Let’s not just mourn the caucuses. Let’s make Iowa a national model for civic engagement

February 10, 2020 8:00 am

Local Iowa Muslims from the Des Moines community fill out their caucus card at the Muslim Community Organization in the Drake neighborhood on Feb. 3. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Reentry into regular life after the Iowa caucuses can be challenging, even when it doesn’t take four days to report results.

One Iowa political reporter texted me and some other friends just before 6 p.m. Friday: “What do people do when they’re done with work at this time of day? Asking for a friend.”

I wasn’t done with work, so I guess I still don’t know.

But in an effort to return to a normal schedule, I got up early Saturday and joined my husband at a meeting and educational session for Catholic deacons from the Diocese of Des Moines.

“God orchestrates all things, even the Iowa caucus,” said the presenter, Deacon Joe Michalak from the Archdiocese of St. Paul in Minnesota. “I’m not blaming it on Him — but there’s a mystery in there.”

There certainly is a mystery. I spent half my day on Friday trying to drill down through questions, recriminations and conspiracy theories related to the breakdown of the reporting process for the caucuses.  Most of them boiled down to understandably angry, disappointed people looking for someone to blame. It was exhausting.

At the same time, individuals from all over the state were talking to me directly and posting on social media about the positive experiences they had at their precinct caucuses. Events ran smoothly. People were patient and cooperative. Those whose candidates weren’t viable accepted the outcome with good grace and moved to support their second choice. Iowans attending out-of-state satellite caucuses — and even some overseas — exchanged phone numbers with fellow caucus attendees so they could keep in touch.

Ericka Petersen, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, brought her two children, ages 3 and 1, to the Iowa satellite caucus in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Robin Bravender, States Newsroom.)

In the parlance of my church, the mystery isn’t a cause for investigation. It is all about unification. It’s about setting aside our differences to come together in the name of something bigger than ourselves.

This is what caucuses were intended to be: Builders not only of a political party but of community. A place where people can gather with a sense of purpose to accomplish a shared goal. Not so much a contest as a conversation.

That aspect of the caucuses isn’t the focus of the story told around the world.  What’s important to the national media is the game: What are the rules? What’s the score? The networks roll out their star-spangled news sets, electronic graphics and “Election Night in America” pageantry. It’s no wonder the talking heads and pundits were so frustrated when the show didn’t end on time with clear-cut winners and losers.

Regardless of who was at fault, the caucuses’ failure to live up to those expectations has made more than 200,000 earnest, well-meaning and civic-minded Iowans a national joke. People who gave their time to meet candidates, research position papers, ask questions, volunteer and engage their friends and neighbors are now seen as a bunch of bumbling fools who can’t count.

Iowa may well lose its first-in-the-nation status because of it.  I wrote last week that the caucuses are worth fighting for, and I still believe that. But while party poohbahs and elected officials work to explain, justify, deflect blame and ultimately grovel for another chance, Iowans should be engaging in another conversation.

We should be talking not just about defending the status of our caucuses but how to make Iowa a model for civic and political engagement in the country. Instead of worrying only about whether our caucus sites are accessible every four years, we should put our focus on making sure everyone can participate in every aspect of public life, from legislative committees to school board meetings.

Instead of getting defensive when others point out our state isn’t as diverse as some others, what if we spent that time working together to make Iowa attractive to all kinds of people?

What would it say to the rest of the country if Iowans were as diligent in picking their local leaders as they are in starting the race for president? What if Iowans could come together for conversations not just around Hawkeye or Cyclone sports but around how to fix our health-care system and clean up our environment?

What if building communities wasn’t just a quadrennial political exercise but the ethos of our state? What if Iowa were the state that created great leaders for our country instead of one that merely vets them?

We Iowans can spend our energy looking backward and clinging to the past. Or we can look ahead, preserve and enhance what made the caucuses special and work to bring people together around creating something even better.

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