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.