DATELINE, NEW YORK, APRIL 4, 2016
by John Ford
You know, I wasn’t even going to write about Bernie Sanders recent achievements,
because it all played out the way it was supposed to. And what’s the fun of that? On top of which it’s been rather a wearing week – Satchel Paige was right, the social ramble ain’t restful (see below). But other, ostensibly wiser heads prevailed (thanks, The New Colloquium’s Editor in Chief) and here we are.
So, Bernie Sanders won a few primaries last time out, and the Berners (by which I mean neither the big fluffy dogs nor the tremendously gifted and unjustly overlooked writer/composer/aesthete of the first half of the last century) are going mad with glee. To be fair, a great many of them didn’t have that far to go to get there, so this too is not quite in the realm of the supernatural.
Wait. What? He didn’t win a few primaries? Whatever do you mean, he asks, rhetorically.
So here’s the thing (you know there’s always a thing: one way or another we’ll end up
talking about an idea, somewhere) Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii were not primaries, but
caucuses, and yes, there’s a fairly massive difference.
“There is?” pipes up a breathy young voice. “Whatever could that be?”
Primaries are more like a common or garden variety election. But because the stakes are generally considered lower, turnout is not typically terribly high. I mean to say, turnout isn’t even all that high for the actual elections in November, and roughly half that for primaries, give or take. Despite the quadrennial paroxysm of enthusiasm and barely bottled-up choler in which we are presently up to our ears – well, actually because of it – primaries are for the more enthusiastic and choleric to make their opinions known, which is why some states manage to return victories to truly head-scratching candidates.
So, if primaries are for activists, caucuses are the domain of 1) the super-activists, and 2) people with quite literally nothing better to do than stand around for hours in a little group of semi-like-minded folk waiting to be counted. Yes, hours. For a primary, one goes in, gives the old school try to pencil neatly in the little circle next to one’s favored candidate’s name (assuming a degree of literacy), and slink out the back door so as not to run the risk of letting slip to friends and neighbors that that Trump fellow maybe isn’t all that bad after all (doubling or trebling that risk because in fact said friends and neighbors may be doing the exact same thing). In any event, it usually takes moments, unless one happens to vote in one of those places where the officials are practicing voter fraud for November.
The caucus is another thing entirely. It usually will take hours. You’re not voting, you’re caucusing, which is apparently defined as “standing around doing not much of anything, or pretty much what you’d be doing on any other day.” While this is (or isn’t) going on, the caucusers (caucusites? Caucasians? Well, almost invariably the latter, come to think of it, which also helps explain the Berniemania) may find themselves after quite some time standing in the Candidate X corner shifted into a group standing around for hours for Candidate Y if there aren’t enough X votes, or (and I’m not making this bit up) changing their votes for any reason they please during the length of the caucus. Offers of a square meal or snow shoveling in semi-Arctic climes in exchange for a shift in gaggles are not only not unheard of, but indeed part of how the game is played.
It should, then, come as no surprise to find that very few folk indeed have time for caucuses. Let’s take the most populous state that voted a week ago Saturday. Washington comprises just over seven million folk, and has gone Democratic in presidential elections since 1988. So it’s fair to expect a goodly number of party faithful. Anyone care to guess how many Democrats voted in the Washington caucuses? Half a million? A quarter? A hundred thousand? Come on, don’t be shy. Oh fine, you’re no fun. I’ll just tell you. Twenty-six thousand, two hundred ninety-nine. Hence my theory, shared by pretty much anyone who cares to think about it: the caucuses are, in fact, about the most undemocratic way of expressing democracy for which the system provides. One might expect ‘Retirees for Trump’ and ‘Underemployed youth for Sanders’, and that’s exactly what you get, neither group caring much about the actual accomplishments of the candidate in question but carried away by sheer emotion. In short, Clinton wins primaries, Sanders wins caucuses.
For those who think I may be making this part up about Sanders, who has spent his career in elective office (which I, for one, do not disparage and indeed find a not unworthy calling), have a look at his legislative record. Bring a magnifying glass. I would also urge you to look at a new interview with retired liberal Democratic Congressman Barney Frank that just appeared on Slate, headlined ‘Barney Frank Is Not Impressed By Bernie Sanders’.
Frank not only makes the point I just mentioned regarding the profoundly undemocratic nature of caucuses, but takes Sanders supporters to task for their lack of engagement with objective reality. Honestly, you should just read it. It’s the sort of excoriation that carries with it so much more credibility because of the source, the same way that I personally would prefer to read a critique of the right from someone not entirely inimical to the views expressed. Here, I’ll make it easy for you.
I’ll even quote a small snippet, assuming that’s fair use and fair play:
Slate: So it seems like you’re saying Bernie’s voters have a slightly unrealistic sense about the political process. And that this is driven….
Frank: I didn’t say slightly.
Slate: Part of the argument that people like Sanders would make is this: the financial system is corrupt fundamentally, and we don’t want to merely make it slightly more stable.
Frank: Well if that’s the case it’s even dumber than I thought. And still he gets a pass from the media. Other than referencing the 1933 Glass-Steagall legislation, what did he propose, as a senator, in 2009 and 2010 when we were dealing with the banking crisis? The answer is nothing. Have you looked at his record?
So this is what we have at play. Anger on the left-ish, anger on the right, anger all over this land. A hell of a way to run a railroad, as the old saying goes. Though the fellow who originally said it then went and fixed the railroad.
And the damnable thing is, because of the bias towards ultra-activism of these early elimination contests which entirely defenestrates rational expectation and activity, the candidate of the angry may well win.
On the left, Hillary Clinton does not run for office well, though there’s some evidence she would actually serve far better than she runs. (Sorry, folks, I’ve been watching for a while – this isn’t 1993, and her colleagues in the Senate, both Republican and Democrat, all praised her ability and willingness to reach across the aisle. Hardly the mark of a dangerous radical).
On the right, there’s no 1968 Richard Nixon here to marginalize George Wallace and make a “silent majority” feel that he’s their man. It’s as if Wallace figured out how to make the silent majority noisy—but in a cautionary note for Mr. Trump, if Wallace had done that, we’d have spent the last forty years discussing the achievements and failures of the Humphrey Administration.