Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How the March 2016 Utah Caucus Changed my Personal Politics

I really didn't think I would start getting so involved in the political process. Nor did I think I would change or evolve my party affiliation. Of course I planned to vote, but this 2016 election cycle (as all know) has some unique dynamics that drew me in.

This registered Republican has crossed the aisle and joined the Democrats. Last night at our neighborhood caucus meeting I became an official delegate from my voting precinct to the Democratic county convention.

I'll tell my tale, but let me skip to the bottom line: 
  1. Online discussion both frustrated and inspired me to say and do more about politics, both online and off; and, 
  2. While the distress over current presidential nominees was an impetus, in-person discussion among family members and the experience of the local caucus meetings propelled me into changing my party affiliation and rolling up my sleeves to do more than express opinions. 

I Write the Governor
On my smartphone I follow news via CNN, the BBC, and the local KSL. On March 12th this article appeared in which Utah's governor said he would support Donald Trump if he is made the Republican presidential nominee. This was a wakeup call for me: establishment Republicans are placing loyalty to party over everything -- even to the point of backing someone who violates the values of the party (and of our nation) on fundamental levels.   
This got me talking
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," are words from Edmund Burke that have long rung in my brain. With easy access to submitting feedback to our state leaders, I decided to do so. I gave Governor Herbert my opinion on this matter and got a form letter response afterwards. But I decided to post my letter on Facebook so my friends knew how I felt and so I could maybe inspire others to speak up, too.

It turned out that this generated a bit of enthusiasm within my social graph. People liked and commented on this. I found myself feeling good about having done just this small bit of participating in the system. I'd written congressmen before, but not the governor.

My Facebook post generated a response from someone I do not know, a link to his blog where he talks about the irony of Mormons for Trump. This was thoughtful and well supported, and I wish I'd written something like that. 

And so I drew upon some of his sources when responding to someone else in the same thread -- an old friend who I discovered is supporting Trump. That really bothered me. I mean, I thought we shared common values, especially within our common religion. So when he dismissed Trump's flaws with a "nobody's perfect" comment, I felt the need to respond. 

A face-off with a music teacher and the school district
Something else spurred my increased participation: my son being denied his opportunity to attend the caucuses. At age my son has become very interested in the political scene, and we've had many family discussions about the candidates and issues (along with my son who is 27 and his wife, living with us). My daughter-in-law and teenager were making plans to go to the Democratic caucus and then to the Republican one on Tuesday. Good for them. My wife and I made similar plans.

But then my son found out an orchestra concert was scheduled for caucus night. He was very disappointed. He'd gone online and registered to vote and to join his political party. I was proud of him for this and eager to support him. 

Surely this was an oversight. Schools are where caucuses are held. I was certain they'd be rescheduling. My wife wrote the orchestra conductor. He dismissed the problem, saying people could vote online if they wanted to. Of course, that betrayed his party affiliation, as only registered Republicans could vote online. Not good. 

So I picked up the phone and called the high school principal. He was very supportive, though not to the extent of requiring the concert to be rescheduled. Fine, I thought. Time to take this up a level. So I called the superintendent of our school district and left him a message. Then I wrote my letter to the music teacher, complimenting him on his years of community building over the years and expressing my worry that this conflict was a step backward from that. (I copied the principal and the superintendent on that letter. Yes, I was applying pressure).

One of the things I've realized is the close connection between participation with the public school system and participation in our democracy as a whole. When I wrote that letter to the governor, I was using muscles I'd exercised in many a discussion with teachers and administrators. This had sometimes taken a political bent, too, as when in 2009 our school district was one of two in the country, I believe, to disallow Pres. Obama's live address about education to be broadcast to the schools. (That was the occasion for a lesson in civics for my third son, as I took him to the school district public meeting to complain -- see my blog post about that here).

I lost this battle. The concert proceeded anyway. But the fight strengthened my view of taking these caucus meetings seriously -- especially this year! 

We attend the Democratic caucus
waited in the cold for an hour to get into our caucus meeting

Since the Democratic caucus began at 6pm, my son might be able to catch some of that before having to be at his school at 7. So, along with my daughter-in-law and her baby, we made our way to Spanish Fork Jr. High -- along with at least 500 other people. As CNN would later report generally about the Utah caucuses, no one was expecting this level of turnout (especially in Democratic gatherings).

