Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.
– Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
For the first two thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently, without warning – that tied reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current.
– Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)
I tried to keep the spring out of my step as I slipped and slid down the road toward my local public library in Dubuque, Iowa. All the roads and sidewalks were slippery, and I did not want to risk falling for the second time in a day. But it was pretty hard to contain my excitement. I was off to participate in my first ever Iowa caucus!
Before moving to this beautiful state six months ago, I barely knew what the Iowa caucuses were. However, as I watched candidate after candidate traipse through Dubuque again and again throughout the autumn, I knew I was witnessing history in the making.
The Iowa caucuses are the first major event of the US presidential election, and while they don’t have much of a quantifiable impact – they account for only 1% of the delegates present at the national Republican and Democratic conventions – they are significant precisely because they represent the first stage in the national decision-making process (and, as I’m sure you all know, they receive substantial media attention).
Victory in the Iowa caucuses does not ensure success in the subsequent primaries, but it builds momentum. I hardly need to say that I was thrilled to see Donald Trump defeated (let’s hope this pattern continues in the subsequent states), and while my preferred Democratic candidate did not win Iowa, I am glad that Hillary Clinton’s bid for the nomination will be a true competition against a formidable opponent. However, what to me was most rewarding about the caucuses was not the result, but the experience of caucusing itself.
The Iowa caucus is definitely unique. While Republicans elect their candidate by secret ballot, Democrats (who meet at separate locations– individuals are not allowed to caucus for both parties, unfortunately) engage in a process that to me looks like a cross between ancient Athenian direct democracy and the popular children’s game “Red Rover.” Once I arrived at my precinct’s caucus location, I first had to register as a Democrat (I’d been unaffiliated up until this caucus) and declare my support for one of the candidates. I then entered a crowded room filled with people, many of whom I knew. My grocer was there. The nice lady from the Chamber of Commerce who gave my parents information about Dubuque when they visited me last month was there – in fact, she was our precinct’s captain. A nonprofit manager and former Presbyterian minister I’d met just a few days after my arrival in Dubuque last August said hello.
As we were instructed to cluster into corners of the room and be counted (Clinton supporters on one side, Sanders folks on another, O’Malley people – there were fifteen of them in my precinct – on yet another, undecided voters on another), I found I had plenty of time to chat with people. I met a young filmmaker who’d gotten tired of the competitive atmosphere in Los Angeles and moved to Iowa for a break. I met a pair of fellow academics – the husband had recently been hired at another university in town, and his wife is a professional singer who’d written a dissertation on the works of neglected nineteenth century female composers (Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, to be precise). As we started to talk, the event began to feel more like a party than an election.
After the first count was taken, representatives of the three candidates were given two minutes to speak. Afterwards, we had the chance to realign. Unfortunately, since there were not enough O’Malley supporters to be viable – the rule is that each candidate needs the support of at least 15% of the total precinct attendance in order to elect a delegate – all were obligated obligated to choose Sanders or Clinton. Once the realignment was made, a final count was taken, delegates were chosen to attend the county convention, and we all went home to await the state’s total count. The next morning, I greeted my work colleagues – half of them Republicans, half Democrats – excited to hear their thoughts on the caucus process and results. After a bit of laughter (and sighs of relief at Trump’s loss), we retreated to our offices, ready to begin a new day.
What strikes me as so different about the political culture I’ve encountered in Dubuque is the amount of openness I find. Admittedly, many Iowans see politics as a private matter; “I prefer not to discuss politics with people I don’t know” was a statement I heard again and again while knocking on doors and canvassing over the past months. But in general I encountered much more openness than one might expect. I’ve written a piece about the extreme political polarization in the US – we are essentially divided into two camps, and we rarely encounter people from the other side. But in Dubuque I constantly encounter people with views that differ from mine. I know there were many non-Republicans at the Donald Trump rally I attended last summer, and I managed to meet and have a long talk with a Republican I met at the Bernie Sanders speech I attended last Friday.
At the Democratic Party caucus, where we actually stood up to be counted rather than casting a secret ballot, we were obliged to talk with people who held different views. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if our whole electoral process worked this way. Total chaos? Most likely. But I imagine it would lead to more bipartisanship, more mutual understanding, and much less polarization.
When French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the nineteenth century, he was impressed at our tendency to be “joiners” – constantly forming associations and engaging with one another. In the year 2000, however, the sociologist Robert Putnam saw a different picture. Membership in almost all the organizations that had been strong in the twentieth century – the Rotary Club, the Lions’ Club, the NAACP – was way down. Religious affiliation was in decline, as was political participation. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, he makes the case that the decline in civic participation is closely linked with the decrease in organized recreational bowling leagues. As idiosyncratic as that may initially sound, he makes a good point. Both phenomena stem from an increase in individualism and social isolation. A myriad of other thinkers from Robert Bellah to Charles Taylor have made similar observations. But to me, the 2016 Iowa caucuses – which had a record high turn-out on the Republican side and a consistently high turn-out for Democrats – show a different picture. They represent a victory not only for Cruz and (just barely) Clinton, but for the United States’ civil society.
What is the civil society? It is the Parent Teachers’ Association and the Sierra Club; it is your local community theatre and the Amnesty International; it is people you hang out with to play board games on Tuesday nights and your intramural volleyball team; it is the Catholic Church and the Center for Inquiry; it is the volunteer docents at your local art museum and the folks who organize your local zombie walks; it is your neighbourhood seniors’ centre and the volunteer fire department and all the groups on Meetup.com. The civil society is what Alexis de Toqueville found so exciting about the United States of America in the nineteenth century and what Robert Putnam found so threatened in the twenty-first. It is the social sphere that lies beyond economic activity and government control. Arguably, it is the place where our most meaningful social interactions take place. And, it is usually the realm where social and political changes begin.
Our political system is deeply flawed. As for our social life, there is unfortunately some truth to Putnam’s diagnosis, which was made as the Internet age was just beginning. In his book Putnam expressed the hope that the Internet would help us form stronger social bonds; a decade and a half later, debates abound on whether the Internet leads us to establish greater empathic ties across distance or merely isolates us from those who need our attention the most. That, I’m afraid, is a whole other discussion. But for whatever the qualitative evidence of the Iowa caucuses is worth…I’m happy to say that in my adopted state, American civil society is thriving.