Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Democrats took over this year: a grassroots account

It was cold, and so were the people. They quickened their step when they saw us and evaded our persistent attempts at eye contact.
“Do you have a minute for the Democratic Party?” I called out to a man passing. He was heading into the QFC on Capital Hill as I began my five-hour shift.
“I’d rather gouge my eyes out,” he said.
It didn’t faze me too much. People had hurled a lot of insults my way during my three months working as a street and door-to-door fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, and I had learned to let them slide. But learning when to keep my mouth shut was a long, difficult process. And I wasn’t so good at it in the beginning.
“I’m not voting for him,” said one man outside QFC.
“Oh really?” I said in the unabashedly confrontational tone I’d come to use with opponents. “Why’s that?”
“I’ve been meditating on it, and I just don’t have a good feeling about him. I just don’t know what it is, but I’m going to go with McCain.”
“You choose your political candidates by meditating?”
“Yes,” he said. “There’s so much information flying around out there. I think it’s best to look inward.”
“Don’t you think it’s better to look inward after you have read the news?”
“It’s biased,” he said, turning and heading inside.
“It’s all we have!” I called.
This distrust of information really concerned me, but dwelling on people’s ignorance was not productive. In our office, we role-played scenarios each day. If someone said they had given online, I learned to immediately remind them that the grassroots movement was a better way to give since it gives power to face-to-face interactions, encouraging people to talk about politics and engage more directly with the Democratic Party.
At first, it all seemed so dirty to me, trying to grow and strengthen the party for the long term. I do like the Democratic Party, and, in fact, think it offers the only wise direction for the nation at this point in history, but sometimes parties go sour. Just look at the Republicans.
Due to my own inner conflict about sustained political loyalty, I often couldn’t resist trying to set the ill-informed ones straight. But it was the thoughtful opponents who really tripped me up.
At one house, an old, seasoned thinker came to the door in a nice suit, standing in his clean, meticulously decorated entryway. After I had introduced myself and the cause, he told me that he was not on my team.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Just out of curiosity, why’s that?”
“Obama’s tax plan is unsound.”
I tried to interject, but he went on.
“Raising taxes takes away the incentive to work. If people know more of their money is going to the government, and they don’t get to keep what they earn, they’re not going to be as motivated to work hard.” He explained on and on, referencing books and articles, his droopy cheeks full of knowledge puffing in and out. I found myself, somehow, nodding, before I snapped out of my trance.
“But Obama’s not raising taxes for most people,” I said.
“He is for the rich.”
“Someone’s gotta sustain us.”
“The rich won’t grow their businesses. They won’t create the jobs that we need if they know a larger percentage of their income is going to go to the government.”
“I just don’t buy that,” I said. “A few percentage points more for taxes is not going to take away the entire way people operate.”
He chuckled, as though to say, oh you young thing, just wait until you get old and jaded and understand the workings of the world.
During this time, the economy crashed, and the Republican party responded by shying away from the issue. The McCain campaign attempted to hide from clear discussion of the issue by suspending the campaign.
I was appalled. In our office, we laughed about the ridiculousness of such a proposal. It’s politicians’ tendency to skirt clear public debates on issues that keeps government from getting anything done.
But, out on turf, some people didn’t seem to care.
At a small wooden home in Wedgewood one night, a middle-aged man in a flannel shirt came to the door. It was dark out. I was standing on his small porch, under a dim porch light, dripping with rain.
“I’m here today because the nation needs a change,” I said. “We’ve waited too long to see a president address health care reform, education, ending the war in Iraq, and the energy crisis. Barack Obama has specific plans to do so.” I handed over my clipboard, but he didn’t take it. He stared down his nose at me, refusing to respond.
“Are you with us on the campaign?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t vote Obama to be dog catcher,” he said to me, leaning up against his door jam.
“Why?” I asked.
No response.
I asked again, a bit more confrontationally, “Why?” I waited for the real issue to arise, and it did.
“It’s not because he’s black,” he said.
“Oh yeah?”
“No. It’s because he doesn’t have the experience.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “He was a professor of Constitutional Law, a lawyer, and an Illinois state senator all at the same time.”
I watched his eyes for a look of recognition, but there was none, so I continued to hammer home my point.
“He juggled three serious careers.”
Still the blank stare.
“Plus he has the grassroots experience of a community organizer... He has done the work most U.S. Senators skip over… and that’s not good enough for you?”
The pause that followed felt like a serious confrontation. If it had been a staring contest, I don’t know who would have won. At that point, I don’t think either one of us had taken our suspicious eyes off the other, and we hadn’t blinked either. I could see him thinking, conjuring something. Finally he spoke.
