Voter apathy and how we can “rock” the system

By Chris Horton

Retreat of the “Obama voters”

I’ve participated in 10 election campaigns in the past seven years, including President Obama’s, and the voters – my neighbors, many of them – have taught me a lot. The regular people of our city and commonwealth, are fed up with politics. “Black” or “white,” native or immigrant, Republican, Independent or Democrat, we’re all fed up. On the bread and butter issues like Social Security, Medicare, jobs, war and peace, who should pay the taxes and not letting the banks take our homes and drive us to ruin, most of us agree. But what we want doesn’t seem to matter. So a majority of the people in Worcester have just given up on voting.

And who can blame them? We keep re-electing a great Congressman, yet things keep getting worse. We elected – and hopefully will re-elect – a young, populist mayor, yet things seem to stay the same. And we turned out in near-record numbers to elect a dynamic young President who talks like the second coming of Jesus. Yet things keep getting worse.

So why bother?

When Grace Ross campaigned for City Council a few years ago, our strategy was to find the people who don’t usually vote but who had turned out to vote for Obama. I went door to door talking to these “Obama voters,” and I caught an earful. Many agreed that we need a change in City Hall and that Grace sounded really good, but on the day of decision the Obama voters stayed home. The most common reason I heard for not voting was … Obama! I heard many versions of “We turned out and voted for Hope and Change and what did we get? Nothing!” More proof that voting doesn’t matter, that politicians are all lying to us, that once they get into office they’ll get sucked into the system and forget about us, and anyway they can’t change anything.

(The number two reason cited by people was the city pools! Over 600 people turned out for the public hearings the City Council organized. Hundreds spoke and nearly every one wanted all the old pools repaired. Yet the City Council turned around and voted for the City Manager’s one-pool plan as though the hearings had never happened! I would argue “that’s why we need Grace on the city council.” Some would nod and agree, but what they were really saying was “why bother voting?

It’s not apathy! It’s a boycott!

Do people care? They know a lot about what’s going on in Worcester. They’re concerned. They care enough to show their anger! And they’re clear about why they’re not voting! They, and sometimes their parents and their grandparents before them, are making a point. They’ve been boycotting the elections, for generations! They suspended their boycott to vote for Obama – and the result has confirmed their worst fears. So now they say they’re all done!

And yet, vote we must, so long as we still have that right. Not just to elect people who will truly represent us, but also for getting organized and learning how to stick up for ourselves and for each other.

Elections are times when people come together to talk about all the issues we face, to talk about programs and ideas that will bring us together, the times when we see how all of our struggles are part of a bigger picture. We need those conversations. We need to learn how to use elections to get together, to get organized, to build unity and community. But how?

Stop doing what doesn’t work!

The things people are doing to get elected these days are the very things most regular folk are sick of. If we want a different result from elections we need to admit what isn’t working and let go of it.

First, television spots, slick post cards, robo-calls, but most especially phone banking – volunteers calling computer-generated lists of most likely voters – may swing some of the usual voters, but are such a turn-off to most regular folks that they only increase the level of disgust and non-participation. Even door to door work in other people’s neighborhoods is pretty useless these days. People are only going to be moved by someone with whom they have some kind of connection.

Second, words aren’t enough. The candidate reaching us with his or her message isn’t enough. No one can top Obama for great speeches. Heck, he got a Nobel Prize for his speeches! But as my Grandma used to say, “Words butter no parsnips.” We’re so done with speeches and promises! We need campaigns that call us to action, to do something, to make a change, win or lose on election day.

Third, campaigns are not enough. Campaigns that are the personal property of the candidate, campaigns that end on election day, build nothing. Campaigns that put all the information gathered in a drawer, all the networks they built forgotten until the candidate decides to run again are a kind of theft from all the people who contribute to them, who go out organizing for them! That has to stop!

Finally, campaigns that pit the people who choose to run against each other have to go. In the City Council race of 2009, progressives Grace Ross, Kola Afolabi, Mary Keefe and Joe O’Brien ran for City Council, competing for resources and volunteers. If everyone who worked on their campaigns had worked to get all four elected, if they had coordinated, all three would have won. Instead, only O’Brien won, mostly with support from the usual voters.
O’Brien lives in District 4, and campaigned there. So the “Obama voters,” the ones who didn’t turn out for Grace, didn’t turn out for him either! Unless he can help change that, his base is shaky.
So how do we build a different kind of campaign?

First, every campaign should be real community organizing, real relationship building. Door to door canvassers should look for potential leaders on each block and get them together with the candidate; then support them in talking to their neighbors, talking over the issues, setting up events to meet the candidate and then geting each other out to the polls.

Organizers should be finding and drawing in the natural leaders in the District from every group and organization, getting conversations going in workplaces, community centers, religious and social communities, unions, finding ways to draw everyone’s interests together around the campaign.

Second, the campaign should organize people to struggle and win concrete things they need, during the campaign! Maybe including dramatic actions like stopping an eviction, a sit-in at City Hall until they vote to do something they promised, or a community takeover of an abandoned building! This makes clear what the election is about, not just issues, but power. Our power to make things happen when we stand together.

Third, campaigns should be about building grass-roots organizations that stand for something and belong to the members. Campaigns should belong to the people, and continue on from election to election and in-between. They should leave behind ward-level, precinct-level and block-level organizations, with precinct and block captains who will stay connected to their neighbors, lead them in struggles to stop an eviction or keep a food pantry open, and to hold the people we elected to account!

The walking lists, databases and notes – or copies of them – should stay with this organization and with the campaigners. When the next election comes around the office-holder should have to go back to us for support. So the officeholder would feel the need to keep coming back to the campaigners, coming to our ward and precinct and block meetings to explain themselves and take instructions from the people about how to vote!

Last, this great grass-roots organization, with block committees and precinct committees throughout the city, should decide who runs for us, and would become the ready-made kernal of thir campaign!

The way we’re doing it now is stupid and wrong. With all respect for some very good people we’ve elected that are trying to do their best, it’s not real democracy.

The challenge; rebuilding our democracy

Once upon a time we had parties that had a mass base. They were called Machines by the press, their leaders were called Ward Bosses, their activists were called Ward Heelers. The “reformers” – folks with money, mostly – organized to do away with them by making local elections – the heart of politics – “non-partisan.” Those “machines” were not democratic enough and were often corrupted, but they connected working people and their government every day, and turned working people out to vote.

Those “machines” elected Franklin Roosevelt four times, and helped win the New Deal. Boy, could we use some of that now!

We need something like that but controlled by the members. We could try rebuilding the Democratic Party, but the non-partisan election law may force us to build outside of it. A political movement that will give people a voice, connect us with each other and with our government, and draw all our other movements together. One that will require the politicians answer to and work with us, not just on election day but every day.
So my challenge to all the candidates for this City Council race is this: Build your campaign to last. Build it around connecting people, not just with you, but with each other, with our neighbors and all the leaders among us. Build it by design to go on fighting for our needs between elections, win or lose, with your leadership so long as you go on earning it. Fighting for things like stopping the foreclosures and saving Medicare and Social Security and saving or making jobs and making sure no one goes to bed hungry. Build it so it can resume campaigning for the candidate of its own choice in the elections next year and the year after that and the year after that.

Give it its freedom, and then go on being the leader we would choose again!

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