’s possible. But the upcoming primaries that dominate most states won’t make that easy. Candidates deluge us with TV ads about the evil of their opponents. While we pay lip service to the virtue of examining different views, research tells us Americans avoid talking politics with people who might disagree with us. Once we’re within 100 feet of the polling place, we’re not even allowed to talk politics. Becoming informed is so hard that only one American in three can name the three branches of government. 

Iowa offers a better way. They call the caucus a “gathering of neighbors.” At its heart lies the belief that talking with others helps — including those with whom we disagree. I remember talking quite a bit to the regulars in 1968. People got mad, but nobody stormed out. At the end, some people were even smiling. As the year wore on, McCarthy and Humphrey people started working together. Talking with that gathering of neighbors helped us break the ice.

These days, media attention makes Iowa more visible and the caucus structure more complex. But on Monday night, those who watch the caucuses will see people talking. 

You’ll see them in small groups, or one-on-one. They’ll talk about the candidates or platform ideas. Those whose candidate didn’t win enough support to continue on will talk about where else to go.   

 True, they’ll only talk to people in their own party. You won’t see a lot of screaming, though a conversation between fans of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) can get heated. But if in the parking lot people with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hats need help shoveling out cars, it’s even possible they’ll get it from somebody wearing a Trump MAGA hat whose caucus was in the same building. Iowa does that.

Iowa’s caucuses won’t create peace on earth — or in Iowa. They won’t boost turnout, end corruption, eliminate the need for big donors, or curb the lies endemic to political speech.

But in this poisonous year, we need to find ways to make politics work. The caucuses aren’t perfect, but they do more than just elect people: They remind us our opponents are people. What a nice idea. 

So, later than I’d like, I salute those Iowa City regulars and the caucus they organized in 1968. They taught us insurgents how even a short conversation can make fear subside, and those on the other side harder to hate. They made us discover opponents are not necessarily our enemies, that someone on the other side can be a bad thinker but a good person … and maybe even a tolerable in-law.

Bob Lehrman, the chief speechwriter for former vice president Al Gore, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” recently released in a second edition, this time with collaborator and co-teacher, Eric Schnure. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.

Tags 2020 presidential election Al Gore Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Eugene McCarthy Iowa caucuses Iowa Democratic caucuses Joe Biden Pew US presidential primaries

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