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The Democrats Where I’m From

THE LAST QUESTION of the night came from a man who kept his freckled arms folded tightly across his chest. I was standing toward the back of the room, hands in pockets, hoping not to be seen.

This group had been silent, mostly, besides the approving murmurs that signaled when Max Della Pia was hitting his notes. It was only my second day with his campaign — a run for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 23rd Congressional District — but it seemed like the evening was going well. Seven or eight questions had already been asked. They were the standard-issue declarations of moral outrage that are common among liberals of a certain age and inclination. Everyone’s just gone crazy or something to that effect.

Each person asked their question like they had been holding it in for weeks. Some asked about policy, but most just seemed interested in being heard. There was a lot of worry and a bit of anger. Mostly, though, there was the general sense that it really was quite a relief to be among people who were feeling the same way.

Max’s tone was conversational, although he wore a suit and tie, which was at least three degrees more formal than anyone else in the room. As each question was asked, he would nod carefully then begin slowly tracing a small pentagon with his feet while he spoke. His answers were gentle, mostly concerned with affirming the emotion that had been laid out in front of him. I’m not sure what I had expected from the event, but I was first shocked by the vulnerability of the whole thing.

As we inched closer to 8:00 p.m., people had begun to get visibly restless, no doubt remembering the remaining contents of their weekday evening. Recognizing that this would likely be his last chance, the man asked his question like he had tucked it in his back pocket before he left home. He cleared his throat — having diligently listened to the candidate make his case, he had the appearance of someone who was ready to get to the heart of some issue. In a level voice that echoed off cement walls, he made his demand.

“Thank you for your time, sir, but I have to ask: what the hell makes you any different from the rest of them?”

For the first time that night, I saw a wide gulf open up between Max and the crowd in front of him. Suddenly there was no shared catharsis, no vulnerable sameness. There was simply a candidate and a room full of voters, viewing each other at a distance. No magic set of facts Max could offer about himself would bridge the expectation of dishonesty and difference that had been placed between him and the people before him.

During the month I worked for Max, I heard him asked hundreds of questions. I listened as strangers lobbed aggression and anxiety at his open ears, heard people describe their life’s story and ask him what he planned to do about it. I don’t remember any question like I remember this one. It wasn’t confrontational, but earnest in a way that’s hard to capture, and it didn’t ask anything unusual or profound. Yet in a way that was jarringly direct, it spoke a mix of emotion that was absolutely ordinary and seemingly universal.

¤

The incumbent Republican, who the winner of the primary would face, is Tom Reed, who has occupied the seat since the district was redrawn in 2011. He’s a typical conservative in today’s sense — loyal to the president and a consistent vote for the Republican majority. In 2012, he won a tight race, but earned double-digit victories in the two elections since. This isn’t a testament to his political acuity, although he has managed to avoid any major scandal. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district by about 50,000 registered voters, and despite stretching over 200 miles, it is carefully drawn to avoid any major cities.

It isn’t the type of district to end up on any red-to-blue list. Voters here chose Trump by double figures, and our politics were gripped with the same sort of angry disaffection that seems to color a large subsection of his support. The district doesn’t look like the gilded Republican suburbs that national Democrats seem to think they can convert. So the Democrats here don’t often expect to do much winning.

That night’s event was in Candor, which is a town that emerges gradually around a visitor. There’s a town line, which announces itself on a bright green sign, but this is really just a technicality. The houses lining Route 96, which snakes up New York’s Southern Tier, steadily increase in frequency before the speed limit drops and the road is suddenly dotted with municipal buildings. A school, a church, a library, and a town hall. There’s no clear moment when you enter the town, no busy Main Street or clustered suburban cul-de-sacs. But of course, at some point, you do realize you’re passing through a place where people live together. Then the houses dissipate, the speed limit shoots back up, and you’re back to driving between things.

