Ezra Klein Nails It–Again

I’ve been pondering this January column by Ezra Klein ever since I read it, and especially since I’ve been involved in efforts to encourage political engagement. Klein began by quoting a paragraph by Eltan Hersh that described a day in the life of those he calls political obsessives:

I refresh my Twitter feed to keep up on the latest political crisis, then toggle over to Facebook to read clickbait news stories, then over to YouTube to see a montage of juicy clips from the latest congressional hearing. I then complain to my family about all the things I don’t like that I have seen.

To Hersh, that’s not politics. It’s what he calls “political hobbyism.” And it’s close to a national pastime. “A third of Americans say they spend two hours or more each day on politics,” he writes. “Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute of that time is spent on any kind of real political work. It’s all TV news and podcasts and radio shows and social media and cheering and booing and complaining to friends and family.

As Klein emphasized, fury is useful only as fuel.

Fury should have allowed us to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. That didn’t happen. But in order to protect democracy, we have to make sure the country’s local electoral machinery isn’t corrupted–and that will require real political work.

What would that work look like? Klein reports on a conversation he had with Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party; Wikler reported that he spends his days

obsessing over mayoral races in 20,000-person towns, because those mayors appoint the city clerks who decide whether to pull the drop boxes for mail-in ballots and small changes to electoral administration that could be the difference between winning Senator Ron Johnson’s seat in 2022 (and having a chance at democracy reform) and losing the race and the Senate. Wikler is organizing volunteers to staff phone banks to recruit people who believe in democracy to serve as municipal poll workers, because Steve Bannon has made it his mission to recruit people who don’t believe in democracy to serve as municipal poll workers.

I’ll say this for the right: They pay attention to where the power lies in the American system, in ways the left sometimes doesn’t. Bannon calls this “the precinct strategy,” and it’s working. “Suddenly, people who had never before showed interest in party politics started calling the local G.O.P. headquarters or crowding into county conventions, eager to enlist as precinct officers,” ProPublica reports. “They showed up in states Trump won and in states he lost, in deep-red rural areas, in swing-voting suburbs and in populous cities.”

As Klein points out, Democrats pay attention to–and send their dollars to –high-profile races, many of which are hopeless (Amy McGrath) and neglect the local, winnable contests that matter a lot more than most Americans realize.

“If you want to fight for the future of American democracy, you shouldn’t spend all day talking about the future of American democracy,” Wikler said. “These local races that determine the mechanics of American democracy are the ventilation shaft in the Republican death star. These races get zero national attention. They hardly get local attention. Turnout is often lower than 20 percent. That means people who actually engage have a superpower. You, as a single dedicated volunteer, might be able to call and knock on the doors of enough voters to win a local election.”

And that brings me back to Klein’s initial observation that fury is only good if it fuels action.

According to Hersh’s research, a third of Americans admit to spending two hours or more each day on politics. Four out of five of those people don’t spend even one minute of that time  on any kind of real political work. Instead, it’s “TV news and podcasts and radio shows and social media and cheering and booing and complaining to friends and family.”

Many years ago, a group of us who were active in the GOP were expressing our concerns about changes that were beginning to be evident in the party–especially the growing dominance of fundamentalist Christians. A friend of mine–a Republican lobbyist–said it was the fault of the “normal” Republicans who’d welcomed the willingness of the fundamentalists to do the “grunt work”–the phone banks, registration drives, and door-to-door canvassing– that we were too busy (or lazy) to do. And pretty soon, the “troops” that were doing what Klein calls “the real political work” controlled the party.

The other day, I posted about the need to “get off the couch.” Let me add: get off  Twitter and social media, and use your fury as fuel for real political action.


  1. You’re right. As soon as some of the snow melts, I’m driving down to the Colorado Democratic Committee office (About 4 miles away) and find some work.

  2. The Republicans have been playing the long game for the past decade or so, and it sure is paying off for them. Hopefully the Dems will learn the lesson and start doing the same thing, although it will take a decade or so to catch up. In the meantime, we will have to pay the cost for neglecting the Common Person by enduring what the two M’s will be doing. Karma is indeed a harsh task-master.

