On Monday, Feb. 3, the day of the infamous 2020 Iowa caucuses, I sat in the second to last row of the Indianola High School auditorium, about 30 minutes away from Des Moines, Iowa. I was sitting next to Ava Jane, a 16-year-old student at Indianola High School and intern with the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Ava Jane and I both wore liberty green shirts stating “I’m a Warren Democrat,” each covered in an excessive number of Iowa for Warren stickers, with Statue of Liberty hats on our heads. We were observers in the Iowa caucuses, volunteering for Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, and we were stressed – to say the very least.
The Democratic Iowa Caucuses both kick of the presidential primary season and are historically known for predicting the Democratic nominee. They operate quite differently from a typical primary election, though, with citizens casting their vote by standing (or rather, sitting) in their candidate’s corner at their specific precinct, which is typically found in a large public place, such as a church or a school auditorium. In order for a candidate to be eligible to receive delegates, they must have at least 15% of that specific precinct’s caucus-goers in their corner. After the caucus’ first alignment, Elizabeth Warren was not a viable candidate, with only 33 Indianola residents in her corner. We needed 42.
Now, it was time for the second realignment. Luckily, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang were also not viable, leaving those community members vulnerable to our more emotional sales pitches and persuasive language. Our liberty green shirts blurred through the crowd, talking to as many people as possible. When the caucus was over, Elizabeth Warren had 46 Iowans in her corner, enough to win her two delegates. Ava Jane, who had been sobbing at the thought of Warren not being viable only 15 minutes ago, shrieked with joy and hugged me.
I had only met Ava Jane two days prior at the Elizabeth Warren campaign office in Indianola, where she dedicated her heart and soul to the campaign. At that time, I knew absolutely nothing about volunteering for a campaign, and it took awhile for me to understand exactly how things worked. After receiving some nitty-gritty campaign information provided by other volunteers, I spent the majority of that weekend canvassing for Warren. We would stop only briefly at the office after walking between 30 houses to eat a homemade cookie donated by a Warren supporter or wander around the incredibly well-decorated office.
I talked to a lot of people that weekend – people I probably would have never spoken with otherwise. I spoke with families about the issues that were most important to them – education, labor rights, health care – and explained to them why I believed Elizabeth Warren was the candidate most well equipped to tackle the American presidency. I talked about electability with people who were on board with nominating a candidate who could really get voters excited. I talked to several men and women alike who told me it was time to see a woman in the White House. I talked to a woman who didn’t speak English, only Spanish, who didn’t know how to caucus. I tried to use my rusty Spanish and atrocious accent to explain the caucuses to her, to the best of my ability. I don’t know if she ever went on to caucus. But I do know that she knows at least a little bit more about her country’s democracy now than she did when she woke up that morning.
But I also talked to men and women, young and old, who told me they “didn’t do politics,” and that they were tired of all this “political B.S.” I talked to a Republican man who said he wasn’t able to talk politics with his Democratic wife because it made them fight too much. I talked to people who really, truly wanted to attend a caucus, but couldn’t because of a business trip, their age or the flu. I talked to a single mother, a screaming baby in her arms and a toddler pulling on her legs, who couldn’t attend because she had to watch her kids. I told her that there would be a place for kids at the caucuses, and although she nodded, her eyes told me that still, her attendance wouldn’t be possible. It’s obviously not that simple.
What I learned from these people is that the Iowa caucuses are incredibly inaccessible to a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons. I learned that Iowa's demographic is almost entirely white, and yet these are the people most often associated with determining the Democratic frontrunner candidate for President of the United States. I learned that I was frustrated by the existence of the caucuses, by the lack of political interest and by American apathy in general. After talking to all these people, I realized how badly I wanted to see it all change.
Merriam-Webster defines activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” I like to think that I fulfill this requirement. I have attended protests and been involved in service organizations. I like to consider myself political. Why else would I care so much?
Coming to Northwestern, though, I did not have the dream of becoming a professional activist, working for a non-profit, becoming a campaign organizer or even a political candidate – I came here to be a writer. Really, I wanted to be a journalist. The kind that struts the streets of New York City in a navy blue pant suit on her way to conduct an interview designed to extract information, to listen to opinions. In my dreams, I was not the one who shared her opinions.
But last weekend, during what was seemingly the crux of U.S. politics, I wanted to share my opinions. In fact, I wanted to shout them from the rooftops. On Monday night, when I had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Warren, I hugged her and told her that it meant so much to me, what she was doing, with tears in my eyes. She pulled back, looked me in the eyes and said, “we’re going to do this,” her voice thick with emotion. It was at that moment that I, an aspiring journalist, didn’t want to be unbiased. I wanted to do this.
I am not, under any circumstances, attempting to criticize journalists for lacking empathy. I don’t believe that’s true, not anymore anyway. Younger journalists – my peers – are beginning to realize that you can never get rid of bias in journalism, not all the way. We are human and we have (I hope) our own opinions. To think that those opinions won’t seep into one’s writing about a subject, at least a little bit is, quite frankly, naive. I am not arguing that journalists should drop everything to become activists. Journalists are the cornerstone of democracy. What I am arguing, though, is that we should remember that empathy is the connector between journalism and activism. It would serve us journalists well, I think, to remember that.