“It’s not the same. And besides, he’s a socialist.”
Back in August, when I started, I would have continued the argument, but I’d learned that wasting time arguing meant less money for Democrats at the end of the night.
“I don’t have time for this,” I told him, and headed back out into the rain.
“Have a shitty night,” he said, “I’m glad it’s raining on you.”
“Thanks,” I called back.
This man’s knee jerk, rumor-trusting opposition, was the epitome of what I was fighting against, and I left with a heightened sense of fire for the cause.
Strangely enough, supporters were the ones that got me down out there. Not all supporters of course. Supporters made my night when they wrote out $100 checks, and particularly when they agreed to my suggestion to bump that $100 up to $120.09, symbolic of Bush’s last day in office. And the ones that made a point of thanking me were the glue that held the movement together.
But then, not all supporters made me feel very, well, supported. So often, they came to the door with painfully fake smiles. These people did not hear a word I said because they were too busy metering out the amount of time they had for the conversation in seconds.
They often tried to shut me up before I could get past the first sentence.
“We support the cause, but we can’t give you any money,” they would say.
I would respond by thanking them for their support, but sometimes no matter what came out of my mouth, people tried to paint me as a pushy intruder. I would hardly open my mouth to tell them why we were out there before they would erupt.
"Don't push it,” one man said. “We're Democrats here. Strong Democrats.” He raised his hands up in a "nothing fishy going on here" way before slamming the door.
Sometimes, when I felt unsupported by door after door of supposed supporter, the only thing that kept me out there was knowing I was part of something big. Fundraisers across the nation had taken to the streets too, and we’d been a part of one of the most successful presidential fundraising campaign in history. Barack Obama’s ability to write and deliver meaningful speeches was drawing crowds out in rain and wind. Each dollar I raised felt full of historic meaning. As of October 27, Obama had out-fundraised McCain by three times, according to Katie Couric. But it was no time to get comfortable, I told everyone I met. It was a chance to build the Democratic Party.
At another house, a woman in a brightly lit front room greeted me with seeming warmth and friendliness when I told her I was with the Democratic Party.
“It’s so wonderful that you are out there. We’re on your team, we’re volunteering, and we’ve given money before.”
“Great, well thanks so much for supporting us.”
“But we can’t give tonight,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. Then, before I could say anything more, there came that warning.
“Don’t push it.”
I’d only been there for thirty seconds, the same amount of time it would take her to read an email from the Obama campaign, but it was a second too long. She shooed me off the stoop with a push and a door slam.
But like a politician, I couldn’t afford to let unexpected slights get to me. I came to really empathize with the struggles of Obama, Biden, and even McCain and Palin, to remain simultaneously likeable and true to themselves. Once, I caught myself adopting some of Sarah Palin’s talking-point-soup style of rhetoric at someone’s door. Luckily the woman I was speaking with laughed understandingly, and I laughed back. In politics, it’s the unexpected human moments that can forge the necessary human bonds.
And an ability to react to people’s differing circumstances with the right emphasis is also important. To connect with elderly people, I emphasized the need for health care reform. That didn’t always work since they tended to be skeptical of Obama’s new ideas. If they were younger, I mentioned the need to get out of the war in Iraq. Sometimes, when people said they had given before, I mentioned the many hours I was putting in for the campaign.
Forging connections in a few seconds is tough, and sometimes the most real ones don’t result in big contributions. During the last week of the campaign, I asked a woman who had put on a kayaking fundraiser for Barack Obama to give $500. She said no, she had already done her part.
I looked out at the blue expanse of ocean behind her house and imagined a big group of people helping each other in and out of kayaks. I commended her on her initiative, told her how inspiring it was that so many people felt personally moved to engage in politics this time around. I wondered how many independent efforts had been waged in various corners of the country to get the right people in office.
I suggested she donate a symbolic contribution, simply to show that she was sustaining her support, and she agreed. As she wrote out a five-dollar check, I watched the TV screen behind her. It was the night of Obama’s infomercial, and he was wrapping up his speech with one of his most inspiring lines yet.
“I’m reminded every single day that I am not a perfect man. I will not be a perfect president,” he said. “But I can promise you this: I will always tell you what I think and where I stand. I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.”
After eight years of hazy facts and an arrogant presidential style, Obama’s words were so refreshingly humble.
And that doorstep was the perfect place to hear them. There’s something about working on something in tandem with other people, each one independently, that put my restless mind at ease.

No comments: