“PRESIDENCY, n. The greased pig in the field game of American politics.”
~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
I had a fantastic experience this past Thursday night.
It was common.
It was refreshingly unpretentious.
It was fun.
It was astonishingly grassroots and really "American."
Monster truck rally, you guess? Enjoying an apple pie and some fireworks at a picnic, perhaps? Watching American Idol?
My Dad and I attended a political caucus for our congressional district; he to observe the process as an AP government teacher and me? Well, because I like politics. I like hanging out with my Dad. And I am a new mom, who was extended an invitation for an "evening out".
I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but midway through the somewhat chaotic proceedings I leaned over to Dad to whisper, "It's exactly like Girl's State." (which I attended decades ago ... wait a second, that's not an overstatement. It really was decades ago. Good grief.) Depending on how you looked at it, my comparison was either a fantastic credit to how the Girl's State organizers designed the program, or a bit of a comment on how the chairman was running the caucus .
Regardless, it was American politics "at work" and it was great.
What I saw was a fascinating cross section of folks; a real "slice" of Saint Charles County life to be sure. There were well dressed business people, clearly coming directly from work. There were blue collar types. There were eager, intense, sort of socially awkward adults (who reminded me of the high school student who desperately wanted to be elected to the student council because he (unlike his or her often more "popular" and electable peers) actually was passionate about issues). There were people who seemed "dressed" to mimic the style and attitude of their candidate of choice, which I found somewhat unique (those supporting one candidate in particular were wearing a wide range of well coordinated pants suits with impressively unique chunky jewelry ... if you haven't guessed the party affiliation ... well, that is troubling!)
Some had made small flyers explaining why they would make a great delegate for the district. Others were just there to soak in the atmosphere. A few older folks, it seemed, had been attending for years and this familiarity made them extremely comfortable in voicing their opinions, which was loud, slightly obnoxious and totally great.
As the caucusing began and the group divided based on their candidate of choice, the energy in the room picked up. It was exciting to see young adults, middle aged parents, and senior citizens focused on their ballots, discussing and deciding how to best represent the group at the next stage of the process and at the statewide convention. To see the grassroots at work. As a former high school history teacher, I felt a certain sense of vindication. Here, at least, was a smattering of folks for whom all those lessons and debate and congressional reenactments was paying off! Idealism is a heady feeling.
You see, I watch an awful lot of CNN. And by this stage in the game, the candidates and their campaigns are (as they must be) fairly well oiled machines. The comments are polished (for the most part). The stage is "grand". The posters are machine made, the buttons on backorder, and the speeches are written with incredible skill and extensive research. "Stumping" is no longer an extemporaneous surge where a candidate holds forth with spur-of-the-moment passion, but a well planned series of events coordinated with the media and executed with the precision of a drill sergeant commanding troops. It's impressive and slightly intimidating.
But it all starts, and is driven by, totally unassuming roots. A group of folks, gathered in a spare banquet hall in small town, suburban town or large town America; with handwritten instructions on wall sized Post-its; led by a chairman who stumbles over the words of the party instructions for the caucus and encourages us all to "conjugate" in our respective corners; with eager voters and laid back side-line spectators raising their hands, miscounting votes, calling the party headquarters for clarification and voting for the delegates who will move on to show the support of this one district for the well polished candidate appearing on T.V.
That's the sort of idealism that needs to return to American politics; this enthusiasm of "regular" folks, taking the initiative to believe that they can be (and already are) a valuable and necessary part of the process. It's an opportunity to get behind "change we can believe in."
My Dad and I left with more than we bargained for and will both be part of the next stage in the process for our district. I am looking forward to that. We also are able to now attend the statewide convention, which one eager young, sort of atypical political looking type declared to be "just a whole lot of fun."
Fun? American politics are fun again? Who would have thought.
"Because of our flight from public life, our common citizenship no longer fosters a sense of community or common purpose ... We have less and less to do with each other, meaning that we feel few obligations to each other and are less and less inclined to vindicate each other's rights. ... Most of the problems of our political life can be traced to the failure of the dominant ideologies of American politics, liberalism and conservativism. ... On issue after issue, there is consensus on where the country should move or at least on what we should be arguing about; liberalism and conservativism make it impossible for that consensus to express itself."
~ E.J. Dionee, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics