Fill in the gap, caucus

Why you should start going to caucuses.

Will Nelson, Columnist

“If I were a college student,” the wispy, elderly woman sitting next to me said through a mouthful of yogurt, “I’d be here too.”

We were sitting side by side in a second floor classroom of Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul on an unassuming Tuesday night. The room smelled like glue, and there was a piece of gum stuck under the table in front of me, but the atmosphere crackled with democracy.

This was the 2020 W-4 Precinct 13 1120 Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party caucus.

I’d never been to a caucus before, and, in all honesty, I had expected there to be more people. Representing an area roughly encompassed by Snelling, Lexington, Minnehaha and Pierce Butler was a roomful of no more than 20 people. 

Excluding myself and a pair of millennials (who were chatting animatedly about how their generation actually hadn’t ruined the dairy industry), everyone in the room looked to be above the age of 50. 

Aside from being old, the room was predominantly, almost overwhelmingly, white.

The night progressed through a series of quasi-ceremonial functions, which I came to understand only through whispered explanations from the yogurt lady sitting next to me, before finally settling into the resolution phase.

This was the part I’d come to see. The resolution phase is when people have the opportunity to present specific ideas that they think should be added to the platform of their party for the approval of their neighbors. Resolutions get voted on, and, if approved, passed on to party heads.

One by one, my neighbors stood up, and read off their carefully written resolutions, which covered topics spanning from zoning laws and bus fares, to climate change and healthcare. One by one, the resolutions were debated, amended and passed.

I couldn’t help but think this must be a little bit like how the founding fathers felt when they wrote the Constitution. Granted, I wasn’t committing treason, but still.

Unless you’re already a civically engaged citizen, you’re probably confused, as I was, as to how caucuses work. There’s no better person to explain this than first-year Theo Hoang.

“Caucus[es] are essentially people from each precinct that come together and form resolutions, to try to pass up an idea for a platform to their party. Also, choosing the correct candidate as a community, so they can choose the nominee to be potentially elected to the designated seat… They let people know that their voices are going to be put into the party’s platform.”

Basically, it’s the process by which regular citizens decide what ideas they want their respective parties to support. 

It’s the most grassroots version of democracy, and it’s beautiful.

If this is one of the most fundamental and pure steps of the democratic process, why were there so few people there? I only went to the DFL caucus, but I can only imagine that other parties had similarly low turnouts from college students.

A big part of it may have been accessibility and awareness. Most students that I’ve talked to had no idea that the caucuses already happened, and that’s if they knew they existed in the first place. 

The location wasn’t particularly easy to get to either, particularly without the asset of a car. On my way back, I missed the bus and ended up walking almost three miles down Rice Street to the Green Line. 

Caucuses certainly could’ve, and should’ve, been better advertised on campus. But I think in a larger sense, caucusing just isn’t a thing that young people often do. This needs to change.

“I believe college students should attend caucuses. It’s a good way to understand the process, and how we Minnesotans have done it as a tradition,” Hoang said. “[You can] get to know and get engaged in politics, and understand how local politics is as important as federal politics.”

I think most people would agree that our current political system has some very serious flaws. Flaws that will be our generation’s responsibility to fix, and it’s impossible to fix a problem if you don’t understand it at a fundamental level. 

You can’t change a flat tire unless you know how to use a lug wrench, and you can’t fix the American political system unless you understand where it comes from.

Besides, while caucuses can be a smidge boring, they represent one of the few good aspects of the broken system; direct citizen participation. 

Considering how foundational direct citizen participation was to the conception of our country, it’s remarkably rare, so it’s all the more important that we endorse it where it exists. 

I know there won’t be another caucus until two years from now, but when it next rolls around, consider attending, and together, we can rebuild this festering wreckage from the grassroots up.