Last week, I saw an interview that Bernie Sanders gave Rachel Maddow. When the discussion turned to caucuses, Sanders defended them, saying that while he understood that some people might find it difficult to find the time, it was good for people to get together on a Saturday or a Tuesday night and engage in direct democracy.
Good God, I thought. He really believes that. I was stunned.
Caucuses are supremely undemocratic. That notion of joining together on a Saturday or Tuesday evening to hash out our political future may seem inviting, unless you’re a line cook. Or a waitress. Or a nurse. Or a cop. Or anyone who might be able to find time to go to the polls but can’t spend an evening or a Saturday in meeting rooms arguing about candidates. The inflexibility of the caucus structure favors people who work during the day but who have evenings or weekends free. It can discourage many others.
And it is not just a matter of finding time. Caucuses can damage the opportunity that individuals have to express their political will. Suppose you were a Republican in Alabama and you go to the caucus in the hypothetical high school gym only to find your supervisor from Walmart there. You like Donald Trump; he feels that Trump represents “New York values” and is not a conservative and he favors “my man, Ted Cruz.” Knowing that your supervisor has the power to make your life miserable, and possibly have you fired, would you express support for Trump? Or would you swallow your pride and throw your weight behind Cruz? I know what I would do: not go to the caucus to begin with. How then am I represented in this process?
After all, more than one Republican business owner threatened to cut employees or close up shop if Obama were reelected in 2012. What do you think would happen if one of these men knew an employee voted for Obama in a caucus? Even though caucuses are confidential, don’t you think someone like that would have spies?
The economic forces which Sanders decries at every rally mean that caucuses are unavailable or dangerous for many of the people he cares most to protect.
Then, too, Sanders is a New Englander. New England has a grand tradition of “town meeting” democracy going back to colonial times. And perhaps because of all those years in Vermont politics, Bernie Sanders may have a romantic view of the value of public democracy.
I do not.
Unlike Sanders, I am a daughter of the South, born two years before Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his house, four before the march on Selma. Men and women in the states I grew up in died for the right to vote. Do you honestly think that if not only that they voted but how they voted were known, the brave black men and women exercising their rights to shape their government would be safer? I don’t.
In the South, within memory, voting was not a given. Tragically, for many, voting was a right bought with blood.
Even today, voting can be a fraught exercise — official voter suppression and unofficial voter intimidation are real. I would never ask any of my black, Latino, or Asian friends to walk into a caucus in any of the Deep Red states of the former Confederacy. I would have trouble going to one myself, and I am as white as Wonderbread.
The walls of that voting booth provide security as well as privacy.
Also, caucuses favor activists. They require open declarations of intent. Thanks to cable news, I have at least a small feel for what goes on in caucuses, and I want no part of it. Most states with primaries have prohibitions against campaigning within a certain distance from the voting place precisely because they do not want voters to have to negotiate a gauntlet of partisans on their way into the polls. I want to be able to vote as I choose without having to publicly declare — and defend — my allegiances.
Then, too, caucuses could potentially damage our personal lives. I have family members who are strong Bernie Sanders supporters. I am going to enthusiastically vote for Hillary Clinton. Given the depth of feeling on both sides, confronting our differences in a caucus would be extremely uncomfortable, and might possibly hurt an otherwise loving relationship, even if only temporarily.¹
In short, caucuses need to go. If Sanders really wants as many people as possible to participate in the process of selecting a nominee, he should support their elimination.² Otherwise, his stance boils down to “I want as many of my supporters to be able participate, and I’m not really going to worry about others.”³
¹In 2008, The Rocket Scientist supported Hillary Clinton and I supported Barack Obama. The arguments got so heated and so nasty that we had to place a moratorium on political discussions because we were upsetting the kids. We take our politics seriously in this family.
²Also, superdelegates need to be consigned to the political trash bin. Sanders doesn’t think they should, although he thinks their role should be changed, and he thinks that so many superdelegates should not have declared themselves so early in the race, before his campaign really took off. His thinking that, had they waited, many of them would be in his corner, is unrealistic: a large number of these people are party insiders, and he has spent the latter two months of his campaign essentially saying how awful the Democratic Party is. Although a large number of them have pledged themselves to Hillary, those pledges are not binding, and everyone — Hillary, Bernie, the superdelegates — knows this. And yet there has not been a mad rush of people to switch their endorsement to him.
³He also argues for open primaries. I, on the other hand, believe that people who vote in the primary should show at least minimal allegiance to the party whose primary they are voting in. Otherwise, there is nothing to prevent someone from hijacking a party simply to use it as a vehicle to seek the presidency. This is what Sanders has done, and while he arguably benefits the party, open primaries offer the opportunity for someone to do real mischief. Also, closed primaries make it more difficult for Republicans to cross-vote for the candidate they feel would be most likely to be defeated by their nominee.