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A caucus is a meeting or grouping of supporters or members of a specific political party or movement. The exact definition varies between different countries and political cultures.


The term originated in the United States, where it can refer to a meeting of members of a political party to nominate candidates, plan policy, etc., in the United States Congress, or other similar representative organs of government. It has spread to certain Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, where it generally refers to a regular meeting of all members of Parliament (MPs) who belong to a parliamentary party: in such a context, a party caucus can be quite powerful, as it has the ability to elect or dismiss the party's parliamentary leader. The term was used historically in the United Kingdom (UK) to refer to the Liberal Party's internal system of management and control.


Lewis Carroll mocked the futility of caucuses in "A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale", Chapter 3 of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865): when the "Caucus-race" of running in a circle stops, everyone is declared a winner by the Dodo and Alice is told to hand out prizes to all others, receiving her own thimble as her prize. Alice par John Tenniel 09.png
Lewis Carroll mocked the futility of caucuses in "A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale", Chapter 3 of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865): when the "Caucus-race" of running in a circle stops, everyone is declared a winner by the Dodo and Alice is told to hand out prizes to all others, receiving her own thimble as her prize.

The word caucus first came into use in the British colonies of North America – specifically in Boston – in reference to clubs or private meetings at which political matters were discussed. There are three main theories for its origins: [1]

Native American
James Hammond Trumbull suggested to the American Philological Association that the word comes from an Algonquian word for "counsel", cau´-cau-as´u. It might also derive from the Algonquian cawaassough, meaning an advisor, talker, or orator. [2] This explanation was favored by Charles Dudley Warner. [3]
Drinking associations
The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that the word possibly derives from medieval Latin caucus, meaning "drinking vessel", [4] such as might have been used for the flip drunk at Caucus Club of Boston (see John Adams quotation below). The appearance of the term coincides with the spreading in England – and therefore also in America – of the inns called cocues because they were places to drink the new cheap liquor called "gin" or "cuckoo liquor" since it was obtained from the distillation of so-called "cuckoo barley", namely barley sown very late in the spring and therefore unsuitable for the distillation of beer. [5] That caucuses were places where people drank abundantly is also attested by Obadiah Benjamin Franklin Bloomfield in his autobiography: "Richard had set out hospitably [...] A caucus had been accordingly held by these worthies, and it was resolved nem. con. that they should first make a drunkard of him, and then pluck him, aye, even of the last feather." [6]
A third theory is that the word is a corruption of "caulkers" (i.e. persons who apply caulk), in the sense of shipbuilders. This derivation was suggested by John Pickering in 1816 in A Vocabulary; or, Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to Be Peculiar to the U.S. of America. It was later adopted by Noah Webster; and also appears in an article of 1896 on the origins of the caucus – in all cases citing the 1788 passage by William Gordon quoted below (though Gordon does not in fact draw a direct connection between shipbuilding and the caucus). [1] [7] It likewise appears in the entry for Samuel Adams in Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography (1888), where it is suggested that the term's roots lay in Samuel Adams Sr.'s "Caulkers' Club", a political organization formed c.1725 by a group of powerful men associated with shipping interests. [8] This entry also discusses Adams Jr.'s fondness for quoting Greek and Latin "after the pedantic fashion of the time", [8] which might provide a context for a coinage with a Latin suffix.

Early usage

The Boston Gazette of May 5, 1760, includes an essay commenting

Whereas it is reported, that certain Persons, of the Modern Air and Complexion, to the Number of Twelve at least, have divers Times of late been known to combine together, and are called by the Name of the New and Grand Corcas, tho' of declared Principles directly opposite to all that have heretofore been known: And whereas it is vehemently suspected, by some, that their Design is nothing less, than totally to overthrow the ancient Constitution of our Town-Meetings, as being popular and mobbish …

The writer goes on to argue that this body's underhand attempts to influence voters are in opposition to the more laudable activities of "the old and true Corcas". [9] [10] [11]

A February 1763 entry in the diary of John Adams demonstrates that the word already held its modern connotations of a "smoke-filled room" where candidates for public election were 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 Selectman, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town  [12]

