In trying to get one-time Obama supporters to volunteer for the November election, I often hear this refrain: “The Democrats have sold us out. I’m tired of their spinelessness, their subservience to corporate interests. I’m staying home to teach them a lesson.” Not everyone responds this way, but enough do to make me worry, because if these people don’t show up and work to get others to vote, it could make the difference in race after neck-and-neck race, as a similar withdrawal of Democratic volunteers and voters did in 1994. As I’ve written, we either get past our broken hearts to help elect the best possible candidates between now and November, or cede even more power to the most destructive interests in America.
But suppose you simply can’t stomach your local Democratic candidates? Suppose you’re simply too furious at their compromises and retreats? Then make phone calls or donate to those you do respect, but don’t abdicate entirely. Maybe it’s Russ Feingold, narrowly trailing in the latest Wisconsin polls. Or Jack Conway, challenging Rand Paul in Kentucky. Or Barbara Boxer, with the slimmest of leads in California. Or Congressman Alan Grayson, a powerful progressive voice being hammered by outside money in a swing district of Florida. Or anyone else you might choose. But unless you’re as purist as the Republican fundamentalists, I can’t imagine you want to see candidates who’ve stood for strong humane values be defeated by opponents who have nothing but contempt for democracy, justice, and even the barest stewardship of the planet. To shift our country’s direction, we’re going to have to elect and reelect some less than stellar candidates as well, but making sure the best of them win is a critical task.
So why wouldn’t we make calls for or donate to candidates who have shown genuine courage, yet are equally in jeopardy along with the most compromised? Maybe we’re stuck in our inertia–watching the bad news instead of trying to change it. Maybe we can’t get past our anger at the gap between what needs to be done and what the Obama administration and its congressional allies have accomplished. Maybe we feel our efforts won’t matter. But we might remember that 312 votes elected Al Franken to the Senate just two years ago, that 133 votes defeated a hard-right candidate in the 2004 Washington State governor’s race, and that the official Florida margin that gave George Bush the presidency was 537 votes, leaving aside all the other manipulations and abuses. Given the volatility of the current electorate, we might well end up with margins equally close, where our volunteer efforts would make the critical difference.
Obviously it’s easier if you live close enough to be able to knock door to door for candidates you admire, but it isn’t essential. I spent much of the weeks before the 2006 and 2008 elections calling swing voters in race after close race, volunteering with MoveOn’s remote calling effort. Follow up studies found that these efforts played a key role in electing people like Franken, Jeff Merkley, Jon Tester, Jim Webb, Mark Begich, and Claire McCaskill, all of whom won by three percent or less, and all of whom have voted pretty decently, while progress has been blocked by people like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh. You log in, get a series of numbers and a sample script that you can use or not as you choose, then call and log the responses. You convince people to vote and sometimes change their vote. MoveOn is doing this again, as are other progressive groups like Democracy in America. So are individual campaigns. Based on past history, for roughly every dozen doors you knock on or every twenty phone calls you make, you get out an additional vote for your candidate. That may not seem like much, but if a hundred thousand more people spend just a couple days on the phones, they could bring in close to a million additional votes, which would make even more of a difference in an off-year election where everything depends on whose supporters show up at the polls. Wherever you live, you can still make an impact.
For the long-term, we need to build strong citizen movements that can push American politics beyond its current definitions of the possible, and challenge our elected leaders whoever they are. We didn’t do this enough in the past two years, instead waiting for Obama and the Senate and Congress to lead. But the coming month will determine the landscape we work in not just between now and 2012, but (in the case of Congressional redistricting) for as long as the coming decade. Whether you agree or not with every Democratic position or vote is not the question. If certain candidates seem too noxious, volunteer for better ones. If you want to work primarily outside the electoral arena, that’s fine. But to stand back in the next critical weeks and had victory to the most greed-driven interests in America seems an unconscionable moral lapse. Far better to help make what difference you can in electing the electoral allies you most respect, and then keep on with all the other organizing that needs to be done.
Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St Martin’s Press, April 2010), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, See www.paulloeb.org.