Obama Campaign Office in Lakewood, CO

Ground Game: Purple People Power

I just came home from a fascinating, exhilarating, and exhausting election day volunteering for the Obama campaign in Colorado. And before I get on with the the story, in the current climate I guess I’d better say why.

First, full disclosure: I’m not registered with any political party. I do believe it’s my responsibility as a citizen to vote (regardless of whether I feel assured that it’ll make a difference) and also, as a prerequisite for responsible voting, to be informed well enough on issues and candidates that my vote might be a just exercise of power. So I do vote, but I can’t bring myself to tie the knot with any political party that demonstrates an enduring willingness to tolerate within its own ranks “legal corruption” (meaning when those in power allow their influence to be purchased in unethical yet technically non-criminal ways), political opportunism with anti-democratic consequences, and willful deceitfulness — all of which, unfortunately, are facts of life in Washington on both sides of the aisle and in between. Also, I suppose an insightful political strategist might fairly classify me as a “compassion voter,” should such a classification exist, and perhaps it should. I would love to see a viable US political party with a bold enough commitment to making informed compassion (including the commitment to ensure the survival of our planet) its top priority in all spheres of activity, not only in rhetoric but also in action (see Gross National Happiness), but US politics is further from that ideal than Washington is from Bhutan.

So why support Obama? Am I sipping the “Hope and Change” Kool-Aid? Honestly, I wish I could, but ever since my first year as a Political Studies major in 1989 I’ve paid too-close attention to how politics actually works to be able to believe that even the best of intentions in the White House would actually translate into the kind of fundamental systemic transformation that the lawn signs suggest. Not in four years, nor even in eight, in part because most of the worthiest problems are bigger than that, and in part because, whatever the rhetoric, the actual political will in Congress to solve those problems is shamefully small. And Obama, whatever his historical alignments and inner compass may be, today shows up for work mostly as a neoliberal establishment Democrat with an occasional tilt to the center-left on some non-third-rail social issues and a countervailing dutiful slouch toward the center-right on foreign policy. This narrowly splayed posture dependably ensures that his view from the Resolute desk is still through the Overton window, so the status quo clearly has nothing to fear (contrary to what some beloved humans who speak facts as a second language assert about a “socialist” agenda, by whose standards Ronald Reagan would now be canceled for being a Commie).

So no, I don’t have much Hope for Change.

I knocked on doors for four reasons:

