Welcome to Activist Land!

Activist Land provides tools and a pragmatic forum for the progressive activist community. It aims to complement traditional political blogs by emphasizing how you can get involved in specific issues and how to integrate activism into your life in an effective and sustainable way. Therefore, in addition to calling for action on a particular issue, it encourages people to post "activism opportunity" posts that describe the nuts and bolts of how one would, or did, take action in a particular instance.

My main area of focus is media reform. I've been working with Save Boston's Progressive Talk to help bring progressive talk radio to Boston, and I've written interviews to publicize "The Real News", an independent international news network. My secondary area of focus is election integrity. I maintain a set of Voting Rights pages with an emphasis on an election integrity timeline. I've written pieces on these and other subjects for Daily Kos and my local newspaper. For more info, see my first post. Come and join the community!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Canvassing is All About Showing Up

I co-lead a local group of Obama supporters preparing to canvass in New Hampshire, the swing state closest to us. (For those unfamiliar with the term, "canvassing" means going door-to-door for a candidate, putting yourself in touch with voters and the canvass on your sneakers in contact with the sidewalk.) One member sent me this question:

How does one prepare for canvassing? My support for Obama is largely subjective based on his handling of various situations. I don't think that will help me to be an effective canvasser - suggestions?

I'd like to point her to a nice succinct "elevator pitch," and any links or suggestions would be welcome. But I also want to use this as an opening to hold forth on what canvassing is about, how to enjoy it, and why (to paraphrase Woody Allen) ninety percent of success in canvassing is just showing up.

Research shows that canvassing increases voter turnout more than any other form of voter contact (phone, mail). The effectiveness depends on many variables (whether the canvassers are partisan or non-partisan, whether they pitch voting as a civic duty or a way to affect a close race, whether the people being canvassed have already been approached, and so on), but in general it seems that a canvasser can persuade about one contact out of 15 who would have ordinarily stayed home to go to the polls. This effect alone means that if I and a hundred others had each canvassed twice in 2000 in New Hampshire, a state that went for Bush by a margin of 7211, we could have swung not only the state but the entire country for Gore.

In addition, canvassing is important for identification. It points the campaign to potential volunteers, and it allows known supporters and known opponents to be removed from the lists of homes to be visited, freeing later canvassers to focus on the undecided voters.

I canvassed in New Hampshire for Dean in 2003 and 2004 and Kerry in 2004, and in Massachusetts for Deval Patrick (for governor) in 2006 and Jamie Eldridge (for U.S. Congress) in 2007. All told, that comes to about 20 times that I've canvassed for one candidate or another. Or, to put it another way: I've canvassed for myself, with the candidate as a beneficiary. Canvassing is good for my body, mind, and soul. The fact that it's good for the candidate, and good for society, is a nice side effect. If I were a Buddhist, I would presumably be able to see the candidate, society, and myself as one. But enlightened self-interest does nicely.

We've grown used to e-mail blasts, robocalls, and astroturfing, all tools that clone a single voice so that it can appear to come from everywhere. Much like the corporate voices that regretfully tell us that assembly lines in foreign lands are the only way to do business these days, we can almost feel that it's just not feasible to restrict ourself to speaking to a single person at a time.

But that's what canvassing is about. It's inefficient. You spend most of your time walking from house to house. The process can be optimized (by the people who decide where to send you and by the way you traverse the route), but it cannot be mechanized. However, that is a good thing for your cause, because if canvassing could be mechanized, the process would have been bought long ago by the forces with the most money. It's also a good thing for you. (I'm assuming, by the way, that physical exercise is not a problem for you. If it is, a well-run office will have plenty of other ways for you to help, such as data entry or phone banks.) How often have you indulged yourself in a long walk, or a face-to-face conversation with strangers? It's a treat to be forced to "regress" to an old-fashioned mode of transportation and communication, to walk the streets and speak to humans face-to-face. It's particularly valuable to have an excuse to do this somewhere other than in your own neighborhood. When else would you have the opportunity?

By this point, if you've already decided that you will be canvassing, you may be growing impatient. "All right, already. I'm going. Just tell me how, so I can get it over with." But my point is that you want to learn how to do it in a sustainable way. You want to be able to look forward to canvassing with anticipation rather than resentment. And that means focusing on the positive, because there will be negatives, though less pronounced than you might think. We'll get to them soon enough.