  3. Ezra doesn’t live in a reality where people require motivation to get off their arses. Their oligarchy doesn’t hire the Democratic Party to fire up the people with anything that would benefit them.

    Or, should I say, they’ve not followed through on their promises, so people are unmotivated even to cast a ballot (think Charlie Brown staring at the football once again).

    The Democratic Party couldn’t even deliver on child poverty, yet they all jumped in line to giveaway corporate cash and extra dollars to the war machine for the oligarchs.

    I may join the truckers hauling their asses from LA to Washington. Let’s all drive up there and surround the place, kicking every thief out of the building and setting up an honest government from Washington all the way back to the local municipality.

  4. Getting actually involved instead of pontificating from the the bleachers? Wow! What a concept.

  5. I’m the Treasurer of my county party and am the Democrat member of the county election board. That being said, we have less than ten people that attend our monthly meetings. Many have moved out of this extremely rural area for jobs to replace the one that were moved to Mexico. About six of us meet more frequently to try to come up with ways to encourage more Democrats and also younger people to get engaged politically. So far, our time and efforts haven’t accomplished much. It does get depressing because we feel like we are beating ojr heads against a brick wall. None of us that are politically active are independently wealthy enough to be able to donate enough money to hire young people to energize the local party. Let’s face it – money talks.

    The death of the union jobs destroyed the Democrat party in rural areas like mine. In fact, there are several people employed in the courthouse that switched to the republican party to keep their jobs or to obtain an elected position. You can be the most respected and most qualified citizen in this county to run for office, but if you are not running on the republican ticket you will lose to any clown that does. We have a judge and three other elected officials that used to be Democrats, but switched parties to keep getting elected. People vote republican here because their family always has.

    The power of the republican party has risen over the past 20-30 years because they killed unions and then took ownership of or created “media sources”.

  6. Donate money!
    I must get 10 emails a day asking for me to donate to the Democratic party! At one time a long time ago I used to do that. And realized, I was wasting my money.

    The right wing uses religious zealotry to accomplish the same goal, and we all know what that is. Power! The Nazis did the same thing, the Boxers and the Bolsheviks did the same thing. Zealots in the political realm using religion as a fuel, seem to have a limitless amount of faith. The faith that tells them if they keep it up they will win and have the power! But not the sort of faith that produces empathy and compassion for your fellow man.

    You want to solve the problem? Start filing lawsuits against these Evangelical leaders who are claiming to be emissaries of Christ and point out that they are not following teachings of christ, therefore they can’t be that particular sort of church. Then say that church should be dissolved or converted into a political organization which can be taxed.

    You want to jam a thorn in their side? That’s the way to do it.

    Remember, Christ told Pontius Pilate that his source of power and his kingdom were not earthly. So, love your neighbor? Love your enemy? Do not judge your fellow man? Show empathy and compassion to your fellow man? I think it’s a slam dunk in the courts.

  7. The Republicans have been playing the long game for decades. Today’s version of the GOP is an extension of the Nixon party and that was derived from the anti communist post WWII. Is there anyone on this blog who thinks it was just a coincidence that the man who led the charge for the House Un-American Affairs Committee was the only one with the creds to go to China and open that market to the US?

    The Democrats have waited far too long to awaken to the game. Better get busy with registering new voters, or kiss it all goodbye.

  8. I’m curious as to whether you actually knock on doors yourself. I have done so for the last 6 years and I’m old and tired. Some of the local politicians that I helped get into office, all Dems, turned out to be corrupt. Very happy in what was my Congressman Mike Levine and very happy that we kicked Darrell Issa out only to see him go run in a different district. With redistricting, I now have a corrupt Dem who cares more for corporate dollars than he does doing right by his constituents. I can see why Dems who were active in the party are now not happy and not volunteering,

  9. Best blog of the year….per my favorite Alaska governor – “you betcha!”

    From 5 years of political work, I offer the following “lessons learned”:
    – “Natural gerrymandering” is real. People are moving to and living near people who think like they do”. If you live in Trumpworld…don’t beat your head against the wall.

