This blog appeared on the commentary page for Minnesota 2020 on March 7:
Democracy’s strength resides in an active and engaged citizenry. Creating institutions that will sustain and grow this engagement is a challenge. While many might contend that the Minnesota political caucuses excel in promoting participation, the reality is just the opposite. Instead, the Minnesota caucuses are exclusionary.
America is historically famous for its sense of civic engagement. Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America located the success of politics in the United States as residing in part in the propensity of its people to join and engage through voluntary associations. Whether it was barn-raisings, clubs, or community associations, engagement in them fosters important virtues. It tempers self-interest, fosters respect for working with others, and produces community building.
Tocqueville identified the concept of social capital. Urbanologist Jane Jacobs in the Death and Life of Great American Cities and political scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone define social capital as the glue of democracy. It represents the building of trust with others that facilitates engagement and commerce. Social capital is of two types: bonding which reinforces ties to one another, and bridging which builds linkages across society. Social capital helps equip people to engage politically and make democracy work.
How does this relate to the Minnesota political caucuses? Some argue that the caucus system is actually a major producer of social capital. It asks of citizens to spend an evening together with neighbors, debate politics, and learn how to work together. It is participatory politics par excellence, New England town democracy at its best.
But the most powerful critique is how the caucuses are exclusionary. Look at who can participate. The first level of caucuses takes place one evening in February. Many simply cannot attend. Those in active military duties, those employed in second shifts or out of town working, those who are ill, and for many who are single parents and unable to address child care issues, they are excluded from participating because there are no absentee voting procedures. Proof of exclusion resides in the numbers. In 2008 approximately 2.5% of Minnesotans attended the caucuses to cast votes in presidential preference poll. In comparison, the Wisconsin presidential primary had a 36% turnout. Clearly far fewer attended the Minnesota caucuses than participated in a Wisconsin primary, speaking volumes to their exclusionary nature.
Think about who does attend the caucuses: The criticism is that caucuses favor party activists and those who are generally more liberal or conservative than the Democrat or Republican voters in a primary. Evidence of that is seen in comparing preferences of caucus and convention attendees to primary voters. The caucuses may encourage party building but not necessarily the construction of community building and trust that make it possible for the parties and diverse people to work together.
The caucuses have virtues but are not flawless. They increasingly seem insular and exclusionary, irrelevant to average citizens. At their worst they are being captured by special interests, thereby rendering them increasingly unable to forge the community building and social capital necessary to making Minnesota’s political system work. What we need is to rethink the caucuses, asking if they are the institution up to the governance challenges we face today.