Letter from an Angry Voter
By Tom Sullivan
August 3, 2008 - 7:02pm ET
Don't you see how you're misreading me? I am not a victim. I used to be a victim, but now I'm not. Can't you see the difference?
Chip Elliott wrote that about carrying a handgun for self defense in “Letter from an Angry Reader,” published in Esquire magazine in September 1981. The writer and his psychiatrist wife (graduates of Stanford and Radcliffe) had moved to Venice, CA – a neighborhood filling with writers and artists, but still in transition. They and their neighbors were victimized, robbed and robbed again. Elliott went from bohemian innocent “to carrying a 9 mm Smith & Wesson automatic in 10 weeks.” Yes, with a license.
There are echoes of Chip Elliott in the wave of populist activism during the Bush years – the “uprising” David Sirota writes about. We used to be victims. We’re not anymore. A lot of people can’t see the difference. Press. Pundits. Party bosses. The Elliotts’ world had changed. They changed with it. So have we.
What hasn’t changed yet is the clubby political culture we’ve entered. Online criticism usually focuses on “the Village,” the Beltway culture of pundits, lobbyists, and political and media consultants. But from the beginning it was clear how much housecleaning there was to do, not just in Washington, but in our own cities and states – where corrupt politicians and secret deals reveal themselves in smoky conversations on dark hospitality suite balconies.
The old boy network has seen movements come and movements go. They believe that if they stonewall efforts at reform, we will go away. It has worked in the past. The war ends and the antiwar “radicals” evaporate. Frustrate the party upstarts and they will take their balls and go home. And the old boys get their club back.
One thing you can say for the old boys, they are patient and persistent. (Okay, that’s two things.) Patience and persistence are not the first qualities liberal activists look for in their change agents, and qualities that not enough activists cultivate in themselves. Whenever an Obama flings the wheel hard over (or not hard enough) and the ship of state doesn’t turn like a speedboat, impatient activists abandon their posts and jump ship. Do that, and nothing changes. And the old boys get their club back.
Still, today they’re nervous. They should be.
“Letter from an Angry Reader” was about how the Elliotts learned to live with firearms in a neighborhood ruled by thugs. They came to accept owning firearms “as a fact of life until our fellow countrymen get it out of their head that they can do as they please, that there is no such thing as social responsibility, that they have a right not to behave.” That could just as well describe corporations that have turned government of the people into just another profit center. Or politicians who game the system with their hands over their hearts, who, as Paul Craig Roberts wrote, view the Constitution “as a coddling device for criminals and terrorists,” something to be turned on and off at the president’s whim, along with international law – even the rule of law itself.
Our world has changed. Now politics is a fact of our lives. Only, we are armed with computers, checkbooks and a willingness to sacrifice what once was our free time. I think of it as a kind of penance. Penance for decades of leaving democracy on cruise control, for leaving the tending of America to others, for years of complaining more than doing. Edmund Burke said all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. For years we did nothing. Guess what?
Someone asked how much time I spend on politics: Whenever I’m not at my paying job, except (rarely) when politics is the paying job. My wife and I wonder when we are ever going to get our old lives back.
The upside is, you stop feeling like road kill.
Many of our friends haven’t figured that out. Recruiting volunteers is like staging “The Little Red Hen.” All the barnyard animals want to eat the bread, but few show up to plant the wheat, harvest, grind or bake. Every cycle, single-issue activists appear at campaigns expecting to be crowned the candidate’s expert on wind power, gender issues, conspiracy theories or whatever. They vanish as soon as they find out what candidates really need from them: hard work and long hours. Drinking Liberally attracts lots of smart, informed people. They show up to drink, share news and complain, but too few work for campaigns or their local parties. Many on the Left have an independent streak. They’re not joiners. They don’t want to get their hands dirty in what, for want of them, remains a corrupt political process. Others argue impotently for that (fifth or sixth?) third party they say America needs, that they won't build.
Then again, a friend remarked at DL the other night how, since moving here, he’d gone from unknown to precinct chair in two years. All he did was keep showing up. He was treasurer for a city council race and now for Blue Century (our 527 that produces radio ads aimed at swing voters). Another newcomer started out organizing hundreds of Kerry supporters in 2004. Four years later she is the chair of a county party in a district where among the old boys “You ain’t from around here, are you?” could be a bumper sticker, and lacking testosterone is a distinct disadvantage. Her secret? She worked. She prepared. She showed up again and again, even after losing battles. While she organized voters across town, I spent months volunteering for a congressional race that we lost. (I spent the next two years telling prospective volunteers it was the most fun I’d ever had losing.) In 2006, the state coordinated campaign made me the district Get-Out-the-Vote coordinator – which often meant that volunteers arriving early for phone banking caught me emptying trash from the night before, and cleaning toilets. I told them, “I’m only in this for the glamour.”
It’s a simple formula: keep showing up like a bad penny. Do whatever needs doing. Be persistent to the point of relentless. We have to move beyond personality-based campaigns and candidates with more name recognition and fundraising potential than political courage. Besides, as Paul Curtis (Alien & Sedition) wrote, “The point of a political movement is to make the courage of politicians irrelevant.”
Thom Hartmann recently told radio listeners to take a just couple of hours per month to show up at party events where they can sit across the table from their congressmen and senators. Do that, Hartmann suggested, and you’ll be as influential as most Washington lobbyists.
In time, maybe more. We used to be victims. We’re not anymore. A lot of people – even our own people – can’t see the difference. Yet. Because this will take longer than a visit to the instant teller. Because the secret to building a movement capable of reforming and reinvigorating stolid American politics is to show up day after day and outwork our opponents.
Why is that so hard to understand?
During 2006 early voting in our largest county, I made regular literature drops at our busy table outside the board of elections. Eventually, the opposing party chair recognized me (sort of) and pointed as he kept lonely vigil in his lawn chair.
“You’re one of the worker bees, aren’t you?” he said, and I smiled.
You have no idea.
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