What I Saw at the Caucuses

BernieCaucusesCropThe Iowa Caucuses are interesting enough on the internet, and there’s a good deal of excitement that carries from the caucus sites via satellite to the nation’s living rooms. But after attending the Caucuses myself this weekend, I realized how much the full experience changes the end view – especially when you’re looking at the proceedings through the frame of reference of a Catholic millennial.

I traveled to Iowa with 28 Benedictine College Political Science students, alumni, and faculty to do polling for a Caucus research project. We all had opinions about all the candidates, but we made the conscious decision to go to each event as if we were “uninformed voters,” as student Darren Handy put it. We were going to be fair and see everyone with an open mind. Unfortunately, we left the events feeling exactly the same as when we had first left campus.

Ted Cruz

We started our weekend with the Ted Cruz rally. The audience was several decades older than me, very Protestant, very white, and Cruz pandered to that. From the moment I entered the room, I was nervous, worried that if the crowd found out I was a Catholic – a Papist – they would run me out of the room.

Cruz had the same feel to him. He seemed harsh, abrasive, with sharp edges to everything he said and every way he said it. There was no hint at a willingness to compromise. And he did something I’ve always hated – he used his family as a prop.

His wife introduced him, painting him as the perfect family man, someone who puts his family above all else. She brought out their two daughters to encourage the picture of the Cruz family as the perfect American family who would be picturesque in the White House. But the two girls hated every minute they were on stage, and the eldest ran away off the stage as soon as she could, her little sister following. After saying, “Wouldn’t she make a great First Lady?” there was no mention from Cruz about his family, or plans for other American families. In fact, he contradicted the family when he said he wanted to relocate immigrants out of America. Apparently he forgot that his father is an immigrant.

Marco Rubio

Next was Marco Rubio. Again, I went with no strong opinion. The opening was good – Rubio was very personable, relatively calm, engaging the audience. I was feeling better and better about him as a candidate, getting excited at the thought that, perhaps, finally, there was someone I would genuinely want to win the primaries. And then he crashed and burned.

After 20 minutes of amiability, Rubio completely changed. His voice and manner took on a great anger and violence as he began to talk about terrorism. He paced faster and leaned into the audience, yelling that he would capture terrorists, he would send them to Guantanamo Bay, they would not get a lawyer or a trial, and he would get Every. Single. Piece. of information they had.

As a Catholic, I believe that torture is wrong in every situation. Ends do not justify means, and torture is a gross human rights violation. As a millennial, I believe that torture is unnecessary in the 21st century in the West. It does not work, and our technology for incarceration is high enough that we do not risk escape. Rubio’s vehement contradiction to these beliefs killed all positivity I had had for him. I left the rally disappointed. My last chance at finding a viable candidate for the primaries had just shot himself in the foot irreparably.

Bernie Sanders

Most of those traveling with me went to see Hillary Clinton, but a few students and I went to see Bernie Sanders. The crowd was unlike any of the others I had seen. There were many more young people, and most were not of the “mainstream culture.” There was a middle-aged man in a cape and medieval war helmet, a woman in 70s-style jeans, same-sex couples, and hipsters. Young actors and band members introduced Sanders, rather than the local government officials I had seen at the Republican rallies. The crowd was much livelier, much louder, much more passionate than the Republicans. It felt more like celebrity entertainment than a chance to vet a potential national leader.

But Sanders did something the Republican candidates had not – he offered ideas, but no plan to back them up. He got the crowd excited at his revolutionary ideas to buck the system, but never told us how he was going to carry out his promises. I left feeling a little empty, like I had heard nothing but empty words from an old man who was fed up and angry and was trying to be young again, but had lost reality.

Hillary Clinton

First of all: Millennials hate hypocrisy. Every generation does, of course, but growing up in the age of the internet has given millennials a particularly acute eye to watch for bogus information and inconsistencies. That was what threw the students who went to see Hillary.

It started with former Senator of Iowa Tom Harkin’s introduction, laying out 10 reasons to vote for her. One of them was, “Remember how strong she was during her 11-hour email investigation!”

“Eleven hours is a lot shorter than the 13 hours of the Benghazi crisis she created,” a student traveling with us had responded.

“It felt like a spectator event rather than a sit-down,” another friend described it to me. “There was triple the amount of minorities than at the other rallies I’d been to, but more people were more excited to see Bill than Hillary.”

Like Sanders, Hillary lacked follow-through: “She had a lot of great starter ideas, but couldn’t pinpoint solutions. Interpretation was left up to voters, which left a lot to be desired.

“Sitting there, watching this woman go from talking about how horrible the abuse of small children and the killing of young people is, to supporting abortion and the pro-choice position like they were different things, made my stomach turn, physically,” Handy said. “Logically, I don’t see how you can separate the two.”

Hillary’s pregnant daughter Chelsea was there as well, and Hillary spoke about the “baby” and her “grandson,” never calling it a fetus.” “So if it’s her family it’s a baby, but if it’s someone else’s it’s a fetus we can kill?” Handy complained. “I felt sick the whole time I was there.”

Hillary also noted that a President needs “integrity and accountability.” When I asked my friends about that, they just started laughing. That Hillary Clinton, with her record, would say something like that, is so completely contradictory that it’s not even offensive anymore. It’s just ridiculous.

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In the end, we all went home excited about what we had seen and heard, and it sparked a lot of excellent conversations, but there was not a single candidate who did not have at least as many negative points and positive. I had hoped the trip would give me someone to support, full-heartedly, in the primaries. I went to Iowa with no candidate. And I left Iowa with no candidate.

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).

Eileen Wittig