Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Space Between Us: An Election Day Wrap-Up From A Bright Blue State

Photo credit:
Exclusive report by Tenured Radical from the People's Republic of Connecticut. 

Yesterday, as I was going door to door on a get out the vote effort in Zenith, I had to admit that it wasn't much of an effort, and that it had little to do with getting out the vote.

The idea, for those of you who haven't done election day door knocking, is this.  You have a map on which are marked likely Democratic voters in a certain region (in this case it was three long blocks just outside the strip malls that lead into Zenith and four apartment buildings embedded in those malls), and you knock on people's doors.  If they answer, you ask them if they have voted; if they don't answer, you put what is called a "door hanger" on the knob that has the names and pictures of all the Democratic candidates running for statewide office.  You mark down on your sheet what the outcome of each visit was: home/not home; voted/has not voted; won't say.  There is no box for "None of your f$%#king business," a likely response among half the people who answer their door or their telephone in a Yankee state when asked about their politics.

Theoretically, my sheet indicated that there would be three visits, or "passes" made at each of these doors.  However, as I was completing the first pass at 3:00 P.M., and there had been a large box of untouched envelopes at Zenith campaign headquarters, my guess is that these people had no other visitors that day.

I encountered two people who had already voted; two who threatened to sic the dog on me (like the rest of you, we in the People's Republic have been bombarded with relentless television ads, so you can hardly blame them); and one woman who was clearly drunk or stoned who shouted through an upstairs window that I should "Goo. 'Way."About a quarter of the residences appeared to be completely unoccupied.

As I crawled down the street in my car, squinting at street numbers, and banging on doors where I suspect the people on the sheet no longer live, I couldn't help but think the Tea Party was doing a better job somewhere.  I thought about the Orange County women about whom Lisa McGirr wrote a path-breaking book, Suburban Warriors:  The Origins of the New American Right.  Goldwater enthusiasts living on snug cul de sacs, they met over coffee cake and Conscience of a Conservative, providing child-care for another as they got out the vote for a candidate whose time had not yet come.

Goldwater Republicans would have known whether anyone still lived next door, for example, as I suspect the Tea Party people do.  The primary virtue of Tea Partiers from my perspective is a seeming tenacity about activating relationships with each other in the interest of politics, and a somewhat naive belief in the efficacy of social relationships in the face of devastating social and economic structural collapse partly caused, ironically, by the individualist economic policies that they advocate.

Tea Party successes around the country should remind political historians that the spaces between us are not just metaphorical or ideological right now.  Geography, I thought as I looked for a single active Democratic voter on a winding street full of non-voters, Independents and Republicans, is so important to politics.  The sprawling forms of development that characterize my state, the "lollipop" driveways that lead back to a comfortable house with no apparent neighbors, the long hallways filled with identical double-locked doors -- mean that most of these people don't even know their neighbors, much less talk among themselves about political ideas, what is best for their community or how to activate that on election day.  They are too busy plotting the fastest route to one of my state's major highways where they will survive up to a three hour commute to the job they are grateful to have. It's also important that the vast majority of families need two incomes to keep their heads above water, much less have the resources to pay for health care, a mortgage, and college tuition. 

Who would stay home to make the coffee cake, much less invite the people over who would take their politics with cream and a little sugar? Do you know a single man or woman who would have the time, much less the vision, to self-publish an inexpensive book and mail a hundred thousand copies out of her garage, one by one, as southern Illinois conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly did in 1964 with A Choice, Not An Echo?

When I returned to Zenith election headquarters with my map filled in, I said to the twenty-something guy in a cheap suit, day-old facial hair and rakish bandanna that I didn't really think that I had done much good, particularly since anyone who planned to vote and was at work (as opposed to dead, evicted, removed to a nursing home or foreclosed upon) would probably do so on the way home. "Yeah," he said. "But the idea is that any of those people who have forgotten will come home, see the door hanger and" (he struck himself in the forehead with the heel of one hand in the universal duh gesture) "say, 'Wow! It's election day! I've got to go back out and vote!'"

Well I've got news for the Democrats.  No one with a television could have forgotten it was election day.  We have been praying for it to be over for weeks.

I realized that, once again, the Democratic Party wasn't really fighting for Zenith's votes in the contest I really cared about, the Governor's race between former mayor Stamford mayor Dan Malloy and businessman Tom Foley (who did, in fact, purchase the Bibb Mill in Macon, Georgia and suck $20 million out of it, driving it into bankruptcy, throwing its employees out on their heinies and forcing the town of Bibb itself into bankruptcy.   This is not just a nasty campaign ad, it's true.) I wasn't too disheartened.  I thought that Connecticut would stay blue because of the cities:  New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Danbury and Stamford. It did.