    – Supporting “progressive” candidates/policies in competitive areas only empowers the Right. We tracked 21 of them who won US House primaries in 2020. All lost and all lost by a larger margin than a more centrist candidate in the same district in 2018.

    – People who regularly vote typically vote for the incumbent or the party. The way to move the needle is to convince those who don’t always vote to do so. Who are they? Minorities and young people.

    – Contact is powerful; peer-to-peer contact is powerful squared. A voter is MUCH more likely to pay attention to a call, knock, email or text from someone they know or know of than a stranger.

  10. In my highly gerrymandered state, my Democrat state representative, or senator, has little power or voice in the Republican supermajority legislature, but when garbage starts coming out of the sausage factory that is our state legislator, I have taken the time on several occasions to do enough research to find out what committee these garbage bills have been assigned to and send emails to all of the members of the committee.

    I am not sure this has any effect. I have never gotten a response from anybody. I have seen bills die in committee, or be amended, who knows. It took me a long time to realize that it is often the various committees that do the real work in the state legislature, because NOBODY taught me this in school.

    I like the idea of doing grass roots work at the local level. At least at this level I might get some feedback and satisfaction.

  11. Dan and all…

    Unfortunately , unlike in the past, most legislators (especially at state/national levels) ignore phone calls and messages. I can’t blame them -so many are not really individual concerns; rather , they are campaigns by interests.

  12. I think that it’s important to maintain focus on two seperate fields of study, governance and politics. Politics only determines who governs over what time frame. Governance is what we pay them to do.

    One of the main things that defines the GOP as a political fraternity is that they only care about politics which is to say that they spend no times considering governance. Their lack of a platform is sufficient evidence of that. The Democrats, on the other hand, are a governance institution.

    Now the question is should the Democrat Party move towards the Republican Party? I personally would hate to see them compromise their job just to stay elected but perhaps the GOP has redefined democracy as the sole business of parties so Democrats have to do the same in order to get power to govern.

    Putin showed us in 2016 how easy the balance of power is to tilt given the system of elections that was baked in, in order to continue slavery.

  13. Pete,

    Fortunately, right now, the majority of Americans do not highly respect the concept of “party” at all, since neither one seems to be concerned about their daily lives or operating efficiently, effectively or honestly in their behalf.

    The focus should be on electing better people, regardless of party to do governing. So, if Marjorie Taylor Greene were running against Adam Kitzinger in a heavily GOP district…wouldn’t it be worth it to do a bit of work for Adam?

  14. LL, good point. Effective governance requires both fields, politics and Sheila’s favorite topic, civil literacy. And of course motivation to serve society.

    It used to be that both parties knew and practiced that. Now it seems to me that Republicans more than Democrats vet candidates only by their donors. I suppose that’s really a hold over from business believing that it’s success is only measured, it seems now, but the flow of wealth away from workers, wealth concentration.

  15. Years ago when I lived in Perry Township in Marion County south of Indianapolis (a Republican enclave) we happened to have a Marion County Democratic Chairman who was also from Perry Township who appointed me as the get the vote out for our township. This is the background for my oft-stated notation these days that “I have been kicked off many a front porch.” My response to such hostility was always to go to the next house and knock on the door, refusing to be deterred by such neighbor’s insulting demeanor, such as: “Why, you’re a Democrat! Get the H off my property!” I don’t think we Democrats ever carried Perry Township but I like to think we reduced the carnage, and that was before the Republican Party went crazy. I can’t imagine how such door knocking would go these days of challenged elections and Putin worship (and unlicensed carry).

    Ezra is on to something, i.e., less clickbait and more door knocking and envelope-licking at Democratic offices. Republicans are out to elect those who count or otherwise supervise such counting of the votes, and look what our failure to emphasize down ballot voting gave us last cycle even as Biden won, to wit: a 50-50 split in the Senate just made for the debacle we are suffering from recalcitrant “Democratic” senators from Arizona and West Virginia, which suggests that we not only need to go door-knocking but also be more careful in choosing our candidates. We have work to do.