The following month, a writer signing himself "E. J.", and claiming to be "a late Member" of the "Corkass", explained in greater detail how the inner circle of the "Petty Corkass" manipulated the business of the broader "Grand Corkass":

At present the heads of this venerable Company meet some weeks before a Town-Meeting, and consult among themselves, appoint town officers, and settle all other affairs that are to be transacted at town meeting; after these few have settled the affairs, they communicate them to the next better sort of their brethren; when they have been properly sounded and instructed, they meet with the heads; these are called the Petty Corkass: Here each recommends his friends, opposes others, juggle and trim, and often have pretty warm disputes; but by compounding and compromising, settle every thing before the Grand Corkass meets; tho' for form sake … a number of warm disputes are prepared, to entertain the lower sort … [13] [10]

William Gordon commented in 1788:

The word caucus, and its derivative caucusing, are often used in Boston […] It seems to mean, a number of persons, whether more or less, met together to consult upon adopting or presenting some scheme of policy, for carrying a favorite point. The word is not of novel invention. More than fifty years ago, Mr. Samuel Adams's father, and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town, where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus, and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power. [14]

An analogical Latin-type plural "cauci" is occasionally used. [15]

In the United States

Precincts from Washington State's 46th Legislative District caucus in a school lunchroom (2008). 2008 Wash State Democratic Caucus 15.jpg
Precincts from Washington State's 46th Legislative District caucus in a school lunchroom (2008).

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

There is no provision for the role of political parties in the United States Constitution. In the first two presidential elections, the Electoral College handled nominations and elections in 1789 and 1792 which selected George Washington. After that, Congressional party or a state legislature party caucus selected the party's presidential candidates. Nationally, these caucuses were replaced by the party convention starting in 1832 following the lead of the Anti-Masonic Party 1831 convention. [16]

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 of the modern primary presidential election cycle, and the Texas caucuses. [17] Since 1980 such caucuses have become, in the aggregate, an important component of the nomination process. [18]

Congressional caucuses

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"). [19] 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.

In Commonwealth nations

Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa

The term is also used in certain Commonwealth nations, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. However, when used in these countries, "caucus" is more usually a collective term for all members of a party sitting in Parliament, otherwise 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". [20]

The word was used in New Zealand from at least the 1890s, when organized political parties began to emerge: the largest of them, the Liberal Party, used it to refer to its parliamentary members. [21] It was introduced to Australia in 1901 by King O'Malley, an American-born Labour member of the first Federal Parliament.

In New Zealand, the term is now used by all political parties, [22] but in Australia, it continues to be used only by the Labor Party. For the Australian Liberal, National and Green parties, the usual equivalent term is "party room". In South Africa all parties use the term "caucus". [23] In Canada, "caucus" refers to all members of a particular party in Parliament, including senators, or a provincial legislature. [24] [25] 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 is an important link between cabinet and the backbench when the party is in government.

In such contexts, a party caucus can be quite powerful, as it can elect or dismiss the party's parliamentary leader. The caucus system is a departure from the Westminster tradition in giving members of the upper house a say in the election of the party leader, who may become head of government. 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.

United Kingdom

"Farewell to the Caucus": 1886 cartoon of Francis Schnadhorst, Secretary of the UK National Liberal Federation, leaving Birmingham for London following the split in the party over Irish Home Rule. His luggage includes a scroll marked "Caucus", several string puppets, and a box of "wire pulling machinery", all in allusion to his reputation as a backstage political manager. Francis Schnadhorst cartoon 1886.jpg
"Farewell to the Caucus": 1886 cartoon of Francis Schnadhorst, Secretary of the UK National Liberal Federation, leaving Birmingham for London following the split in the party over Irish Home Rule. His luggage includes a scroll marked "Caucus", several string puppets, and a box of "wire pulling machinery", all in allusion to his reputation as a backstage political manager.

Historic usage

The word "caucus" had a wide currency in the United Kingdom in the late 19th century, meaning a highly structured system of management and control within a political party, equivalent to a "party machine" in the United States. It was used with specific reference to the structure of the Liberal Party. Originally a pejorative term, used by detractors of the system with overtones of corrupt American practices, the name was soon adopted by the Liberals themselves.