  1. Harm reduction: While both current candidates are establishment centrists, dependably loyal to the status quo despite their gentle leanings in opposite directions on a number of issues, their leanings do make a difference in terms of how much harm is caused to people and the planet as a result of the policies and practices of (debatably, now) the “most powerful nation on earth.” To highlight the key differences, I’ll summarize the key objectives of each candidate, and I’ll try to do so objectively:
    • President Obama uses the power of his office in ways that walk the neoliberal Democrats’ tightrope of:
      • (a) Ensuring that the rich and powerful are supported to remain rich and powerful while simultaneously speaking to the welfare of the middle class, which for neoliberals of the Democratic persuasion generally includes proposing regulations ostensibly intended to protect people and the planet while baking in ways to prevent those regulations from having teeth of consequential enforceability that might actually constrain friendly plutocrats’ behavior or diminish their wealth or power, while
      • (b) Also finding not-too-controversial ways to make a comfortable life incrementally more feasible for a substantial portion of the middle class (especially the ones contributing the most to keeping the hamster wheel of industry turning) and for certain prioritized subgroups within the lower-income demographics (again, without significant expense to the friendly plutocrats), and
      • (c) Making moderate revisions to social policy and practice in recognition of the glacial evolution of the nation’s dominant cultural values in certain spheres, as and when the majority of the electorate is deemed good and ready to transfer their weight from the back foot to the forward one (in other words, leading the socially liberal and progressive movements from behind — often pretty much all the way in the back, as in the case of Obama’s bewilderingly reluctant and long-overdue support for ending discrimination against same-sex marriage, for example), and
      • (d) Last but rhetorically not least, gradually (though woefully insufficiently) reducing the acceleration of the rate at which this whole business of enriching people (as it is currently carried on) destroys the planet. Note the rhetoric suggests actually slowing the destruction down, but on most counts the practice is barely enough to make it increase at a slightly less harrowing pace.
    • Governor Romney, on the other hand, hews to the neoconservative side of the neoliberal status quo:
      • (a) Supporting the rich and powerful to continue becoming even richer and more powerful, which is understood to include proactively dismantling the already-insufficient guardrails we have put in place for the safety of the planet and its inhabitants as fast as possible by almost any means necessary, while also
      • (b) Keeping a drip irrigation line from the US treasury to provide just enough support for the less rich and less powerful as may be required to prevent the collapse of the system that enriches the rich and empowers the powerful, while making it as difficult as possible for the people who work within that system to find enough power to force their employers to improve the conditions under which they’re employed, plus
      • (c) Earning the loyalty of the extreme cultural conservatives in their base by endeavoring to impose 1950s-era (primarily white pseudo-puritanical) social values on the entire population to the greatest extent tenable without alienating too many voters to have a shot at winning next time.
    • Comparing and contrasting the two summaries above, it’s clear that the most privileged people in US society would continue to do well under either candidate, but there would be a greater acceleration of the destruction of the planet and exacerbation of many forms of suffering under Romney’s policies as compared with Obama’s.
  2. Some wins for compassion: The record suggests that, in addition to comparatively less harm, some genuine good can be expected to come from another Obama term, too, here and there. And by “here and there” I mean mostly domestically, as I find much of Obama’s foreign policy (from accelerating the US’s reckless drone wars to promoting anti-ecological trade agreements and continuing the too-little-too-late trend with regard to action to protect the natural environment) to be appallingly unconscionable. But affordable health care, for example, is not only compassionate but also simply a smarter thing to do than leaving the health of a nation to a preternaturally clumsy invisible hand. Even if all one cares about is “a strong economy,” you can’t sustain that with an unhealthy workforce. And there are also Obama’s efforts to persuade the world’s biggest polluters to commit to polluting less (not to a sufficient degree to meet the need, but at least Obama is pushing the right direction on that count). So, in short, at least some of Obama’s policies and objectives are rooted in compassionate action and can be expected to improve millions of lives, while the other fellow is pretty much strictly business in the daytime and school dance chaperone at night.
  3. Overcoming a debilitating national legacy of conscious and unconscious bias based absurdly on skin color: It took the United States of America more than 200 years too long to elect a non-white-skinned person to be president, and we don’t have to look around for long to realize there’s still a lot of catching up to do for the idea of a US president named Barack Hussein Obama to be normalized for many of us. The sad truth is that the US electorate needs more time (probably a few generations more, by the looks of it) to feel entirely natural with a president of color. Ceteris paribus (hypothetically assuming all candidates to be more or less equally competent, with equal integrity and identical platforms and leadership styles, etc.), I’d be inclined to pick a woman of color (I’m looking at you, Michelle, and your indigenous sisters, too) nearly every four years for the next 200 if given the choice, just to begin to restore some balance to the Force. Alas, Barack is the closest we can get this year.
  4. Learning: I got to talk with the people in one of my “home” communities and hear, first-hand (rather than via media filters), what their considerations are in all of this, and to have an insider tour of part of the proverbial sausage factory of politics.

With that out of the way, onto the story…

Going door-to-door in Jefferson County, one of the most polarized in the nation (characterized in 2012 as “the swing county of the swing state”), I indeed learned much about my neighbors and about the tectonically active political landscape of the country.

Campaign HQ What impressed me most was this: It was unmistakably clear that, in this squeaky-tight race, it was the ground teams who won it. So many people worked so hard for so long, and many more dropped in when they could, as I did. With millions of phone calls and countless face-to-face conversations, the ground teams worked relentlessly.

What were these people actually doing, and why was it so critical to the outcome? The core of it is this: To win a tight race in the current climate, you need to identify every supporter and potential supporter in your area, make a reasonable effort to win over any undecided voters (hopefully without annoying or alienating them, which is increasingly an issue in the age of obnoxious robocalls and the ugly trend toward shame-based fundraising tactics), make sure all your supporters are registered on time and then once voting starts you call every number and knock on every door (feeling terrible about bugging people but knowing there’s frankly no way to win in a “battleground state” without being really thorough and persistent), rinse and repeat, until you’ve confirmed that every last sympathetic soul has voted, even if you have to get them to carpools or drive them to the polls yourself (I saw a lot of this).

It’s a Herculean gig, multiplied across hundreds of cities and towns. One couldn’t possibly find enough people for this job, so while nobody wants to cause burnout, everyone who is willing to overwork is overworked, out of necessity. They try to keep the work fun and reasonable for the drop-in volunteers, but for the core team it’s full-blast from start to finish.

