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Marching to shibboleth

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted May 13, 2002

My education as a "born-again Republican" continues.

The most recent lesson took place May 11, 2002 at Colorado School of Mines where the Jefferson County Republican Party held its biennial assembly to choose county candidates for this year's elections (or, in some cases, primary elections).

Colorado has a caucus system. Party activists are self-selected. The selection takes place by the registered voter's voluntarily attending his or her party precinct caucus in the spring of an election year. The caucus attendees elect delegates to various party assemblies (county and state). These assemblies subsequently vote the platform and select the candidates. If more than one candidate gets at least 30 per cent of the vote there will be a primary election for that candidacy.

At this point in American history, Colorado's hoary old caucus system is almost unique. Both major parties have grown to hate the system, although the Republicans continue to pay lip service to it while their elected officials occasionally try covertly to spike it. The two major parties would much rather operate like, say, the Communist Party, with the current crop of delegates selecting any new delegates, rather than allowing those members to be chosen in their own neighborhoods by their neighbors. But the caucus system persists because the delegates to each year's assemblies for both major parties are selected in the present manner and tend to resist any hint of change.

The real-world result for democracy in Colorado has been rather interesting. The caucus system was pretty much drying up about 15 years ago. Folks just didn't want to get out of their house one Tuesday evening in the spring and devote an evening to granfallooning with their fellow party members from their precinct and dealing with the boring paperwork and resolutions and voting and all the other impedimenta of democracy. Both parties were edging towards legislation in the Colorado Assembly (that's the constitutional name of our bicameral state legislature) abolishing the caucus system until 1990, when a sudden turnaround took place.

What happened was that the religious right discovered the caucus system. Activists for family values found that by organizing in advance, often in church groups, they could pack the underattended caucuses and dominate the election of delegates to the party assemblies. This would have worked just fine with either party, given the prevailing low attendance, but in practice the revolution was limited to the Republican party. In my neighborhood, the Republican caucus went from 4 attendees in 1990 to 43 attendees in 1992.

So there transpired two or three election cycles in which Colorado Republicans mostly lost seats or elected some rather wild-eyed characters (one of whom, a state senator, was prone to complaining that he could hear Old Scratch cackling in the Capitol dome). After the first shock of the religious right selecting the candidates for the whole party, liberal and moderate Republicans fought back by, obviously, attending their caucuses with greater regularity than had been their wont. Also, over the years, the church folks had trouble keeping up their advance organizing. When the Kingdom didn't materialize immediately, i.e., when they found out that even pious politicians often lie or overestimate their own ability to deliver, the interest of the faithful waned somewhat. Subsequent IRS  investigations of the tax status of churches engaged actively in supporting partisan political candidates cooled off the ardor of the pastors noticeably.

At present, the Republican situation seems stabilized at a level of caucus attendance about twice that of the Democrats, who had undergone no such insurgency. The net result has been a livelier Republican party and a declining and largely impotent Democratic party in Colorado. There is intellectual ferment among the Colorado Republicans where there's only dry rot among the Democrats.

Attending my first Republican county assembly after years of attending Democratic county assemblies, I expected the difference between the two parties to be reflected in a contrast between their assemblies. It's true that the Republican county assembly is better attended by about 50 per cent than the corresponding Democrat county assembly. But guess what? As vibrant as the Colorado Republican party rank and file is, at the organizational level, if you don't know the names, it's pretty hard to tell which assembly you are attending.

Oh, sure, there are some differences. Ever since the insurgency of the 'nineties most Republican officeholders and candidates are careful when orating to remember to thank God out loud for something, despite their savior's parabolic contrast between those who pray in public and those who pray in a closet. But that's the essence of the religious right political philosophy, the meticulous sequestering of every element of scripture which hints that Christianity is not about seizing state power, not even about minding other people's morals. It has always mystified me how one can claim to be a Christian and not understand such simple injuctions as "Judge not lest you be judged," "My kingdom is not of this world," and "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's."

But all the piety and wit is just local color. Let's face it: both major parties are dominated by their corresponding national party. And the two major national parties are really one party, the status quo party, the power-sharing party. In my experience, what both Republican and Democrat county assemblies boil down to is the chanting of shibboleths to the wild cheering of the faithful. For the Democrats, these shibboleths are the Three E's: Education, the Environment, and the Elderly. For the Republicans, it's Right to Life, Second Amendment, lower taxes. Please understand that I'm not criticizing any of these causes; I'm just observing their transformation from ideological goals for public policy into shibboleths reflecting no reasoned program of legislation. If I were as clever as the late Marshall McLuhan, I'd coin a clever phrase along the lines of "the medium is the message", maybe, "Shouted often enough and loudly enough, the message becomes mere mood music."

The redeeming feature of the Jefferson County Republican county assembly for me was being able to congratulate several Republican officeholders for being instrumental in one of the finest pieces of Colorado legislation in decades. The Republican majority in the Colorado House of Representatives put through civil forfeiture reform, mandating that there be some kind of criminal conviction in open court to validate any forfeiture action, and taking out of the hands of the seizers, i.e., the district attorneys and the police forces of Colorado, the disposition of goods and property seized. The elimination of this obvious conflict of interest was protested loudly and long by the district attorneys and police entities before the Colorado House Judiciary Committee, but to no avail. The bill was reported out of committee in the House, passed on largely a party line vote, and then passed by the Colorado Senate by the majority of the Republican minority and the minority of the Democrat Senate majority.

Since a couple of the Democratic state senators who had paid me fine lip service for years on drug policy reform voted against this long overdue measure, I'm still feeling good about my party switch.

Jack J. Woehr of Fairmount, Colorado, having now seen both major party assemblies, feels himself to be roughly in the position of the lost soul in the Gary Larson Far Side cartoon being prodded by the devil's pitchfork in front of two doors, one labled "You Do" and the other "You Don't" and being urged to hurry up and choose.

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