OCTOBER 30, 2017
I MOVED TO LOS ANGELES from Santa Barbara in the early 1980s to walk precincts. Or at least that’s how it appears to me now. I was interested in “getting into politics” and walking a precinct — the neighborhood area that determines where a person votes — was a way to earn your political stripes, not unlike working in the mail room at a Hollywood talent agency. Political worker bees could meet the candidates and learn how elections were run. Plus the donuts and coffee were free.
I went door to door for election campaigns from Norwalk to Boyle Heights, from Van Nuys to Inglewood. I learned a lot by knocking on doors and talking to strangers, primarily about the complex ways that voters process information.
All of us who walked precincts saw ourselves as the ground troops of the campaign — to use a military analogy. We were the grunts who harvested votes by moving door-to-door engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Political mail and TV ads constituted the “air war,” designed and launched from a distance by high-priced political consultants who used the same techniques that advertisers use to sell cars and toothpaste. We were the ones, we proudly told each other, who had the dented armor and battle scars, the psychic wounds of rejection that any door-to-door salesman acquires, but also the wisdom earned through face-to-face exchange.
One of the first things you learn when talking to people at their doorstep is that the issues campaign operatives think are most important may be far from what’s on voter’s minds.
The precinct walk sheets were the barest of guides to the voters I met. They told us the voter’s name, gender, political designation, whether they voted in the last few elections, and how many other registered voters were in the same household.
My first precinct walk sheet indicated one voter in Norwalk was a registered Democrat and a member of the Machinists Union, which represented workers in the Los Angeles aerospace industry.
I suggested to him that Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate I was supporting, in the 1984 presidential race, was pro-union and would protect his job. My economic arguments had no impact. He would support Mondale he said, because somehow he had discovered that Republican candidate Ronald Reagan was in favor of deer hunting and was therefore a threat to these vulnerable animals that he loved. I marked him down as a “yes” vote and walked to the next house wondering what other political oddities I would discover.
Political and cultural forensics took place as I walked through the neighborhood and approached each door. Could the stickers on their cars tell me anything about their passions or interests, their favorite sports teams or religious beliefs? Were there toys in the yard or a particular music coming from inside the home that could help me start a conversation? Like a novelist observing the everyday world, the precinct walker was better off if you saw them before they saw you.
In addition to learning how to make my way through the various communities in Los Angeles County, I also learned how to talk diplomatically. While I was young and fired with my own political beliefs, I intuitively understood that explicit statements about my own values would not get me very far. I learned how to speak in what sociologist Richard Sennett calls the “subjunctive mood,” using words like “possibly,” and “perhaps” and phrases like “I would have thought,” as a way to invite a stranger to join in a conversation.
The subjunctive way of speaking, which may seem evasive and politically calculating, came to feel less like a surrender than a language of openness to the beliefs and hesitations of others, a communicative approach less constrained by the rigidities of ideological certainty.
The early civil rights activists understood the same dynamic. John Lewis, currently a congressman from Atlanta, writes about his work as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. He remembers how he and other organizers approached the dangerous work of voter registration in Mississippi and Alabama, where civil rights volunteers faced violence and death from angry segregationists and their police allies.
In his autobiography Walking with the Wind, Lewis describes how the young SNCC volunteers reached out to people they did not know and who had been the victims of southern terror. We met people “on their terms, not ours,” Lewis writes. “Before we ever got around to sharing what we had to say, we listened.”
There were times for straightforward argument and aggression for sure — what Lewis calls a healthy and constructive anger — but when subtlety and imagination were needed, the early SNCC activists called upon powerful narrative resources and psychological patience in their daily challenges.
A number of recent commentators have lamented that one aspect of our current protest culture is that it diminishes the possibilities for meaningful and effective political action if there is no follow-up to protest. A controversial new book by professor Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal, condemns a certain type of “movement politics” that he believes is prevalent today where political activity must have an “authentic meaning for the self” that is “unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests.” How can the daily grind of mid-term congressional elections — fundraising, canvassing, registering voters — compete with the drama and purity of a movement stance, Lilla asks.
Lilla’s description has elements of caricature — tens of thousands of young people got involved in both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s presidential efforts, viewing them as electoral campaigns to be sure, but also as broader crusades for social justice. Many eschewed the presumed purity of movement culture and embraced the compromised world of electoral battle.
Even so, Lilla makes an important point. Eventually the energy and anger of protest has to be consolidated in changed laws and reformed institutions that are the result of the laborious process of party politics.
At the end of his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, pragmatist philosopher and essayist Richard Rorty came to a similar conclusion. When choosing between “movements and campaigns” Rorty argued, movement politics had too much of the aroma of religion, of monotheism, a singular and somewhat abstract “core” around which all other political phenomena circles. If participants in movements believe that things must be “changed utterly, that a terrible new beauty” must be born, campaigns are finite, plural, and impure. Campaigns, Rorty suggested, are polytheistic and “many sided,” like a good poem or novel. Engaging with the finite and messy nature of campaigns for concrete achievements, requires the ability to “internalize and tolerate oppositions,” a sign of psychological and political strength in a democracy.
Lilla’s and Rorty’s concerns are not new. Bayard Rustin, a peace and civil rights activist who was a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, wrote an essay in 1965 titled “From Protest to Politics.” Rustin had spent most of his life participating in protest and had a long track record of arrests for civil disobedience. But by 1965 — after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in response to civil rights movement protests — Rustin argued that the civil rights movement should leave behind the growing “posture” of militancy and embrace a progressive political coalition that would pursue a “conscious bid for political power.”