  16. No, Liz, the Republicans have been playing the long game since the 1970’s, just ask David Koch.
    Hey Dan, I do live in Trumpworld…granny with “Proud Deplorable” T-shirt, another one with Rambo-Trump poster covering not one,
    but 2 windows during the last election. There are still “Trump” signs/flags out.
    I have commented on the vicious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and it may still be passed, no…will be passed.
    The GQP is energized by agenda driven crazies of the religious sort, who want the world to look like it did in 1200 AD.
    They are joined by those of a secular conservative bent, who want the world to look like it did in 1200 AD. This, from Jill
    Lepore’s “These Truths:”
    Conservatism: In 1953’s “The Conservative Mind,” by Russell Kirk, defined conservatism as something that had “sustained
    men of conservative impulse in their resistance against radical theories and SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION (caps mine)
    ever since the beginning of the French Revolution.” “The liberal, Kirk argued, ‘sees ‘a world that damns tradition, exalts equality, and welcomes changes.” ‘ pg 555, “ These Truths,” by Jill Lepore. I guess it oughtn’t be surprising that many people are afraid of change, especially of the SOCIAL type. But, hey, a liberal “exalts equality?” He wrote that “civilized society requires orders and classes.” Gee,
    I wonder which class he belonged to…the entitled one, perhaps? And William F. Buckley Jr’s “National Review,” Buckley said, ”Stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” in his first issue.
    That’s their agenda, and it includes keeping classes, other than theirs, white, and male, down!
    We were here before: Lepore continues: “By the mid-50’s…McCarthyism abided: mean-spirited, vulgar and unhinged. McCarthy’s rise, the lunacy of his conspiracy theory, and the size of his following struck many observers as a symptom of a disease at the very heart of American politics.” pg. 557. How about at the very heart “of American culture?”

  17. I’ve joined Democrats Abroad to sign up for activities this coming election year. I’ve attended a virtual meeting and will attend March’s monthly meeting in town. GOTV get out the vote! Feet on the ground, let’s go!

    (I’m more confident living in a gun free zone. Be careful out there).

  18. Bill: Brief and spot-on! We all can remember the old saying, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” That one even rhymes, making it much easier to remember. There’s Todd Beamer’s likely last few words on that plane on 9/11, too. “Let’s roll!” So then….

  19. Substituting pseudo-activism for activism is an old problem.

    Remember the war against Franco?
    That’s the kind where each of us belongs
    Though he may have won all the battles
    We had all the good songs!
    — Folksong Army by Ton Lehrer

    After the 2008 elections, Obama had his volunteers do community service while my group organized to lobby for strong healthcare reform, recruit volunteers to run for local office, and created a PowerPoint presentation on the importance of the mid-term elections.

    While I always had a good relationship with Obama’s official group, the Democratic Party did not embrace either group. Once we proved that we knew about campaigns, their attitude changed, but not enough. They were slow to embrace new ideas or people.

    Lester – your second post is spot-on. I don’t think that spitting on “Progressives” and embracing “Moderates” is the answer. Remember – today’s “moderate” was yesterday’s “liberal”.

    Your second post nailed it – Getting “good” people, who know how to connect with others and dedicate themselves to serve is the answer. As an example, my brother’s first law partner was a former state senator from very conservative Dearborn, Michigan, but he was a “liberal”. He connected with the people and worked for their interests, so he got elected. When he got lazy, after two terms and quit attending local events, he seemed distant and lost. He could always justify his policy positions, but not his seeming disinterest. And yes, if you live in a Red district and you can support a “rational” Republican against a wacko, then you certainly should do that. Ideological “purity” is a foolish idea.

    Liz Shopes – I understand your frustration, but then you work to win the primary elections. I cut my political teeth supporting candidates in the primary elections that opposed sitting Democrats. I remember losing that first campaign (in the late ‘60s) to the UAW backed candidate. I also remember the UAW deciding that we were right and backing a “liberal” four years later (that meant pro-civil rights and pro-equal rights as well as pro-union).

  20. In this state with open carry a real threat to anyone who is considered “suspicious”, I will never do door-to-door registration or canvassing ever again, especially with all the Trump signs still up in the neighborhood.

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