A caucus is a meeting of supporters or members of a specific political party or movement. The term originated in the United States, but has spread to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Nepal. As the use of the term has been expanded, the exact definition has come to vary among political cultures.
Origin of the term
The origin of the word caucus is debated, but it is generally agreed that it first came into use in the English colonies of North America.
A February 1763 entry in the diary of John Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts, is one of the earliest appearances of Caucas, already with its modern connotations of a "smoke-filled room" where candidates for public election are pre-selected in private:
This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room. There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town...
An article in Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896 surveying famous presidential campaigns of the past, begins with an unsourced popular etymology of the origin of the caucus:
- The Origin of the "Caucus"
The presidential nominating convention is a modern institution. In the early days of the Republic a very different method was pursued in order to place the candidates for the highest office in the land before the people.
In the first place, as to the origin of the "caucus." In the early part of the eighteenth century a number of caulkers connected with the shipping business in the North End of Boston held a meeting for consultation. That meeting was the germ of the political caucuses which have formed so prominent a feature of our government ever since its organization.
No wholly satisfactory etymology has been documented. James Hammond Trumbull suggested to the American Philological Association that it comes from an Algonquian word for "counsel", 'cau´-cau-as´u'. American Heritage Dictionary suggests that it possibly derived from medieval Latin caucus, meaning "drinking vessel", such as might have been used for the flip drunk at Caucus Club of colonial Boston.
An analogical Latin-type plural "cauci" is occasionally used.
In alternative dispute resolution
The term caucus is also used in mediation, facilitation and other forms of alternate dispute resolution to describe circumstances wherein, rather than meeting at a common table, the disputants retreat to a more private setting to process information, agree on negotiation strategy, confer privately with counsel and/or with the mediator, or simply gain "breathing room" after the often emotionally difficult interactions that can occur in the common area where all parties are present. The degree to which caucuses are used can be a key defining element, and often an identifier, of the mediation model being used. For example, "facilitative mediation" tends to discourage the use of caucuses and tries to keep the parties talking at a single table, while "evaluative mediation" may allow parties to separate more often and rely on the mediator to shuttle information and offers back and forth.
In the United States
In United States politics and government, caucus has several distinct but related meanings. Members of a political party or subgroup may meet to coordinate members' actions, choose group policy, or nominate candidates for various offices.
Caucuses to select election candidates
The term caucus is frequently used to discuss the procedures used by some states to select presidential nominees such as the Iowa caucuses, the first and largest in the modern presidential election cycle, and the Texas caucuses. Since 1980 such caucuses have become, in the aggregate, an important component of the nomination process. Because such caucuses are infrequent and complex to organize, there is a practice version called a maucus, a portmanteau of mock caucus.
In the state of Washington, the caucus has become controversial. According to the website for Washington Democrats, even though the Washington State Legislature decided the state would hold a primary, the Washington State Democratic Party decided to continue choosing its delegates through the traditional caucuses. As a result, votes for a Democratic candidate in the State Primary do not count toward delegate selection, although the state will spend $9 to $10 million on it.
Despite a rule in the Democratic Party that delegates are to be allocated proportionally rather than winner takes all, some individual caucus groups decide for themselves how to allocate their group's delegates — for instance, by using a majority vote to determine which of the two methods to select. Discussion of party rules is not necessarily part of the caucus experience, and few rules govern the actual process. And, in the winner-take-all scenario, a group's delegate allocation may be reported as unanimous, with the minority votes ignored. Depending on how the caucus is organized, the caucus system may require voters to publicly announce the candidates they support. Voters have the option to draft resolutions, and those are introduced by delegates at later divisional caucuses or conventions.
Another meaning is a sub grouping of officials with shared affinities or ethnicities who convene, often but not always to advocate, agitate, lobby or to vote collectively, on policy. At the highest level, in Congress and many state legislatures, Democratic and Republican members organize themselves into a caucus (occasionally called a "conference"). There can be smaller caucuses in a legislative body, including those that are multi-partisan or even bicameral. Of the many Congressional caucuses, one of the best-known is the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African-American members of Congress. Another prominent example is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members voice and advance issues affecting Hispanics in the United States, including Puerto Rico. In a different vein, the Congressional Internet Caucus is a bipartisan group of Members who wish to promote the growth and advancement of the Internet. Other congressional caucuses such as the Out of Iraq Caucus, are openly organized tendencies or political factions (within the House Democratic Caucus, in this case), and strive to achieve political goals, similar to a European "platform", but generally organized around a single issue.
Caucuses within liberal organizations
In Commonwealth nations and Ireland
The term is used in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. However, when used in these countries, "caucus" is more often a collective term for all members of a party in Parliament, usually called a parliamentary group, rather than a word for a regular meeting of these Members of Parliament. Thus, the Australian Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is commonly called "the Labor Caucus."
The word was introduced to Australia by King O'Malley, an American-born Labor member of the first federal Parliament in 1901; it presumably entered New Zealand politics at a similar time. In New Zealand, the term is used by all political parties, but in Australia, the term is used only by the Australian Labor Party. For the Australian Liberal, National and Green parties, the usual term is "party room", and for all parties in Ireland (not a Commonwealth country) and the UK, the usual term is "parliamentary party". In South Africa all parties use the term caucus.
In Canada, caucus refers to all members of a particular party in Parliament, including senators, or a provincial legislature. These members elect among themselves a caucus chair who presides over their meetings. This person is an important figure when the party is in opposition and an important link between cabinet and the backbench when the party is in government.
In a Westminster System, a party caucus can be quite powerful, as it can elect or dismiss the party's parliamentary leader. The caucus also determines some matters of policy, parliamentary tactics, and disciplinary measures against disobedient MPs. In some parties, the caucus also has the power to elect MPs to Cabinet when the party is in government. For example this is traditionally so in the Australian Labor Party and the New Zealand Labour Party.
- Noted by J.L. Bell, "Boston 1775: History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts"
- Edward Sylvester Ellis, et al., eds. Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896: containing the lives of the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice-president, biographical sketches of the leading men of all parties ... famous campaigns of the past, history of political parties, lives of our former presidents ..., Chapter I.
- J.L. Bell, ""Boston 1775: Colonial Boston Vocabulary: 'caucus,' part 2"
- Caucus might also derive from the Algonquian cawaassough, meaning an advisor, according to Wilson, James (1999). The Earth Shall Weep. New York City, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-87113-730-5.
- "caucus". American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.
- Further details in Julie MacFarlane, Dispute Resolution: Readings and Case Studies, 2003:356-62, excerpts from C. Moore, The Mediation Process, 2nd ed. 1996:319-26
- Our View: Caucus turnout suggests change in Idaho politics" Idaho Statesman[dead link]
- "Final Caucus Results"[dead link]
- Idaho Statesman[dead link]
- Idaho Caucus overflow[dead link]
- MileHighGayGuy: Colorado Stonewall Dems Maucus
- skepticalcommunity.com :: View topic – Maucus
- Search Results|Seattle Times Newspaper
- "Caucuses FAQ". Washington State Democrats. Archived from the original on 2008-11-27.
- Caucus Potus|Slog|The Stranger|Seattle's Only Newspaper
- See, e.g., U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, U.S. House of Representatives Republican Conference; U.S. Senate Democratic Caucus; U.S. Senate Republican Conference; California State Senate Democratic Caucus
|Look up caucus race in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Look up caucus in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Caucus.|