The Necessity of Involvement by Laura Fokkena

I've always taken a great deal of pleasure in mocking people who believe there are earth-shattering regional differences within the United States, as though people from California and Ohio are formed out of some fundamentally different DNA, as though they don't all get screwed over in their jobs every day and then go home to watch the same episode of Friends.
 
But I'm having a seriously hard time listening to Boston radio talk about the Iowa caucuses as if they are some bizarre Martian ritual. The same argument within Iowa would bother me not at all, but for some reason hearing Joe Klein argue that "Iowans don't have three hours to spend on this" makes me want to grab him by the throat. How would YOU know? It brings out the inner provincial in me.
 
The Iowa caucuses are the only grassroots element I've seen in electoral politics outside of the internet. They are the ideal personal-is-political event, where "how do you feel about his health care bill?" meets "do you need more coffee?" Over the years relationships get solidified this way the same as they do through other community alliances; my mom has an entire sub-set of acquaintances she refers to simply as "Democrats," meaning she knows them through the caucuses rather than through work or church or family. Hanging out with these people one evening every four years is a welcomed civic event, not at all akin to standing in line for three hours to cast a ballot, which is how Joe Klein and even Howard Dean make it sound, and while I'm sympathetic to people who work nights or otherwise can't attend it's just not this arduous experience people on the East Coast, where I now live, make it out to be.
 
So what makes the caucuses so time-consuming anyway? People talk about the issues. It's practically the dictionary definition of democracy in action. When I was a kid I thought caucusing was politics. I attended my first, a Republican one, with my dad in our bank's basement in 1980, when I was seven. There were maybe 30 or 40 people -- which was a high turn-out, high enough that they had to have it at the bank instead of someone's house -- and they spent half the night arguing and carrying on. I didn't understand anything that was said, only noticed that Sheila's mom was there (without Sheila, who was probably home in bed, unlike me, ha!) and that Reagan supporters outnumbered the Bush supporters like my dad. But I remember the seriousness of the climate, and was amazed as I got older to learn that there were people who would vote for a candidate because they liked his hair or some other meaningless general trait like "he looks Presidential," whatever that means. Until then I thought everyone who voted carried around charts and graphs and newspaper clippings and was prepared to defend their opinions.
 
In 1984 I went to the Democratic caucus with my mom. It was much smaller, since we lived in a Republican county, and met in the living room of one of my friend's parents. I mostly watched the TV with my friend and his siblings; Democrats didn't argue nearly as much as the Republicans did and hence weren't nearly as much fun, but I can still see them huddled in the dining room, each of them passing around the clipboards they'd brought from home full of campaign platform issues, handwritten on napkins and yellow legal paper.
 
The caucuses were only part of my parents' more general commitment to social and political engagement, and with that came a belief that kids should learn about such things, the same way they learned how to read and write and do the laundry and drive. Because of Iowa's strange, first-in-the-nation status in the primaries, presidential candidates -- and just as significantly, the press -- descended on even the smallest of communities for months before each election. My mother reportedly took me to see McGovern speak, though I was an infant, so I'll have to take her word for it. I do remember my dad taking me out of school in sixth grade to hear Reagan give a speech in Waterloo (I wore a plaid skirt and knee socks) and that Papa Bush spoke at a neighboring high school in 1987 (I photographed him for the school newspaper). Growing up my mother would take me into the voting booth with her and would hold me up so I could pull the levers. (When she didn't know the records of some of the minor candidates who were running unopposed, she told me to just vote for all the women. I still do this today.)
 
In college I fell out of electoral politics, preferring the kind that involved oversized puppetry, rhyming chants that made reference to the university president's anatomy, and spray paint. I was taken aback several years later when a friend asked me if my views were a form of rebellion because my father was a Republican, as though I were Alex P. Keaton in reverse.
 
Taken aback, in part because, yes, my father was a Republican, but my mother was a Democrat -- they made a bitter agreement to avoid yard signs and bumper stickers for the sake of their marriage, though they eventually gave up and divorced anyway -- but mostly because if there was any political indoctrination from either one of them it was only via their shared belief in the necessity of involvement. They tolerated the puppets, the chants, even the spray paint, because the alternative, the real sin, would be for me to dismiss the entire political scene as boring or irrelevant.
 
I, on the other hand, had a harder time reconciling their commitment to the electoral process. By the mid-1990s Bill Clinton had gutted welfare, lost on health care, sold out gays and lesbians in the military, and kept up the sanctions on Iraq. My parents commitment to incremental change seemed misguided at best.
 
I retain that skepticism, though I also, admittedly, retain a certain cynicism about the efficacy of oversized puppetry's ability to Stick It To The Man. What I do believe in is cultural change, particularly the power of the media, and in the power of people to critically interpret the messages they receive provided they have an opportunity to do so. Which brings me back to the Iowa caucuses.
 
Joe Klein, among others, said that the low turnout in Iowa caucuses is enough to justify changing the system. I'd argue it's simply republican, small r. When I cast my vote in a ballot box I'm speaking for myself, but by the time I show up and discuss my vote for several hours -- and possibly change it over the course of the evening -- I've heard the concerns of a number of my neighbors and been forced to see where my issues might not necessarily align with theirs. The people who engage in this endeavor take it seriously, and I'd rather have ten of them, well-informed, speaking for me than to have a hundred people show up and vote for the guy with the best hair. Note that I don't quite extend this belief to a faith in republicanism (small r again) writ large, because once we're dealing with Representatives as opposed to representatives we're forced to contend with lobbyists and special interests and corporate money, but that's altogether different from a few dedicated individuals serving one another coffee and discussing the issues, for no personal gain, no careerist reward: only a belief that the discussion is important.
 
Laura Fokkena grew up in Iowa and now lives in Boston.