The system had originated at a local level in Birmingham in preparation for the 1868 general election, when, under the 1867 Reform Act, the city had been allocated three parliamentary seats, but each elector had only two votes. In order to spread votes evenly, the secretary of the Birmingham Liberal Association, William Harris (later dubbed the "father of the Caucus") devised a four-tier organizational structure (of ward committees, general committee, executive committee, and management committee) through which Liberal voters in different wards could be instructed in the precise combinations in which to cast their votes. [26] [27] [28] In 1877 the newly formed National Liberal Federation was given a similar structure, on the initiative of Joseph Chamberlain, and again worked out in detail by Harris. [29]

Shortly afterwards the term "caucus" was applied to this system by The Times newspaper, which referred to "the 'caucus' with all its evils", and by the Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] In 1880 Queen Victoria, following a meeting with Disraeli, wrote disapprovingly in a private note of "that American system called caucus". [35] The Liberal Caucus was also vilified by socialists and trade unionists, who (prior to the establishment of the Independent Labour Party) sought a route to parliamentary representation through the Liberal Party via the Labour Representation League and the Labour Electoral Association, but found their way barred by the party's management structures. [36]

Moisey Ostrogorsky devoted some nine chapters of his Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (1902) to discussion of the development and operation of the "Caucus" in this sense. [37]

Contemporary usage

The word "caucus" is only occasionally encountered in contemporary politics in the British Isles. In contrast to other Anglosphere nations, it is never used for all members of a party in Parliament: the usual term for that concept, both in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland, is "parliamentary party".

On the rare occasions when the term is used, it generally refers to a subgroup, faction or pressure group within a political party. For example, in 2019 the One Nation Conservatives and Blue Collar Conservatives were established as factions within the Conservative Party, both being described as "caucuses". [38] [39] [40]

In organizations

In conventions, where the membership from different parts of the organization may gather, each separate group within the organization may meet prior to the convention as a caucus. [41] Each caucus may decide how the group would vote on various issues that may come up at the convention. [41] Unless the votes are made binding, however, each delegate is still free to vote in any fashion. [41]

In alternative dispute resolution

The term caucus is also used in mediation, facilitation and other forms of alternative 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 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. [42] 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. [43]

