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My friend Sue O'Brien wrote this when our wonderful Colorado Caucus, our neighborhood system for nominating candidates to the primary ballot, was in danger of being killed by Amendment 29. Partly because of Sue's and The Denver Post's strong support of the Colorado Caucus, the misguided Amendment 29 was defeated.
Sue's wonderful column is still very much worth reading as a reminder of why the caucus-assembly system is worth preserving, warts and all. Please share it with your friends. Here's what Sue wrote in the Denver Post:
Caucuses aren't for ciphers Denver Post Editorial Page, October 6, 2002 by Sue O'Brien
cipher - a person or thing of no importance or value; nonentity
- New World College Dictionary
So, what will we choose to be: ciphers or individuals?
Ciphers are faceless. They have value only as something to count - a signature on a petition or a vote to tally by machine. It's easy for ciphers to hide out. Hey, they're just part of the mob.
Individuals, by contrast, stand out. They take responsibility. And they rarely hide.
We have a sovereign opportunity to become ciphers this November. One of the few mechanisms left in modern politics that rewards individual initiative - the precinct caucus - is on the brink of being eliminated in favor of a political nominating system that would let wannabe candidates get on the ballot only by collecting - and counting - petition signatures.
It's a lousy proposal put forth by an otherwise admirable organization: the Bighorn Center for Public Policy.
Now, I have nothing against getting on the ballot by petition. But why eliminate the choice - caucus or petition - that our present system provides?
It's not as though there's something inherently wrong with the caucus. And, even though these grassroots conclaves have seen declining attendance in recent years, there's a lot inherently good about them.
Look around modern society. We have a woeful lack of what Harvard scholar Robert Putnam calls "social capital" - the dynamism that comes from doing things together and making community decisions together. Yet the spate of election "reforms" we're seeing these days almost seems designed to stomp out the last vestiges of community collaboration.
"Voting and following politics are relatively undemanding forms of participation," writes Putnam in his influential "Bowling Alone." "In fact, they are not, strictly speaking, forms of social capital at all, because they can be done utterly alone."
We can be utterly alone, too, when we perform the two other actions modern politics seems to want to limit us to: writing checks and watching attack ads on TV. We're systematically replacing "social capital" with plain old monetary capital.
Colorado's traditional caucus-convention system, in contrast, rewards the shoe-leather and diligence. It provides a low-cost way for aspirants to work the neighborhoods, investing energy instead of dollars. Recent proof of this pudding came in the race for the GOP nomination in the 7th Congressional District, where Rick O'Donnell captured first line on the primary ballot with a low-budget campaign that focused on traditional caucus and door-to-door campaigning. O'Donnell eventually lost the primary to the better-funded Bob Beauprez, but his achievement in getting on the ballot was impressive.
But even more important than the caucus' benefits for candidates is its benefit for ordinary citizens. It's a vibrant neighborhood forum for hashing out ideas - the last remaining arena in which you can get on the first rung of the ladder toward political effectiveness by just showing up.
I've covered precinct or town caucuses in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota and Mississippi as well as Colorado. My favorite memory is of escorting a big-deal network analyst to his very first caucus in an American Legion hall in Iowa. This was a political expert well into his 50s, yet he'd never seen a caucus; primaries had always been his beat. He was blown away. For the first time in years of covering politics, he told me, he'd seen the true face of America.
He was right. Caucuses offer a peculiarly intimate view of a community and its people. They'll amaze you with the quality of caring and thought participants bring to the discussion. And sometimes, if you're very lucky, you'll see new, young leaders find their first toehold in the process.
Why is the Colorado caucus withering? First, because the legislature, in an ineffectual grab for national headlines, created a meaningless presidential primary that eliminated the headline race that once inspired much caucus activism.
Second, because we're all getting good at sitting on the sidelines. The Kettering Foundation's David Mathews once reminded readers that the word idiot comes from the Greeks. Privacy, they thought, was akin to stupidity. "Idiots" were incapable of finding their place in the social order.
Why bow to the trend of letting the next guy do it? Why sell out to letting money replace shoe-leather at every level of American politics?
Why not keep the caucus as an open door to involvement, while continuing to provide the petition alternative? Bighorn's goal may be to increase the number of people peripherally involved in the process - but the initiative will never replace the quality of participation the caucus can provide.
Good political talk … is where we recognize the connectedness of things - and our own connectedness. … Good political talk is also where we discover what is common amidst our differences. -David Mathews, "Civic Intelligence"
Sue O'Brien was editor of the Denver Post editorial page.