The Iowa caucuses came a few weeks early this time around, on a chilly evening three days into the new year. College was out, and winter break was on for another three weeks. There was no reason for us students to be around town. None, that is, but for the excitement of participating, whether watching or voting, in the first part of a yearlong process that will determine the next president of the United States of America.
But this article is not about the specific procedures of the Iowa caucuses. That may be of interest to the political science major, but for me personally, it’s more interesting to watch the coming together of a community. Perhaps for the first time ever, I was able to see democracy in action. And not just any democracy, but a specifically Iowan democracy that emphasizes acting as a community.
My friend Vicki and I headed to Harris Concert Hall after a pre-caucus dinner at my downtown apartment. We were feeling all grown-up and excited, and still quite unsure about our support for Barack Obama. Along the way, we met another friend, Abby, who announced her intention to vote for John Edwards. In trying to argue Obama’s case, I think we did a better job convincing ourselves than we did her. Of course, my “vote” would have been academic, that is to say, moot. I am not a citizen of this country, let alone a registered Democrat. Thus I could only talk to others and watch the process itself.
We got to a very crowded Harris Center and joined the queue to register. As an independent observer, I had to sit on the stage apart from the registered Democrats. Some 500 people were in the auditorium. The mass slowly assembled into distinct groups, each bearing a banner proclaiming their candidate for president of the U.S.A. Each, that is, except for the six adults gathered in support of Dennis Kucinich and the lone woman who was supporting an alsoran whose name I forget. Obama and Edwards polled the biggest numbers — about 240 and 170 respectively. Perhaps more surprisingly, Clinton’s contingent was small: she had about 40 supporters, while 72 were required to attain viability (or in plain speak, to gain a delegate). Only one student caucused for her, perhaps in retaliation for her fudging on the issue of whether “out-of-town” students should rightfully be allowed to vote here. Don Smith, a retired history professor known for his genteel Southern charm, presided over the proceedings.
And so I sat onstage and watched. I saw people trying to make up their own minds about which candidate to support and trying to persuade others to agree with them. I heard people talk to each other about politics and about the weather and about travel plans. I exchanged greetings with faculty members, college staff, students, and the few parents of my friends who came down to see Iowa’s famous caucuses for themselves.
A couple in their 50s sat next to me, and we started talking. They turned out to be the parents of a friend who graduated last year. Talking to them, I realized why Grinnell appeals to me so much. Whether in politics or in ordinary conversations with almost-strangers, Grinnellians are polite, warm, and firmly invested in the everyday activities in which they engage. The Iowa caucuses are an important political mechanism, but more than that, they are also a manifestation of community at its best: all these people together in one room, trying to make a difference in the world.
Smita Elena Sharma '08 is a Philosophy major from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.