In addition to the prospect of a walk through a new neighborhood and connecting with fascinating campaign workers and fellow volunteers, one positive that has always carried me through has been the surprisingly frequent expressions of gratitude that I've gotten from people whose doorbells I've rung. Some of them are on "my team," and are naturally glad to see someone putting themselves out for a candidate that they support as well. But some are politically uninformed, and are pleased to have someone bring information to their doorstep.

So what do you say to the person opening the door? Just about anything, as long as it contains "Hi, I'm a volunteer for Candidate X." The campaign will give you a script beforehand anyway, but will also tell you that you're free to deviate from it (and I generally do). They will often suggest that you ask the person what's important to him or her. Posing this question is not just a strategic move, but a service that you are doing on behalf of both the voters and the campaign: you're helping them hear each other. This is marketing at its best. However, it can come across as weaselly if you don't feel comfortable asking the question, or if the voter is skeptical. In that case, feel free to simply say briefly what you like most about the candidate. You're probably not going to have time to launch into anything comprehensive anyway, so the thing that stands out most in your mind is probably the best. In any case, the person behind the door will probably collapse your message into a mental note "Nice person - seems sincere - made the effort to show up - supports Obama - maybe I will, too." Hence the overwhelming importance of just showing up.

Many doorbells will go unanswered, either because no one's home (common) or because no one wants to admit to being home (more rare). But you can leave a brochure ("drop lit"), perhaps with a handwritten line, to show you've been there. Hopefully, that will register a positive note in the same part of the brain where the face-to-face encounter would be stored.

Of course, there will be plenty of people who do not see your bringing the good news to their doorstep as a service. They view their house as a sanctuary and resent any intrusion, no matter how fleeting. Or they may even support the other candidate. But they will generally register annoyance, not anger.

I've found that surprisingly rarely, about once in every two days of canvassing, I run into someone who is memorably nasty. Sometimes, though, there's a humorous aspect to the encounter, or the incident will provide me with some insight. I remember knocking on a door to tell someone I was a volunteer for Kerry, only to have him tell me "Well, I'm for Bush. Four more years! Four more years!" In this case, I was able to acquire both insight (hmmm, some voters really do think like football fans) and get a chuckle out of the encounter (at the other guy's expense, of course).

You may also find people who are disposed to vote for your candidate, but will complain to you about what s/he has done. They may feel shut out of the democratic process, and inclined to boycott the election or vote for another candidate. I will not be surprised if I meet some educated canvassers who are disappointed with Obama over his FISA vote, for instance. My response would probably be along these lines: "I'll pass that along. I'm disappointed, too, and that's why I also put time into efforts for improving our electoral system, not just backing a single candidate every four years. But I've also decided that in the big picture, I ultimately empower myself by supporting the best candidate. Obama would be a good president, and McCain would be a very bad one." But even if this does not convince them to vote as I would like, I feel like I've made a stride for my mental health as well as theirs. I've allowed them to make their voice heard. And I've asserted my free will. I'm saying that despite the imperfections of our political system, I am choosing the best I can do at this moment. I am making a positive choice, a commitment.

So this Saturday, I will be treating myself to a day on the streets of New Hampshire. What about you?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Links for "Uncounted" Folks

Just came back from a local showing of "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections". I promised people in the audience the following links on election integrity:

dKosopedia: Voting Rights
dKosopedia: Election integrity timeline

Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Bill (H.R. 5036) (sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt, D, NJ-12)
Amendment (H.R. 811) to the Help America Vote Act (also sponsored by Rep. Holt)

Brad Friedman, featured in the movie, publishes the Brad Blog, which focuses primarily on election integrity.

For people in Rep. Ed Markey's district (MA-7), the contact info for his aide on election issues, Patrick Lally, is as follows:
E-mail address: patrick.lally@mail.house.gov
(781) 396-2900 (Medford office)
(508) 875-2900 (Framingham office)

Jonathan Simon, the expert on discrepancies of votes vs. exit polls who was featured in the movie, is a co-founder of the Election Defense Alliance, which streams regularly at Election Defense Radio.

Speaking of radio, see:

dKosopedia: Progressive radio stations
dKosopedia: Progressive radio timeline

You can find information on streaming progressive talk at Liberal Talk Radio. One progressive talk show host who has emphasized election integrity issues is Thom Hartmann.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beyond paralysis

Yesterday, I read an arousing Daily Kos diary, HOW TO BE A CLIMATE HERO (which had been crossposted from Truth and Progress, a very worthwhile action-oriented blog). The author, Audrey Schulman, described breaking through her fellow passengers' paralysis in order to bring help to a woman who was undergoing a seizure aboard a train. She found the scene strikingly evocative of her attempts to counter the inertia she has encountered regarding the issue of climate disruption.

