Reflections on the 2008 Caucuses: Iowa, New Hampshire, and its lessons for the Philippines

According to a news report, Sen. Hillary Clinton leads the Iowa Caucus – the opening battle of the US Presidential nominations – by a slight margin over fellow Democrat Sen. Barak Obama, while Mike Huckabee leads an equally narrow lead over Mitt Romney for the Republicans.

The Caucus system is something alien to the post-Martial Law Philippines. From what I understand with the LP’s history (at least, what we young ‘uns were told, and from what I can glean from memoirs by elder Liberals), there used to be something similar here. It would be possible, given that our post-WW2 political system was a virtual copy of the one the Americans have. In those days before Marcos razed the old political regime, the Chapters of the Nacionalista and Liberal Parties would actually gather and declare their preference for candidates in various positions, from Councilor upwards.

The stories changed as the country went through the First People Power and onwards. Both the written and unwritten (read: not for public consumption) records of how political parties after Martial Law picked their candidates show a distressing trend towards party leaders doing the picking, rather than subjecting the hopefuls to the scrutiny (and caprice?) of party members, the way the American Caucuses, unrepresentative as they are said to be, do.

A review of the various commentaries and reports on the Iowa Caucus show that just as there is a challenge to the way the Caucuses influence Party behavior in its selection process for its flag-bearers, there is also a strong desire for the Caucuses to be more relevant, in a sense. In fact, most of the negative commentaries revolve around the “prestige” that Iowa and New Hampshire have as “first” Caucus states, rather than the value of the Caucuses per se, which most Americans appear to consider as integral to that ultimate expression of the democratic process that a Presidential election is.

The emphasis, from my analysis, is on representation and democratization. Iowa and New Hampshire are being challenged because they exert enormous influence at the way both the candidates change their campaigns and in the performance of succeeding Caucuses, way out of proportion to both the population and ethnic diversity of those two States. Other, bigger States like California want the Caucus system to be truly representative.

Iowa and New Hampshire, on the other hand, point out that the “smallness” of the two forces candidates to mix it up with voters on a more personal basis. Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire say that this allows for a more critical review of candidates, as the close-knit communities actually discuss the platforms leading to the Caucuses. One official even pointed out that Iowa and New Hampshire can negate the advantages of multi-media PR campaigns that benefit candidates with top funding, allowing less-blessed candidates to bring their message across on near-equal footing with the leaders.

Both are, to me, fascinating aspects of the Caucus system. Imagine being able to choose who your Party’s standard bearer would be. If political parties are the aggregation of ideals, hopes and aspirations of a certain segment of the polity, and if political parties are supposed to go beyond a membership that is made up purely of politicians, then this becomes important. The one truly revolutionary innovation of democracy is the ability for the people to chose their leaders. The upper tier of any country’s leadership might still be made up of the elite, but even the nobles of a democratic society remain beholden to the people; to get to higher office, one has to face the voting public.

In the Liberal Party, we were supposed to bring that kind of system back. One cannot hope to reform the Republic if one’s own organization remains mired in the same “semi-feudal” processes of selecting leaders and candidates. In fact, the Supreme Court – recognized LP constitution calls for the convening of a body called the National Directorate. Made up of 100 Party members coming from Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao and the NCR, the Directorate is supposed to convene every three years to select the LP’s officers. It has not been convened since at least the LP consti got amended after Salonga left the LP (because, if LP lore is correct, the last Directorate meeting was held when Salonga was proclaimed LP candidate for the 1991 elections).

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to be able to have such a large say in how the possible leaders of your country would be selected? Never mind about imposing Party discipline on the losers; if those not selected wish to go it on their own without the advantages of Party support, then that’s their problem. More than anything, a national leader like a President requires the mass base of support a fully-fledged political party can give, and Caucuses can assure a presidentiable this support simply because he or she has won the approval of his/her organization.

The difference is seen when you consider who it was that did the selecting. American presidents (except, it seems, this one they currently have) are actually as beholden to their public as to the Party leaders because it wasn’t the Party leaders and kingmakers that put them where they are… but the people. Oh, sure, we can say all we want about influence by local chiefs and the power of “Strategic Constituency” and the media, but because American presidents go through the Caucus process, I think this makes them feel more answerable to their public. You could say that the reason George Bush seems to be so contrary to what the American public wants or even thinks is because, haha, he never was (at least in his first term) truly elected by his people.

Contrast the Caucus system with the way we do it here, post-PP1. Our national leaders don’t feel beholden to the public because, outside of the glare of cameras, they know it wasn’t the public that placed them where they are now, and if somehow they did, it wasn’t because an educated, well-informed polity chose them as the best representative of their hopes, dreams and aspirations, but because of a scientific and well-planned electoral campaign that mimics the one used by marketing companies when selling an item to the consumers.

Notice the cynicism any candidate has for the electoral process based on its true intent and spirit, as the ultimate form of people empowerment. If all it takes is to put one’s best foot forward, and to show that, based on merits, one is the best person to lead a nation, why do candidates spend so much? Why are leading PR firms (especially after the victory of one particular candidate in 2004) in their employ? Why are media budgets second only to operations budgets in campaigns, sometimes (since some “expenses” aren’t really recorded) more so? How much money does it take to tell people that this is what I’ve done and this is what I hope to do for you?

Hell, candidates, even that man who claims he is the representation of ideals that correspond to liberalism and democracy, can’t even trust their own Party members with the power to select. There were probably as many “civil society” personalities in the crowd last Nov. 26 than there were true Liberals when Mar was proclaimed LP President and de facto standard bearer for 2010 of the Philippine Blues.

I have no doubt that, if the LP was united, nobody else would have come close, but it would have been nice if the membership of the Liberal Party – perhaps the only one right now that has a real claim to a cross-sectional roster than any of the political parties – were the ones who made it possible through a process that everyone agreed to. Aside from the fact that it was the leadership who appointed him at the Party’s head, it was done so by the smaller of the two factions! Haha. I suppose that’s its similarity with Iowa and New Hampshire: unrepresentative of the whole.

It would be nice to see a Caucus-like exercise here in the Philippines. Filipinos as a Race demand that their voices be heard in the smallest of decisions, so how much more for the biggest of all? What we need is the proper forum to do so. Caucuses – or Conventions, as they were called in the pre-Martial Law days – would allow the Public to do so, and increase the accountability of national leaders to the people they purportedly serve, because now more and more of the position they hold is not just because of power brokers, savvy PR operatives and the media, but the ones whose opinions and interests truly matter.

At the very least, this I can say based on my own experience in the old, “Liberal Family” days LP: the first political party that introduces Caucuses to its leadership- and candidate-selection system will see a sudden rise in membership not from politicians… but from the public as well.

With all the implications that brings.

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One Response to Reflections on the 2008 Caucuses: Iowa, New Hampshire, and its lessons for the Philippines

  1. Pingback: Hillary Clinton » According to a news report, Sen

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