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Sunday, July 8, 2018


I was rather struck by the fact that my post entitled “Two EMail Messages” provoked only two comments, both of them simply links to other sites.  I fear the point of the post may have been lost.  My purpose was to contrast the prosaic and utterly unremarkable content of the phone script with Phil Green’s beautifully articulated cry of despair, something I would have been proud to write had I his polemical skill.  I was trying to illustrate how mundane actual political work is, at the ground level.

I have now made my first 19 calls, leaving the remaining 12 for this afternoon.  The result?  I left 10 messages on answering machines, was told that 5 numbers were disconnected, got one no-answer [no answering machine], one weird sound, was told tartly by one woman to please remove her from our call list, and spoke to one enthusiastic supporter who thanked me for my service.  Is this really a good use of the time of a man who is, as Clint Eastwood puts it in one movie, a legend in his own mind?  Indeed it is.  Since I have nothing better to do, the opportunity cost is zero.  But there is more to it than that.  Let me explain. 

The fundamental fact about midterm elections in America is that most eligible voters don’t vote.  Roughly 35-40% of those who can vote bother to do so.  Republican Freedom Caucus member Mark Walker has won the 6th North Carolina CD the two times he has run by about 59-41%.  For the sake of numerical simplicity, call it a 60/40 district.  This is an enormous hill for young Democratic challenger Ryan Watts to climb.  It would seem that he must persuade one out of every six Republicans to switch parties, an impossible task.  But appearances can deceive.  Consider.

Suppose that in November the Republicans in the N.C. 6th CD are a tad dispirited, and not energized because Trump’s name is not on the ballot.  Let us imagine that they turn out at a low but not at all impossible 33%.  At the same time, suppose the local Democrats are fired up, by babies torn from mothers’ arms, by Mueller indictments, by the threat of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and come to the polls in numbers more to be expected in a presidential year, say 50% of them.  Now 1/3 of 60 is 20, and ½ of 40 is also 20, and suddenly a 60-40 district becomes a 50-50 race, in which an upset is entirely possible.

What has to happen for this fantasy to become reality?   Here we come to the on the ground reality of American politics, which is that organizationally, it is radically decentralized.  I am not just talking about the fact that the political organization of each state is a world unto itself, but that this decentralization reaches right down to the county level.  Sometimes, in presidential years, a national campaign achieves a startling degree of efficiency, as in fact Obama’s two campaigns did, but for the most part, and especially in off-year elections, candidates must rely on the organizational muscle of the local party, and that varies greatly from state to state, county to county.

For whatever historical reason, the North Carolina Democratic Party is a rather pathetic mess, so much so that in 2008 and 2012, when I worked here for Obama, I observed that his campaign staff simply bypassed the state party.  It made no use, for example, of the state party’s outdated and inadequate database of voters, addresses, phone numbers, and party registration.  If Ryan Watts is to achieve a Democratic voter turnout sufficient to turn a 60/40 district into a 50-50 race, he is going to need accurate voter records.  Now, Chatham County, where I live, is one of the few Democratic bastions in a Republican CD, and it has a pretty good county Democratic machine, but Alamance County, 30 miles to the northwest, does not.  So the Chatham County Dems are offering a helping hand to the Alamance County Dems by making calls to update the lists and reach out to supporters in Alamance.

And that is why I sat at my desk yesterday, and will sit at my desk today, working my way down the list of numbers and reading from my script.


s. wallerstein said...

I wonder if calling voters is the best way to convince them. Most friends email me these days. When campaign workers or people selling something call, they inevitably call when I'm brushing my teeth, taking a siesta, concentrated on a phrase I don't understand in a philosophy text or going to the bathroom. I'm not happy to be interrupted and they are unlikely to convince me of anything.

On the other hand, even a card-carrying misanthrope such as myself finds it hard to look into the eyes of and tell someone who rings my doorbell to go take a long walk on a short pier.

When I was living in California now over 40 years ago, a young lady with impressively short shorts rang my doorbell to convince me to vote in a local election. She (or her shorts) convinced me and on election day she reappeared to make sure that I had actually voted, which I had done. She convinced me so convincingly that I remember her over 40 years later.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, no, the point is that starting with a phone list you update it to check who is no longer there, and so forth. Once you nail that down, you can start the door to door visits. Needless to say, if you can get their email addresses and such, that is even better.

s. wallerstein said...

Ok. I stand corrected.

I support my deputy (congressperson), Giorgio Jackson, and his people email me all the time as does his party, Revolución Democrática, but they've never called, so emailing, if you can, seems to be standard operating procedure all over the at times not so civilized world. Obviously, I gave them my email when I signed up.

F Lengyel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LFC said...

@ s.w.

The phone is still used in campaigns, partly to update lists and records as Wolff explains but also for other purposes. In addition to individual calls there are robocalls, where a candidate or one of his or her prominent supporters will record a msg and put it on answering machines (for those who still have them as many people, incl me, do). There is an annoyance factor but if these methods weren't at least somewhat effective they prob wouldn't still be used...

s. wallerstein said...

I automatically hang up on robocalls, even if it's Simone de Beauvoir inviting me to dinner.

RobinM said...

With respect to your disappointment that there were only two anonymous comments on your “two e-mails”: The first of these comments is, it turns out, a discussion of the origins of the phrase “socialism or barbarism” which your friend and colleague Philip Green assigns to Engels.

The second anonymous comment, which is not, by the way, a link to another site—

"The President is the most powerful person on the Planet; nothing he has done or does can be overturned" ???

—seems to take issue with Prof. Green’s assertion. The question marks suggest that the commenter took the assertion to be a bit extravagant. Marx’s preface to the second edition (1869) of “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” includes a passage which may be relevant here:

“Of the writings dealing with the same subject at approximately the same time as mine, only two deserve notice: Victor Hugo’s Napoleon le Petit and Proudhon’s Coup d’Etat. Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single iindividual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history. . . I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.”

LFC said...

I automatically hang up on robocalls, even if it's Simone de Beauvoir inviting me to dinner.

That's a good line! and would also be a neat supernatural trick...

(Of course, being a pre-recorded message it doesn't care whether you pick up or not. These occasionally may make some sense for a candidate to do, as when [as happened in a local election recently where I live] there are *many* viable candidates on the ballot vying for a few slots and you want to get your name in front of the voter in as many different ways as possible and as often as possible. The danger of course is that the voter will be so annoyed by the tactic they'll make it a pt not to vote for you. It's a delicate balance.)

Howard Berman said...

Dear Robin M, if I take your meaning correctly, I'm not sure why we gift Trump with such vast power- part of it is that he has a genius for how to act the part of someone in power in the minds of the simple people who like him- this has something to do with interaction rituals- it is in part that effective political action has been stifled in this country- definitely since the mass demonstrations against the Gulf War and in a way a scholar of Foucault could elaborate- the whole thing is too vast and intricate for me to fathom- to my understanding that's what's going on

RobinM said...

Dear Howard, I wasn't gifting Trump vast power. My intention in quoting Marx's criticism of Victor Hugo's attack on the lesser Bonaparte was to point up that Professor Green's words respecting Trump's power might be criticized along the same lines. rm

howard b said...


I chose at least one word carefully. What I'm curious about is respecting Trump's power, what makes him effective at wielding power, other than the cynicism of the Republican party or the gullibility and grievances of a segment of the party base
Tell me how you view things on this score

I am sorry over our miscommunication

howard b said...