As my son was frowning (and freezing) and saying this was a waste of our time, I pointed out to him that the caucus experience is just as much about talking with your neighbors as the official business. And talk we did. Despite the cold, people were in a good mood, and we had a lot of conversations. One of the pleasant surprises was finding how many others were attending this caucus whom we didn't expect, including registered Republicans (like me) wondering about whether there might be a better political home. I saw some local church leaders and professionals whom I respect standing in line, and was glad.

Tense Republicans and Chill Democrats
I'm not trying to overgeneralize here, and I'm referring just to our local experience, but my wife and I found some strong contrasts between the two caucus meetings Tuesday. She was coming back late from an engagement and couldn't make it in time to the Democratic caucus, so she attended the Republican caucus in Springville and we exchanged texts and photos. 

She reported how the mere reading of the Republican platform document at her meeting gave rise to strong words and people walking out in protest. There were awkward interruptions when delegates were being nominated, and expressions of profound distrust of the government fueled discussion. 

Meanwhile, I had a very kick back and neighborly experience at the Democratic caucus. Some people were for Hilary Clinton; many for Bernie Sanders. Rather than acrimony in debating them, I found people talking about the good in each candidate. The aspiring Democratic candidate for governor talked to us and shook our hands. Seems like a nice guy, and he lives in the city just next to mine.

Vaughn Cook, gubernatorial Demo candidate, stumps at our caucus
Tiny precinct; big opportunity
At the caucus we broke into precincts -- which meant that anyone from your immediate neighborhood could gather around a lunch table in the cafeteria of the Junior High. Precinct 7, next to us, had 15 people. We had four. We took a precinct selfie.

Millicent had to go early, but
this was the rest of our precinct.
No power struggles here.
Nicole, the 20-something daughter of a neighbor I know, and Mindy, my daughter-in-law, hadn't been to a caucus before. So we muddled our way through the instructions and figured out that we needed to decide on delegates for the county and state conventions. That's right, just a handful us from a small neighborhood in Springville, and the next step was going to the county convention as official delegate. 

For awhile we waited for others to show up. But then we realized, "if not us, who?" I don't know that any of us thought that we'd seek to be a delegate by showing up. But I thought to myself, this is how democracy works: must be present to win. I couldn't let down our whole neighborhood by opting out of representing the cause, could I? So we voted three of the four of us in as delegates, and the system was working.

A Reluctant Democrat
I was named after my immigrant grandfather, Gideon Omer, a strong Swede who operated a crane in a foundry and was a man of the (blue-collar) people, becoming a justice of the peace and getting elected to the Utah state legislature. And he was a Democrat. 

With the exception of one renegade aunt, my extended family are all Republicans, like so many morally conservative Mormons in Utah. I remember making the extra effort to get in my absentee ballot to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984 when I was living out of the country on my LDS mission. Lots of us Mormons have, over time, conflated standing up for morality in society with siding with the Republican party.

A number of things have contributed to my changing parties. Part of it was being involved in so much welfare work as a Mormon bishop. Once you are in the trenches solving problems for people that at first are well outside of your comfort zone, it's hard to let go of the feeling that just a little effort on my part could mean a great deal to others. Sure, Republicans can and do feel that way. I'm just saying that addressing social issues on a local level has contributed to my interests in the Democratic party.

The Tenor of our Talk
But what is really swaying my defection from the Republican party is the difference in how matters are discussed -- and I'm talking about the local level, though it echoes what I see more broadly. Republican discussions of politics, as my wife reported, and as I have experienced in neighborhood discussions, is full of fear and distrust. It's paralyzing, not encouraging. I found that I just want to be among others who can talk about things without going postal, invoking dire prophecies or predicting the end of everything. To me, it seems like Democrats can do things, and they have invited me in the nicest way to be part of it. And so I will be.

I think how we talk about things says everything about whether we can get along and reach any of our goals -- at whatever level of government or organization. Platforms and principles matter; but so does the tenor of our talk.

1 comment:

  1. Internal happy dance happening here. Thanks for your example. What precinct?