The exception is the governor's race, which is still in dispute.  Although much of the state trends blue in national races, the Republicans could run Howdy Doody or Al Capone for governor (they have! they have!), and the towns would go so thoroughly red for that office that the cities couldn't stop it.  If you check these results provided by MSNBC, you will see that.  Even Democrat Jim Himes, who won in a squeaker two years ago, managed to extend his cushion be about 1600 votes.  But in the governor's race, which is still unresolved as of this morning, the Republicans' sole strategy seemed to be to disrupt voting in the cities:  hence, Bridgeport was shut down for almost two hours yesterday afternoon, because only 21,000 ballots were prepared for 69,000 potential voters (nice work Democrats.)  After the court order was issued to keep the polls open after 8:00 PM, "confusion" as to which polling places were affected by the court order.

My guess?  For Malloy to to lose this, the Republicans would have to succeed in throwing out all the votes cast in Bridgeport.  You heard it here first.

I don't find the national shift to red depressing as others do: as I said to my students yesterday, I have seen much worse.  I recall watching the television during the presidential race in 1984, appalled, as Walter Mondale -- a decent and good man -- lost every single state but his own.  Now that was bad.  And I can't say that the spectacle of the next two years won't be interesting.  Will the Democrats sit back and say to Dick Armey, John Boehner and their buddies:  "OK -- you bought it, pal; now you fix it"?

More interesting for this political historians will be watching conventional conservatives and the people elected by nihilistic independents maneuver.  I predict it will be some version of what might have happened if William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Frances Townsend or Barry AuH2O had been elected. What have Republican operatives unleashed by financing these Tea Party people?  After inviting candidates who identify as renegades and rebels into the fold, can John Boehner exercise the iron-clad "party discipline" that has kept nearly every member of his party saying the exact same thing, over and over, and voting in lockstep to block the Democratic majority?   Will the Tea Party folk, now elected, be swayed into becoming what they ran against -- Washington "insiders" who go on junkets with corporate executives, take bags of money from the Scaifes and dream of a comfortable middle age as well-paid lobbyists?

That's what happened to those Contract With America conservative Republicans in 1994.  Their insurgent zeal shut down by their own party, they became just like everyone else, with their book contracts and their K Street offices. Similarly, although they appeared to have changed politics in 2008, the Obama people have handed the Democratic Party back to the old-time hacks who, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy's jocular comment about the Chicago votes his father was said to have purchased on his behalf in 1960, in Connecticut, keep Connecticut only as Blue as it needs to be to win.

Only time will tell.  But what makes me as blue as my state are that the spaces between us have come to characterize politics.  Here in the People's Republic of Connecticut, where we are free to gay marry and split the family farm into as many ticky-tacky houses as we like until each incoherent development merges into the next, we seem to be bluer than ever.  But that doesn't mean that democracy is working as it should. There is too much space between us, and if you ask me, both parties prefer it that way.


Anonymous said...

I did GOTV volunteering for Kerry-Edwards in New Hampshire in 2004 and had the same feeling, wondering if the Republicans had a better organizing plan or if modern life meant we should be texting instead.

If folks want to volunteer, is calling and door-knocks really the best we can do? Or is it all about our checkbook, especially between election days?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Here's my theory: People who lean right tend to have authoritarian personality tendencies, and are thus much easier to herd into thinking and doing what their leaders want. People who lean left tend to be much more individualistic and much more difficult to herd into thinking and doing what their leaders want. It is ironic that the authoritarian tendencies of the right--and the corollary desire for submergence in a "community"--have made it possible for them to be led into agitating for policies that lead to community atomization.

LouMac said...

As a newly-minted citizen, I did precinct-walking in 2000, and then phone banking in 2004. I'll never do either again. I found it a terribly inefficient use of time. I don't think anyone is going to change their mind based on a conversation with a stranger who has disturbed them at their door or over the phone.

If they really are disengaged - or apolitical - to the point of not having made up their minds on key races by e-day, they are much more likely to be swayed by a propagandistic TV ad than by a polite volunteer at the door. (In fact, being disturbed at home is more likely to annoy them than to get them on your side).

This post gets to the core of the problem. Grass-roots activism only works if there is ground for these roots to grow in. People are swayed, not by a last-minute pitch from someone they don't know, but by sustained exposure to people whose ideas they can see being played out in real life, in their community.

