Project Wonderful

Monday, May 16, 2011

No Respect aka Have you thanked a Field Organizer today?

One of the many reasons I made the long thought out and difficult decision to stop working on campaigns was the virtually complete lack of respect afforded to campaign operatives.

We've all had the volunteer come into our office to announce that he doesn't want to knock doors or make phone calls, but "just wants to work on policy." Not only is this frustrating because it is counterproductive, it's insulting. It's essentially implying that anyone off the street can do our job without training or experience. I liken it to signing up to be a candy striper and then walking into the hospital demanding to perform surgery.

There is also the volunteer who lies to your face (or at least your ear) about coming in at all. Nothing compares to feeling of humiliation and frustration that comes after spending days of recruiting for a canvass kick-off, three rounds of confirmation calls, staying up all night to put together thoughtfully laid out walk packets and driving three hours to Bumblefuck County only to have 4 of your 36 confirmed volunteers show up. Oh, did I mention one of them has to leave early and will only go to doors with a partner? It's been months since I've worked on a campaign and years since I was technically an organizer and just thinking about this situation still makes my blood boil.

"Yes, I get that your time with your family is important, but so is mine and I left them and my friends and gave up sleep and the opportunity to make much more money to come here to YOUR state to help YOU elect candidates who will better represent you so the least you can do is be straight with me!"

Even the most well meaning fellow Democrat sometimes doesn't get it. More than once I've dug my fingernails into my friend's/boyfriend's/my own arm to stop myself from going off on the hill staffer who claims to have "worked on a campaign" because he spent five days in Iowa on loan at the end of last cycle.

These, mind you, are the people already on our side.

When it comes to the general public, we've been screamed at, threatened, hung up on, ignored, chased by dogs, door slammed and one time peed on (funny story) for bringing democracy to your doorstep.

And yes, I get that it's annoying. New Hampshire residents have the privilege of voting in our nation's first primary, but they pay for that privilege by having to disconnect their telephones for six months just to get a little peace and quiet. (I would argue the privilege is well worth it, but I can see where they're coming from.)

Still, I don't think this is where the hostility comes from. I've been thinking about it a lot lately and I think that we don't respect field organizers because we don't respect our politicians.

It's a complicated and overwhelming problem. Think about it: Our government is a democracy "of the people, for the people, by the people." If we don't respect or trust our government (and that's basically what our politicians are, liaisons to our government), who or what are we really not respecting? It's clear that in our nation's mind at some point the concept of popular sovereignty got away from us, or perhaps more accurately, we got away from it.

When I tell someone I work in politics, their first reaction is invariably is to make a disparaging remark about a specific politician or group of politicians or express their disgust for our system in general. Perhaps this attitude is not so off the mark.

Our Founding Fathers weren't politicians, they were statesmen: scientists, farmers, and entrepreneurs who answered their country's call to service and planned to sink back into the woodwork when they were done. Then, as our country got bigger, the world got more complicated, and we discovered the inherit flaws of a capitalistic democracy, we decided we needed politicians who spend their entire career holding or attempting to hold elected office.

And it is a decision we've made. Think about the 2008 Presidential election. One of the most prolific criticisms of Barack Obama was that he didn't have enough experience, even though he'd spent several years as a United States Senator and a State Senator before that. With the complicated nature of international relations, party politics,and budget deficits, it makes sense that we require our elected officials to be experienced in the workings of government. At the same time, we criticize "Washington insiders" as being "out of touch." And who can blame us for that? Daily life in DC is physically and psychologically pretty far removed from rural Indiana.

That's just one of many contradictions we've created surrounding electoral politics.

Americans are winners. We're competitive, innovative and passionate as a culture, no matter where we fall as individuals on the political spectrum. As a result of our enterprising nature we've found a way to cram money, time and resources into every nook and cranny that electoral politics has to offer. This is part of what makes campaigning fun, in a sick masochistic way, but it has led us to a political arms race. Campaigns have become expensive, more aggressive and begun earlier and earlier because no one wants to give the other guy a head start.

We've gotten to the point where running for statewide or national office means raising millions of dollars, campaigning for at least two years and cultivating an almost cult-like following. When people argue that politicians spend 1/2 their time getting re-elected, they're not wrong. A local teacher, farmer or even lawyer who decided to run five months before an election without prior experience wouldn't even be allowed to enter a debate.

People complain that politicians are hypocrites and megalomaniacs and in large part, they're right. There is supporting evidence all over the place. Every day a new politician is having an affair or embezzling money or harassing a staffer. But it's little wonder that the prerequisites we've developed for office holders attract or even breed this personality type.

We ask "what kind of person would run for office, put their family under the scrutiny, spend their entire day asking for money" and those are valid questions, but I think we're asking them of the wrong people. We, the American public have created the demand for this kind of politician and this kind of politics. How many times has a field organizer thought to herself while being screamed at for disturbing a voter "if this didn't work, we wouldn't be calling you?" To quote Lucille Bluth "They turn you into a monster and then they call you one."

So what's the point? First, change has to come from within. If we believe our politicians are corrupt, hypocritical or out of touch, then the only way to change that is to cut off demand by refusing to elect corrupt, hypocritical or out of touch politicians. This is, of course, easier said than done for the reasons outlined above and also because we've gone so far down the rabbit hole. It's going to take a lot to convince the American electorate that they have the power to create accountability, but I do think it's a start to accept responsibility. As they say "the first step is admitting you have a problem." If we can acknowledge that as eligible voters in a democratic system we're laying in a bed of our own making then that gives us some sort of agency. Theoretically we could make a multilateral decision to just stop putting so much money into politics and stop allowing ourselves to be represented by people who don't actually represent us, even though we know we won't and that the solution is going to be a lot more complicated.

Second, and I can't emphasize this enough, field organizers deserve your respect. So much money goes into our elections, so much mudslinging, so many different groups seeking to gain influence by any means necessary that we've gotten a long way away from the spirit of representative government of which our forefathers conceived. I find it incredibly heartwarming, redeeming and almost miraculous that neighbors talking to other neighbors about the issues that matter to them can still change the outcome of an election. Studies show us that field can influence an election between 2 and 5 percent. As irritating as it can be, grassroots politics is the one tool we know that works and doesn't violate the values we find so conflicting.

Maybe the politicians they represent are the lesser of two evils or the slightly better of two okays. Occasionally they might be even be representing someone exceptional. In some ways it doesn't even matter. Long before Obama, we were door to door salesmen of hope. The field organizer standing on your doorstep, is empowering you to have a stake in your government. They're there because they believe in your ability to create change and to elect the kind of politicians you respect. And isn't that the first step?

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