Everyone I met at two different Obama campaign offices, and on the street, was beyond exhausted and yet still giving it all until the polls closed (and even after). And, to their great credit, they were also doing their best to remain friendly, helpful, understanding, and patient with every new volunteer who let the cold air come in through the door with them. In a typical work environment, this combination of extreme fatigue and high pressure would bend most people to the point of being snappy and rude. Personally, I saw none of that. On the human level, it was an extraordinarily positive experience in every way.

What drove these people to work so hard, with such spirit? I’m happy to report that it was not antipathy toward Governor Romney. I was pleasantly surprised that I heard not a single disparaging comment about Romney or about Republicans. No, these volunteers had a nobler motivation: a good, old-fashioned sense of civic duty — a.k.a. patriotism — which for them expresses as a wish for everyone in this country to have a better chance of thriving. And these rational, sensible citizens of a very “purple” state had made the informed assessment that Obama was the candidate who would best serve the interests of all people.

I have to wonder if that trans-partisan caring and goodwill might be partially thanks to the very purpleness of the state. Having spent years living in both coastal California and rural Colorado, I can say it’s harder to have a culturally siloed existence in a homogeneous echo chamber in the latter. Pretty much all of us here have friends and/or family members with different political views from our own, so we tend to be more practiced at the apparently endangered art of respecting and loving one another. I’ve always liked purple, but I’m gaining new appreciation for it. I feel Colorado’s purple culture supports me to be a better human in these times.

Obama Campaign Office just before the polls closed In the final hour, the campaign office was nearly empty as every available soul hit the streets to make sure all their neighbors had voted.

Of course, many of these volunteers were also inspired by Barack Obama as a human (in addition to being confident in both his policy priorities and his ability and commitment to make them happen) and that inspiration fueled the extra mile. It seemed clear that some of them might have put in some time even if the Democratic candidate had been someone other than Obama but probably wouldn’t have worked this hard for a less inspiring candidate. If there’s truth in this assessment, it means that, considering the very narrow margin of victory, even a slightly less inspiring candidate surely would’ve lost here in Colorado. And, from my talks with friends who volunteered in other states (including Ohio), it seems that may have been true elsewhere as well.

Swing state street smarts: If you want to become (or remain) the President of the United States in these times, you’d better give a broad base of people some profoundly compelling reasons not just to vote for you, not just to make calls or write checks for you, but to go to the wall for you.

Closing reflections

The US is a place where the word democracy describes the theory more than the practice. While the nation has always been a democratic republic on paper and in potential, in real life it is very difficult to achieve the actual practice of democracy in the context of an increasingly plutocratic oligarchy (de facto rule by the wealthiest few via outsized influence) with an electorate that includes a significant percentage of people who haven’t made much of a study of political and economic realities (at least not beyond the talking points) and thus are too easily manipulated into voting against their own interests and those of their children, their communities, and their planet.

This is in part the inevitable result of our public education system favoring unquestioning obedience over critical thinking and nuanced discernment ever since the industrial revolution. (What else could we expect after 200 years of that?) The resulting credulity creates a welcoming environment for a routinely dumbed-down and disingenuous political discourse whipped into a frenzy by a mostly shallow and sensationalistic 24-hour “news” (infotainment) media business model that profits much more from the drama of polarized arguments than from respectful and nuanced dialog in search of a win-win.

But, even with those odds stacked high against the prospects of true, well-informed, participatory democracy, the fact (as two Obama campaigns have proven) is that it is possible to achieve a degree of actually functioning democracy in this country when sufficient numbers of people are willing to work hard enough for it.

Debriefing (with smiles) after the polls closedAnd here in purple Colorado, “work hard enough” means really, really, really hard. One could feel that it shouldn’t be this hard, but it is, at least for now. Countless people gave their all, and kept giving long after they were running on fumes, and even this above-and-beyond, hero-level effort was just barely enough. “All you’ve got and more” is simply what it takes these days to have even the slimmest chance of prevailing against the two-headed Goliath of Big Money and Small Ethics in politics.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of the ground-team experience, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go next time around. No matter how one may feel about the electoral process, it can’t hurt more than your feet to gain a better understanding of how it works.

And if you’re happy with the outcome of the election, thank a volunteer. They built that.


Thoughts? I'm listening…

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.