Although I grew up a liberal college town in the eastern part of the district, I am a visitor in towns like Candor. My hometown has been largely spared the economic suffering felt by much of the region. Its economy is driven by two large universities, which allowed it to escape the worst effects of the transition away from industrial manufacturing. Moreover, because of the universities, its community is both more diverse and affluent than those of that surround it. All told, the infrastructure of my upbringing was just wholly different from that of a kid living 30 miles away. I did play sports, make friends, and spend time in the communities that fill the rest of the district. More than anywhere else, this is where I’m from, which carries all the meaning we tend to bake into that. This is all to say that the observations I made during the course of my work for Max’s campaign are colored by a half-familiarity stemming from a partially shared experience.

The basement of the Candor Free Library is naturally 68 degrees, no matter the season. It is a dry fluorescent cave, with a floor made of concrete or linoleum or some other hard and chilly material. Scattered around the outside of the room is a mix of bookshelves and boxes, both filled with the kind of things you expect to find in a room that plays a variety of roles. There are some art supplies, some paper plates, and a handful of board games in well-worn cardboard boxes. Long plastic tables were arranged into three rows in the center of the room, and lined with metal folding chairs. One small round table held an assortment of hand-wrapped baked goods and miniature water bottles. Walking in about halfway through the event, I found roughly 25 people quietly fixated on the man at the front of the room. The average age of the group was about 65, which is to be expected, if also mourned.

It was, to put it bluntly, an absolutely dull and totally pedestrian place to be. Yet here were 25 people, totally happy to spend their weekday evening in this mundane, fluorescent room, hearing from one of five candidates in a congressional primary. I’m a part of an age group that avoids electoral politics en masse, and a national culture that distrusts the political process as a matter of instinct. I’ve also worked on a handful of campaigns, each of which placed me in rooms like this one on an almost daily basis. As a result, I have found myself asking and re-asking: why the hell did these people show up?

I think that’s why I can’t let go of that man’s last question of the night.

The question carried a certain cynicism that kept most people away from events like these — the baked-in expectation that most politics is garbage or that campaigns are purely transactional — but it also held an uncommon curiosity that might explain what drew someone out on a Wednesday after dinner. That is, the simple optimism that sometimes, maybe, a candidate may actually be something different. Or at least that it was still worth asking.

¤

There are a lot of very credible reasons to distrust the political process. It’s impossible to say which predominated in this man. He’s an older white man in a part of the country where anger and abandonment are common political sensibilities, so it’s possible he felt some blend of the two. Maybe he was responding to corruption and incompetence in government, or dishonesty in campaigns. Or maybe it wasn’t so acute, just an amorphous distrust coming from a mess of inputs. His specific reason for being wary doesn’t matter much here. What matters is how absolutely common his feeling was.

Max answered as best he could. There was no answer he could have given to earn trust for an entire system. For the most part, he only tried to prove that he had some skin in the game. He described his military background, explaining that he was running for office as a matter of national service. He mentioned his three adult children and the challenges they face, then reiterated the good he believes a Democratic Congress can do for the district.

All told, the answer lasted close to 10 minutes. Then the man nodded silently and allowed the event to end.

Max spent the last two weeks of this election on an RV touring the vast 23rd District. The district is impossibly large and the electorate knew very little about the candidates. There were a few small pockets that had been oversaturated with attention, but for most of the 11 counties, real time from the candidates was scarce. So the answer, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., was retail politics. We would stop in diners, walk down Main Streets, and race between festivals. In any extra time, we knocked on doors.

As a general rule, people don’t like to be approached about things. As a more specific rule, people don’t like to be approached about politics. Max happens to have an exceptional ability to plow through initial social discomfort and find some foothold for conversation, but most people had very little patience for the appearance of politics in their everyday. On two separate occasions, Max was kicked out of a diner for giving his pitch to a customer. Both times, the customer was adamant that they wanted to speak to him, but the owners were outraged that he had brought his campaign into their space. To them, Max’s intention could only be transactional, so it was as if he had begun selling magazine subscriptions in their restaurant.

