Imagine if your actions made the difference in electing a senator, governor, or congressional representative. Suppose the phone calls you made, money you donated, doors you knocked on, and conversations you initiated helped swing a critically close race, or two or three. Suppose the friends you dragged to the polls helped America reject the anonymous corporate dollars that threaten to drown our democracy.
You’d feel pretty good, I believe, at least about your own efforts. So why aren’t more of us doing everything we can from now through the election to ensure the best possible outcome? In 2008, millions of people reached deep and then deeper to stake our time, money, and hearts on the possibility of change. We knew it was a critical election, and helped carry Obama and the Democrats to victory. Now, too many of us feel burned and disillusioned, with dashed hopes. We’ve lost the habit of being engaged. The election seems someone else’s problem. We doubt what we do will matter—for this round or in general.
Think about what you and your friends did during the election of two years ago compared with what you’re doing now. Then think of some ways to make an impact in the remaining days. November’s results will hinge on which side turns out its peripheral voters, those most overloaded, distracted, torn in their sentiments, and distrustful of politics. They’re at risk of succumbing to the deluge of paid lies, voting for candidates who don’t represent their values or staying home in cynical resignation. But with enough person-to-person conversations we can reach them.
So why aren’t most of us doing more? We may be disappointed at the past two years, but as I’ve written, we need to act, broken hearts and all, because to hand power over to those who represent America’s most predatory corporate interests will make change harder on every conceivable front. For instance, if the Republicans gain a congressional majority and John Boehner becomes Speaker of the House, he’ll be able to do more than just hand out tobacco lobbyist checks on the House floor, as he gleefully did in the 1990s. Because he’ll control legislation, next to nothing will pass without his consent, leaving an incredibly difficult road to addressing any of our most critical problems. When those who’d normally vote Democrat stay home in anger or spite, it’s time and again moved this country to the political right, as Robert Parry, who broke the original Iran-Contra stories, has brilliantly explored. Getting past our disappointment gives us a chance to remember that change is a long-haul process, with inevitable frustrations and setbacks.
But broken hearts aren’t the only reason for our inaction. There’s also inertia, distraction, and overload—the weight of our day to day routine. Following the 2008 election, too many of us stepped back from actively working to change our society and switched instead to morosely watching our hopes get frustrated, doing little beyond signing the occasional online petition or letter. Like most other activities, political volunteering is a habit, and we’ve let that habit atrophy. We need to once again start doing whatever we can, even if that requires shaking off some rust.
We also need to remember the power of our actions. In 2008, we took it on faith that the election could hinge on what we did, and then saw that faith confirmed. We need to regain at least some part of that sense, even with more chastened hopes. If we talk with a dozen people door to door or make 20 phone calls, we will yield one or two more votes, as studies have repeatedly shown. A hundred people each spending a day of volunteering can bring in a couple hundred votes. A thousand can produce a couple thousand. If just a tenth of us who were on Obama’s 13 million name email list spent two days on the phones, we’d be talking over a million votes, or enough to swing state after state.
Right now, much of the volunteer energy has been with the Tea Party members, who seek a return to the Bush policies or worse. But what about the rest of us? We need to do more than just vote, but get others to vote as well. The New York Times currently lists eight Senate races as toss-ups, with three or four others still in play. Key congressional races are equally tight, which means our willingness to get on the phones or drive an hour to a swing district could easily shift the results. With upcoming congressional redistricting dependent on who controls the state legislatures, even our local races could determine 15-30 congressional seats for the next ten years. So our individual volunteering is critical.
I’ve experienced the power of this volunteering directly. On Election Day of 2004, I was knocking on doors in Washington state and turned out three additional voters. One had forgotten about the election. Another needed a ride. A third didn’t know how to submit his absentee ballot. My candidate won the governor’s race by 133 votes, over a right-wing Republican who’s now running neck and neck with the once seemingly unbeatable Senator Patty Murray. I didn’t get those votes by any particular eloquence or skill, just by showing up. Any other volunteer would have had the same results. But had I and 50 other volunteers stayed home that day, we’d have lost.
Volunteer outreach made a similarly critical difference when Al Franken won his Minnesota Senate seat by 225 votes. Or in 2006, when Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney won by 83 votes before being reelected overwhelmingly two years later. In 2008, four House races were decided by less than one percent. I once interviewed a young woman who registered 300 voters on her campus, helping her strongly progressive congressman win by 27 votes. Given the volatility of the current electorate, our efforts could easily make the difference in race after neck-and-neck race.
You don’t even have to be bound by geography when you act. Groups like MoveOn have been steadily perfecting their remote voter calling efforts, which studies have found can matter immensely. You log in, get a series of numbers and a sample script that you use or not as you choose. You call and tally the responses. You convince people to vote and sometimes change their minds. MoveOn is doing this again, as are other progressive groups like Democracy in America. So are individual campaigns and Obama’s Organizing For America network. If you want to focus on local races, progressive groups are developing powerful tailored ballot guides that we can draw from and hand out. Whether or not there’s a critical race nearby, you can still do your part.
Think again about the stakes. Do we care about climate change, an equitable tax system, access to education, decent health care, and judges who aren’t the paid creatures of Exxon and the Koch brothers? Do we care about the poor and unemployed, or rebuilding America’s economic base instead of strip-mining the future for greed? Do we care about reclaiming our democracy from those who believe that their wealth entitles them to buy and sell the rest of us for their narrow self-interest?
We can never predict the impact of our actions. But suppose you did all you could from now through the election, while assuming that others would do the same. Suppose you once again vested your time, money, and yes, your battered hopes, and then helped elect some good people and stop some blindly destructive ones. If you did, and enough others did as well, we’d have an infinitely more hospitable political landscape going forward while we continue to work for the changes our country needs. That would indeed be something to be proud of.
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), now with 120,000 copies in print, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. See www.paulloeb.org.
Paul Loeb is a guest blogger at utne.com. The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of utne.com or the Utne Reader.
Image courtesy of Paul Loeb.