For Rustin, his strategy was “revolutionary” and “radical” because the demands that he believed should be made upon the system — full employment, abolition of the slums, a thorough restructuring of our educational system, and an end to segregated housing — required a fundamental transformation of the social and economic structure.
Those who think about politics primarily in moral terms, Rustin wrote, often believe that power corrupts and the people who hold power are doomed to abuse it. But the absence of power, Rustin pointed out, also corrupts, because it can drain people of energy and the ability to organize productively. The people who realize this truth most acutely and tragically are those who have never had power.
All good organizers must have a narrative of change, a forward-facing story that offers hope of improvement and carries a compelling interpretation of our collective actions. In another 1965 essay, literary critic Irving Howe acknowledged the courage and sacrifice of civil rights activists while wondering where they might find a “place in which to enlarge upon their gifts” once the protest part of their movement had dissipated. John Lewis found that place where he has held a seat since 1986, advocating for progressive legislation and continuing the tradition of civil disobedience.
I happened to be in Phoenix, Arizona, in August when President Trump was speaking there and promising to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I attended the rally outside the convention center where hundreds of protestors screamed at the Trump loyalists as they filed into the venue. Most of the anti-Trump crowd were young, many with witty signs devoted to their particular issue as well as the now obligatory caricatures depicting Trump as our Hitler.
There are a number of key congressional races that will take place in Arizona next year that are up for grabs, so I decided to ask half-a-dozen protestors if they would be working on behalf of the Democratic candidates in the upcoming elections — perhaps by walking a precinct. I pointed out that the Democrats have a real chance to gain a majority in the House next year and that, if they do, they could effectively neutralize Trump’s entire agenda. Two of the protesters refused to answer, three said they essentially didn’t believe in politics, and one did not know what a precinct was. I avoided the 15 or so black-clad Antifa (“anti-fascist”), the militant leftists whose confrontational tactics have triggered considerable controversy across the political spectrum.
This is anecdotal evidence of course and there seems to be growing in next year’s congressional races, but it reminded me that less than 50 percent of eligible millennials bothered to vote in 2016, and that it is crucial to find the places where protest and politics meet. I still go to my fair share of protest rallies and marches. But over the past few decades I’ve spent much more time engaged in the messy compromises of electoral politics, with its flawed candidates and the weekend precinct walks.
Keep going to protests by all means. You will see me in the streets too. Many of our best historians — Eric Foner, Clayborne Carson, and Michael Kazin — have traced the ways in which protest has, throughout American history, influenced public policy. Is there any doubt, for instance, that the heightened moral witness and public pressure of the civil rights movement influenced a key vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act by conservative Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen and other Republicans?
But it should also be recognized that mastery of the arcane procedures of legislative maneuver were also needed. Lyndon Baines Johnson biographer Robert Caro, writing about the Civil Rights Act, observes that the 1964 law passed because Johnson “knew all the tactics, devising many of them himself, thinking ahead to the tactics Russell [Georgia Senator Richard Russell Jr., who opposed Civil Rights legislation] would use to counter them and how those tactics could then be countered in turn.”
Martin Luther King Jr. told Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders in 1964 that “[d]emonstrations are tactics, not principles.” He understood that protest also requires a political strategy for accumulating the power necessary to change our laws and institutions.
There are seven congressional districts in California that Democrats have targeted that are currently held by Republicans but where Hillary Clinton garnered more votes than President Trump. The organization Swing Left has a list of the targeted seats. None of these seats are close to where I live. But come next year I know where I’ll be on weekends. I’ll lace up my tennis shoes, grab my clipboard, and drive to Orange County or San Diego to report for duty.
Going door to door in a strange neighborhood won’t be nearly as fun as the Women’s March. But if the Democrats take back Congress next November, watch how the political dynamics in Washington will shift overnight.
The “street” and the ballot box are not mutually exclusive domains of social struggle. They both are places where progress over individual rights — what Lilla denigrates as “identity” issues — and collective economic rights can take place. Bringing together issues of race, gender, and class in a successful political strategy has been historically rare, a political and sociological whole “that has proven to be one of the most elusive identities in American history,” as labor historian Jefferson Cowie points out.
But if we see race, gender, and class not as reified categories but as part of our complex lived experience, we can better understand how when marbled together they can result in some unpredictable political behavior. It’s an important lesson I learned decades ago going door to door on the campaigns that introduced me to the diversity of Los Angeles.
Recent polling conducted by labor and other progressive groups of swing and “drop-off” voters — those who do not have a strong party affinity and vote irregularly — indicates that a simple message of “resistance” to Trump is not an effective campaign theme. At least not in the congressional districts that are up for grabs next November. These potential voters who are crucial for winning, are “economically aspirational,” looking for concrete help on housing, jobs, and healthcare while remaining skeptical about whom, if anyone, can deliver those things.
With a resurgent labor movement that has defied the national trend of union decline, California has the ability to bridge some of the chasms that have bedeviled our country’s political history. If we find good candidates and tamp down the intra-party absolutist positioning, we can provide at least one example of a politically viable template for the rest of the nation.
If my activist friends in Los Angeles are serious about stopping the damage that President Trump is inflicting upon our nation, I believe, they should pile in their cars and head to one of these swing districts too.