For the folks in the Candor Free Library, demonstrating political care meant seeking out the candidate. The majority of the people we encountered demonstrated that care simply by being willing to talk. Sometimes it was as minor as listening to Max’s pitch, nodding, and taking his palm card. More poignantly, it was often the vulnerable act of sharing a personal story. Common to both cases is the simple courage of allowing an election to enter into one’s personal life. Both also carry that same optimistic curiosity that takes personal suffering and wonders whether there might be something someone can do about this.

¤

At 11:00 a.m. on Primary Day, there were about 15 people, mostly older women, packed into a dingy office making phone calls to likely voters. There’s a real indignity to cold calling. You exist in a purgatory between telemarketer and real person, so while the person on the other line rarely hangs up, they are also by no means kind. It’s terribly important work — it turns out that peer pressure from strangers really is the only thing that really might get someone to vote in an election they otherwise would have forgotten — but it’s also absolutely unpleasant.

Our space only made matters worse. We had an unnecessarily large office that was, in my experience, nice by campaign standards. Of course it was still a fluorescent, windowless box that neighbored a dance aerobics studio through paper-thin walls. From all I could hear, the classes taught next door were fun and invigorating. They also formed the soundtrack to the final degradation of our collective sanity. The point being, the work these volunteers were doing that Tuesday morning was both pressingly important and absolutely draining.

Some were regulars. They had been working for months, as reliable as staff, stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors. There were many more throughout the district who had kept entire offices open, organizing their existing communities around shared purpose. Others had come in during the final few weeks — some friend had roped them into seeing this campaign they had been helping out with, and they got hooked.

This last way to show up is as complex as it is critically important. It is difficult to understand what makes people give so much of themselves for such an abstract and contingent goal. We were in a five-way primary election, five months before the general election, in a district that has never elected a Democrat. Yet here were these people, hard at work, enduring indignity to help Max win.

For these folks more than any, there’s some community to it. It may not be the type of community that typically rents the basement of the Candor Free Library. These are not usually people who seek each other out for guidance or support, nor are they friends before they step in the door. Instead, it’s a community arising from a very particular, narrowly shared purpose. There is something powerful and unique, that most regular volunteers describe, to spending time in a space dedicated to building something greater. You find it in any organization that aims to better the lives of others. Granted, this is an idealized version of the purpose of electoral politics. However, if you ask a volunteer, this is often why they showed up.

There isn’t much attention paid to the folks who cared about this campaign. They aren’t the mythical Rust Belt Trump voters, whose inner lives have been the subject of excessive fascination for 18 months, and they aren’t those coveted Independents and non-voters. They don’t live in cities, either, so they aren’t The Base in the way it’s discussed nationally. No, these are zealots with an unpopular orthodoxy. They are the Democrats-who-care in a place where those are few and far between. They don’t win many elections, but there’s a complexity embedded in the way they show up and when they care.

Max narrowly lost the primary. Although he was ahead by 26 votes after election night, once all of the absentee votes had been counted he had lost by a couple hundred votes. There’s a phenomenal Democrat now running against Reed. I sincerely hope she will win in November. However, this is also the reality that makes political involvement so difficult to muster. Tireless, passionate work can, and often does, result in defeat for the majority of people who do it. Whatever piece of yourself you might put into a campaign very likely will feel wasted at some point. But I’m absolutely certain that it’s still worth doing, so we need to learn how to keep people showing up.

The math of our elections has allowed us to focus, with microscopic precision, on the handful of people who decide outcomes. Energy and analysis are concentrated on what makes these people tick — how they vote, and what we can do to change their minds. It’s a valuable question, to be sure, but it’s also blindingly narrow. We have, for a very long time, been a nation of people who largely disengage from the political process. Understanding that tendency, from its structural to its personal causes, is thus a critically important national project. There is, I think, a tremendous amount to be found in the moments when, for even one person, politics ceases to be abstract, and is suddenly worth some part of them. We can seek to recreate the conditions of hope and collective concern that make participation, on any level, feel worthwhile, and we can challenge the sense of cynicism and distrust that so often tends us away from getting involved. We can learn from the ones who show up.

¤

Rubin Danberg Biggs was a staffer for Max Della Pia’s campaign for Congress, and formerly worked as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He recently graduated from Cornell University.

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