Audrey alluded to the Bystander Effect, in which people's willingness to take action in the face of a crisis is eroded by the sight of others' inactivity. The most famous example is probably the case of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and murdered despite the presence of observers (though many were not fully aware of what was happening). Phil Ochs' chilling song "A Small Circle of Friends" was inspired by the episode.

I had a similar experience as a teenager when I was participating in a state music festival. A crowd of us happened to witness a woman running down the street pursued by a man. At one point, she turned to us and screamed "Could somebody do something?" Nothing seemed to happen. I turned half-heartedly to an apathetic teacher and asked him whether he thought something could be done, and was oddly relieved when he responded noncommittally. We all seemed happy to brush away the episode. I didn't think of it again until my friend Julia, who had been there, read aloud in class an essay she had written about it. Since then, it has occurred to me again and again. I've replayed it in my mind, sometimes in a speculative updated form (would things have been different if I'd had had a cell phone?). Perhaps it was in the back of my head when, as an adult, I intervened on behalf of a child being bullied in my neighborhood (description here).

A number of commenters, though they appreciated Audrey's point, pointed out that the analogy was simplistic. In the case of climate disruption, they pointed out, many people were effectively being paid to ignore the problem, which had not happened in the scene on the train. Audrey readily agreed, but felt that her basic analogy still held.

In fact, a compelling call to arms often simplifies the stimulus for action. For instance, the organizer Saul Alinsky, in his book Rules for Radicals, points to the way the framers of the Declaration of Independence alluded only to how the British government had mistreated the colonists, not to the help it had given them. Alinsky felt that this partial representation of the facts was justified because the rebels' overall goal of liberty for the greatest number of people could only be realized if they were able to goad the masses into action. In Alinsky's deliberately provocative view, only those interested in preserving the status quo will raise questions as to whether the ends justify the means. I'm not sure I agree, but his presentation certainly made me think, and that (in a nicely self-referential way) was undoubtedly what he was after.

Having said that, however, I want to bring up one complication that went unmentioned by Audrey and her commenters. I believe that when we decide whether to get involved in a cause, we perform a calculation (conscious or subconscious) that includes not only the importance of a problem, not only the total time we have available, but the difference we feel we can make and the fit between our skills and the problem we're attacking, and of course our personal contacts with the people involved.

For many of us, the path to personal involvement in politics often begins with work for a candidate. We hear about campaigns all the time and we know they need workers. In my case, it was Howard Dean's campaign that introduced me to politics, and reintroduced me to activism. But I soon became interested in election integrity as well. As I saw it, the only way I could truly defend the environment was to help bring in a pro-environmental president, and that, in turn, could only be done if we had trustworthy elections. I volunteered for Verified Voting, where among other tasks, I helped test the interface for the Election Incident Reporting System. This was a nice match between my software engineering skills and my interest. Unfortunately, the work ended with the 2004 election, where the reports collected via EIRS were mostly ignored. I tried to get involved with the effort to push Rush Holt's paper ballot bills, but became disillusioned when their opponents (on all parts of the political spectrum) managed to stall the legislation. Finally, in late 2006, when Boston's progressive talk was forced off the radio, I found myself involved with a group of people in my own community. It was much more compelling to contribute my time and skills to real "neighbors" whom I could meet in person, and it felt as though we could get somewhere with our attempt to have some effect on media to break the stranglehold that we'd seen from the 90s on. Now that that effort has entered a slower phase, I find myself once again circling around the activist world, looking for the right way to get involved. It's very much like a job search.

Throughout this process, I believe we need to rely on the postulate that we can be most helpful by finding the places where we are the best fit and relying on others to take on the causes that we individually, in our limited capacity, cannot. In that process, we will form connections with people and causes whom we feel especially drawn to, and given the right opportunity, we will join those causes. In the meantime, we will publicize the work they are doing. So while it may take me some time to find the best way to get involved in the fight to mitigate climate disruption (wouldn't it be great to dust off the science I abandoned so long ago?), I appreciate those who are already doing noble work in not allowing us to simply stand by. Thanks, Audrey!