By Stephen Griffith
Feb. 9, 2008, 8:30 p.m. I’m just home from the first-ever Nebraska presidential caucuses. I’m hoarse - not a good thing for a minister on Saturday night. Some impressions:
First of all, the people - lots of people together in one place. The party organizers clearly were overwhelmed by the turnout, which my impressions tell me might have been double what they expected. They improvised and scrambled to do their best to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate.
Second, the diversity. Several precincts in our neighborhood met at the same school. Our neighborhood - Lincoln’s Near South - is a mix of blue collar and professional; renters and homeowners; students and professors; white, black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern; big, old rehabbed mansions, little fixer-uppers and apartments. And lots of young adults - my own guess: fully one-third were under 35. We all gathered in two big rooms and talked with each other.
Third, the neighbors. There was the young high school social studies teacher, the middle-aged activist from the next street over, the lesbian couple from around the corner, the 18-year-old voting for the first time, the black American woman excited to have a voice, the party veteran, the Hispanic woman passionately speaking for her candidate, my 80-year-old parents, and this United Methodist minister. Over and again I heard people say, “You mean all these people are from my neighborhood? We’ve never met, but we’re neighbors.”
Fourth, the participation. Huddled in different corners of the cafeteria and library we talked and listened and voted. We haven’t done this before in Nebraska. We’re used to standing in line (or no line) at the polling place, stepping into the isolated booth and marking our ballot, then going on our way. The last election, I was in and out in five minutes. Tonight we took time - about an hour and a half - to mingle, to ask each other why we supported one candidate or another, to try to persuade, to listen and then to vote. And then we took time to elect our delegates to the county convention. That meant learning people’s names, hearing them make their pitch, and cheering when some were elected. It was chaotic, energetic and exciting. And all the while, people from other precincts were doing the same across the room or across the hall.
Fifth, the excitement. As I talked with the people around me, I heard idealism over and over. Some was related to a person’s commitment to a particular candidate, but everyone I talked to commented on how pleased they were to have a voice. The give-and-take participation of the caucus energized them in a way that simply voting hadn’t. Their words hinted at an underlying hunger for meaningful civic conversation, a desire to know each other and work together to make a difference.
I’ve been voting all my adult life - since that fated election of 1972. I’m a political junkie, and now I’m even more addicted. I’ll still be voting every chance I get, but give me a chance at a caucus and I’ll be there.
Now a proposal: Let’s keep caucusing. I don’t mean just every four years when it’s time to choose a president, or even for other political elections. Let’s keep getting together in homes and neighborhoods and precincts and circles to talk about issues and concerns, solutions and possibilities, dreams and possibilities. Let’s caucus about our vision for Lincoln’s neighborhoods. Let’s meet to get acquainted with our neighbors and strengthen our neighborhoods. Let’s huddle to find creative ways to fight the scourges of poverty and drug use. Let’s keep talking to each other, learning not just our names but what’s important to us, what concerns us, what gives us hope and courage to act.
I’m making plans in my church to give people opportunities for civic conversation and action. And I’ll be walking my neighborhood, getting acquainted and starting conversation with the people on my street. Imagine what Lincoln could be like if we all - or even a few of us - did the same, and then got together to share what we’ve heard. What energy we could unleash!
Let’s keep caucusing!
2008 Nebraska Democratic caucus results