See also

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  1. 1 2 J. L. Bell, ""Boston 1775: Colonial Boston Vocabulary: 'caucus,' part 2"
  2. Wilson, James (1999). The Earth Shall Weep. New York City, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press. pp.  104–105. ISBN   0-87113-730-5.
  3. The Story of Pocahontas", Project Gutenberg
  4. "caucus". American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.
  5. See Pub#Advent of the modern pub and Gin#History.
  6. The Life and Adventures of Obadiah Benjamin Franklin Bloomfield M.D. [] written by himself. Philadelphia: Published for the proprietor. 1818. p.  138.
  7. Ellis, Edward Sylvester; Reed, Thomas Brackett; Wilson, William Lyne; Sherman, John; Upton, J. K. (1896). "Famous Presidential Campaigns of the Past: the origins of the 'Caucus'". 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. Philadelphia: International Publishing Company. p. 17.
  8. 1 2 Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1888). Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography . Vol. 1 Aaron–Crandall. New York: D. Appleton and Company. p. 29.
  9. "Supplement". Boston Gazette . No. 266. 5 May 1760. p. [1].
  10. 1 2 Bell, J. L. (15 November 2013). "Birth of the Caucus". Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved 26 February 2023.
  11. "caucus, n." . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  12. "Founders Online: Boston Feby. 1763". Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  13. E. J. (21 March 1763). "An Impartial Account of the Conduct of the Corkass By a late Member of that Society". Boston Evening-Post .
  14. Gordon, William (1788). The History of the Rise, Progress and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America: including an account of the late war, and of the thirteen colonies, from their origin to that period. Vol. 1. London. p. 365.
  15. "Cauci? > National Conference of State Legislatures". Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  16. Shafer, Byron E (1988). "Emergence of the Presidential The Nomination and the Convention". Bifurcated Politics: Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention. Harvard University Press. p.  11. ISBN   0674072561 . Retrieved 1 February 2016.
  17. Weigel, David (23 January 2016). "Iowa caucuses: Here's how the voting works". The Washington Post. ISSN   0190-8286 . Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  18. Redlawsk, David P.; Tolbert, Caroline J.; Donovan, Todd (2011). Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. University of Chicago Press. ISBN   9780226706962.
  19. 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
  20. "The Establishment Of The Federal Labor Caucus". Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  21. "The Liberal Caucus". The Star. No. 4681. 27 June 1893. p. 3. Retrieved 23 April 2017.
  22. "Chapter 7 Parties and Government". New Zealand Parliament. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  23. "The ANC Parliamentary Caucus". Parliament of the Republic of South Africa. Archived from the original on 9 March 2016. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  24. "What's a caucus anyway? 3 things to know". Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  25. "Parliament of Canada – A Week in the House of Commons". Archived from the original on 25 February 2016. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  26. Garvin, J. L. (1932). The Life of Joseph Chamberlain. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan. pp. 254–55.
  27. Briggs, Asa (1993). "Birmingham: the making of a Civic Gospel". Victorian Cities (3rd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 184–240 (190–91).
  28. Cawood, Ian (2019–2020). "Birmingham, the 'Caucus' and the 1868 general election". Journal of Liberal History. 105: 30–36.
  29. Garvin 1932, pp. 261–62.
  30. "[Leading article]". The Times. No. 28966. 12 June 1877. p. 9. There is to be a sort of Liberal Parliament organized, which, in American language, seems intended to act as a great Liberal 'Caucus'.
  31. Chamberlain, J. (1 July 1877). "A new political organization". Fortnightly Review. n.s. 22 (127): 126–34 (134). ... what the Times calls the new Liberal Caucus ...
  32. "[Leading article]". The Times. 31 July 1878. p. 10. We may say, and say truly, that the policy of the politicians of the Midland capital will bring upon us the 'caucus' with all its evils, but we cannot hope to checkmate it by giving it a bad name. The apologists of the system will tell us that the 'caucus' is a product of the peculiar conditions of life in America, which need not be apprehended in a society of totally different circumstances
  33. Chamberlain, J. (1 August 1878). "Political organization [letter]". The Times. p. 8. I observe that you, in common with the Prime Minister, have adopted the word 'caucus' to designate our organization.
  34. Chamberlain, J. (1 November 1878). "The Caucus". Fortnightly Review. n.s. 24 (143): 721–41 (721). ... the word ['caucus'] chosen by the Prime Minister to describe [the Liberals'] system, and eagerly caught up by lesser critics ... conveys the idea of secrecy and irresponsibility ...
  35. Buckle, George Earle (1920). The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Vol. 6. London: John Murray. p. 535. That the Liberals had worked on that American system called caucus, originated by the great Radical, Mr Chamberlain.
  36. Owen, James (2014). Labour and the Caucus: working-class radicalism and organised Liberalism in England, 1868–1888. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN   978-1-8463-1944-0.
  37. Ostrogorski, M. (1902). Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. Vol. 1. Translated by Clarke, Frederick. London: Macmillan. pp. 161–249, 329–441, 502–529, 580–627.
  38. @RichardHRBenyon (20 May 2019). "So pleased and proud to be at a meeting of the One Nation Conservative Caucus. A moderate centre-ground pragmatic Conservatism that is about values that have never been more needed" (Tweet). Retrieved 9 May 2020 via Twitter.
  39. @OneNationCons (4 September 2019). "🚨 This evening we met as a Caucus and have collectively agreed that the events of the last few days has shown a purge is taking place of moderate colleagues in the Parliamentary Party. This cannot, and is not right! 🚨" (Tweet). Retrieved 9 May 2020 via Twitter.
  40. Maguire, Patrick (28 February 2020). "How the Blue Collar Conservatives could turn on Boris Johnson". New Statesman . Retrieved 9 May 2020. As one of its number points out, the Blue Collar group of Conservative MPs is bigger than almost any other caucus in the parliamentary party, including the One Nation bloc of self-styled moderates.
  41. 1 2 3 Robert, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. pp. 605–6. ISBN   978-0-306-82020-5.
  42. "ADR – How to Get Through Your First Mediation and What You Expect". Archived from the original on 19 March 2016. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  43. 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

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