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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The road back, continued

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 23rd, 2004

I’ve come across another couple of Mother Jones articles worth reading, via Blog for America.* The first one, “Life of the Party,” by Michael Kazin, had a lot of good points, but I want to highlight one good general point and one good specific one. The general one was about the decline of labor:

Since the 1960s, the decline of organized labor has eaten away at the Democratic Party’s populist foundation. Strong unions didn’t just furnish Democrats with an ample supply of precinct workers. They established social class, rather than faith or “moral values,” as the crucial difference between their party and the GOP.

This echoes one of the principal points of a great book I’ve just read, Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The book has been viewed by some as a diagnosis of red-state-itis; that’s true in some ways, but it’s really more about how a national disease has progressed furthest in places like Kansas — Frank’s home state, and the one he can report about best. The disease flourishes in places where unions seem to have lost their last footholds, and Democrats have little to offer people who separate “business” from “politics” about the same way many Democrats do: business cycles and practices are forces of nature, politics is about everything else — abortion, Hollywood, liberal elites, and so forth.

Kazin’s specific point might have been a little mundane, but it’s a practical illustration of a moribund organization that I could vouch for, too:

I spent Election Day making calls from my Washington suburb to inner-city Clevelanders whom the Democrats believed to be currently registered. The list I was given was rotten with the deceased and the departed. At least half the phone numbers on it were wrong.

I had much the same experience day in and day out, both at Kerry’s headquarters and on the final day of the campaign at the AFL-CIO phone bank. Now some of this is to be expected, but it persisted well into the GOTV phase, and led me to believe the phone number lists are not well maintained between elections and not very well processed during campaigns either.

And if the lists were bad at those two locations, they weren’t going to be great elsewhere, either. I did a bit of phonebanking at Harrisburg after coming back from the door to door canvass. Again: way too many wrong numbers, disconnected numbers, strongly pro-Bush voters — especially at that point in the campaign, with only days left before the election. Kazin speaks aptly of a movement that was “haphazardly coordinated and badly in need of the direction only a strong, motivated party can provide.” There’s too much emphasis on brief, unsustained bursts of energy, and not enough on the long, patient accumulation of strength. Phone lists should be culled, refreshed, sorted, and evaluated every quarter, not every four years.

Todd Gitlin’s “A Gathering Swarm” provided the flip side of that assessment. Call it the early days of a better nation, or at least a better Democratic Party. Using Scranton, Pennsylvania as his example, he described the sense of enthusiasm and getting-back-togetherism of what he calls “machine” and “movement”– the old Democratic Party union stalwarts and new anti-Bush enthusiasm.

Volunteers fell into distinct issue camps. Locals tended to care most about jobs seeping away; visitors were more preoccupied with Iraq. But during canvassing expeditions, they all stuck to the discipline — don’t get involved in heavy discussions on the block, just figure out which way people are leaning and move on.

Gitlin summarizes:

There was a rising. It was defeated, but it was not a figment of a utopian’s imagination. It was a popular upwelling. An actual movement is not only a sum of names, mobilizations, celebrity riffs. It is the sum of acts undertaken by persons who, one at a time, feel called in a thousand little ways to do something.

Amen. But there was also this bit of truth:

This year’s mobilization was galvanized by a rare convergence of two huge circumstances: a grand emergency combined with a live chance that focused interventions might just avail. Before Election Day, on one of those effervescent days when the stream of volunteers was steady and strong and a Kerry presidency did not seem hallucinatory, I asked a number of Scranton visitors whether they could imagine turning out to lobby, say, for health care legislation stuck in a recalcitrant Congress, or for some other liberal objective. A few said yes, but many more said, realistically, no. And that was under an optimal assumption.

That will need to change. On a related note, I wholeheartedly approve of Josh Marshall’s idea of punishing any elected Democrats who support Bush’s Social Security abolition plans, by denying them funding and even opposing them in primaries. And I’ll put some money down on that the first chance I get. But more importantly, I want to support Democrats who will fight Bush on this. How do I do that? Where do I sign up? How do we do it?

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* BfA poster Tara Liloia says you’ll need to use the access code access code “MJCH5A” to read these articles by Thursday.

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