Progressives need a lot of "stay-at-home" activists, rooted in specific human networks, with the time to make these kinds of connections. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy with our underpaid day jobs. The right wing, I imagine, is more likely to have 1) wealthy promoters who have leisure time and money to give, and 2) women who stay at home, who can give time to politicking (for the importance of homemaker women to contemporary conservatism, see Katha Pollitt's excellent piece: )

Anonymous said...

Hey TR, it's your old buddy Prof. Z. here (I know, I owe you an email). This is just to a smaller point about the dems and the ground game. The unions and other committed dems worked their butts off to get out the vote and by doing just what you did. For the last few months they've been democratic voters and then following up and then following up for the final time on election day, helping people get to the polls when neccessary. You may have had a dismal little bit of territory, but this is how elections are won. That said, it is clearly NOT how actual legislation that helps working people is passed. That requires a very different array of tactics, organizing, etc.

Historiann said...

This is a really great post. I'm glad you mentioned how this atomization serves our political overlords and is party invariant.

That said, the previous anonymous made a good point. It sounds like you just had a bad day of door-knocking. Back in the earlier 2000s when I was still hopeful that electing Democrats would be a useful thing to do, I door-knocked with the man who was running for state assembly. (He won.) People were mostly pretty nice--but then, I live in a very Republican area in a very small city.

Rocketman said...

Some of these comments here are really hard to swallow. I spent the last 3 months working to elect a Zenith Alum (woowoo) Governor of the state of Vermont. We won, and I can promise you it came down to Get Out The Vote. 60,000 phone calls on e-day (260,000 reg. voters in the state) meant we doubled our predicted turnout in key areas like Burlington and kept traditionally conservative areas from dragging down the ship. TR, your feelings after canvassing is pretty typical for a volunteer. It feels like we are imposing, it feels like we arent doing anything, it feels like nothing we can say will ever swing someone. But the data does not support that. 1 of every 8 contacts at a door is a vote, and from someone who won a local statehouse race by a whopping 1 VOTE this year, that makes a difference. This organizing is the most influential for voters and that is based on data and not anecdote.

So at least from what we know today (and in 2000, 2002, 2004, and so on), this IS the best use of our time. I promise. And "stay at home" activists are do-nothing activists unless they use those tea sandwiches to motivate their living room circles to actually organize.

But my point is not to defend organizing tactics, but to point out that most of the posts are missing the point that the geography is changing. Whatever you thought of past election cycles, we are talking about now. Now we have to deal with the largest wealth gap in history. With technology that is not only changing how we communicate, but changing our physical landscape as well. There are obviously areas that will need to change when we approach organizing in the future. But what wont change is the necessity for BROAD outreach to voters, preferably face to face, and human conversations. Because I dare you to try to have 60,000 over for tea and crumpets in one day. Not sure what the answer is, but it is rarely "staying at home."

Maybe segways?

Tenured Radical said...

Between you and Prof Z, I feel better about that dismal afternoon already. Maybe some of my door-hanger people voted for Dan that night???

Rocketman said...

Yep. Even if you didn't even speak to one person. Leaving literature on e-day or the night before will increase turnout about 1%. So rest assured you will have pushed someone to the polls.

rozele said...

>>Similarly, although they appeared to have changed politics in 2008, the Obama people have handed the Democratic Party back to the old-time hacks

i don't think this is particularly what happened. as a fair number of folks pointed out in 2008, much of the energy behind obama's campaign success (in conventional, effective, GOTV work as well as dubiously-effective electronic modes) came from progressive and left-oriented folks who managed to believe that obama was a progressive candidate despite his stated positions.

that fantasy has largely dissipated, after two years in which the current administration has done exactly what it said it would during the campaign (from increased deportations to a massive giveaway to health insurance companies to a 'if we don't call them "combat troops", they must not be an army' approach to continuing both of bush's wars).

the results are predictable. if you voted for someone you fantasized was an anti-war, pro-universal-healthcare, pro-immigrant, anti-foreclosure candidate, and it turned out he was telling the truth about being none of those things, of course you're not gonna show up to vote for his party as it tacks even farther to the right.

it's not about "the Obama people" vs. "the old-time hacks" or blue-dogs/copperheads. it's about the fact that in concrete policy-and-action terms the difference between the two never existed outside of a deliberately cultivated, very well-mobilized fantasy marketed to progressives. for a relaity check, look at the obama campaign's corporate funders - who would never have backed someone as progressive as the fantasy-obama, and knew damn well what the reality was.