Pride and Confusion on the Campaign Trail

At the beginning of October a combination of unemployment and political anxiety drove me to pack my bags and head for Michigan. If I wasn't working elsewhere, I had no excuse for spending the remainder of the election on the sidelines. I have always been a man of strong political passions but the sense of urgency I felt about this moment was more intense than at any previous point in my life. From October 4th to November 4th, I spent nearly every waking minute focused on electing Barack Obama.

When I got back in my car on the Friday after the election, I returned to Chicago (where I live) with not only a wellspring of pride but a lot of questions. The campaign was no longer a series of Matthew Yglesias blog posts and Keith Olbermann rants that culminated in a hastily filled out absentee ballot. It had become something visceral and confusing.

When I arrived in Port Huron, Michigan, where my regional office was located, I was rushed back out the door almost immediately. There was no time for pleasantries; there were doors to be knocked. Adrenaline pumping, clipboard in hand, I marched through a lower-middle class neighborhood in pursuit of the elusive "white working class voters" that supposedly made up the Achilles' heel of the Obama campaign. The only problem with describing the men and women I met as "white working class voters" is that surprisingly few of them were working. Port Huron has somewhere near 20% unemployment. Home foreclosures and non-existent healthcare were no longer human interest pieces on CNN; I was standing in a community being ravaged by an economic depression (the economic conditions in Michigan are no longer accurately described by the word recession).

Despite whatever youthful idealism drove me to join the campaign, it was during this initial canvass that I made my first moral compromise. I had been invited onto the porch of an older gentleman who was eager to question me about the economic policies proposed by Obama. It was my first extended conversation with a voter since becoming an official employee of the Campaign for Change and my entire focus was aimed at remaining "on message." But after a few minutes, the voter began betraying his fear of "arabs" and his disgust for immigrants who were "stealing jobs" here in the United States. I am very concerned about the state of the American industrial apparatus, but that concern has never been driven by xenophobia. But it's ignorant of me to vote Democratic without acknowledging that a significant percentage of those who are voting alongside me are doing so for reasons which I may find morally indefensible.

I paused momentarily, unsure how to respond. I am only a third-generation American on my father's side, and although my life has in no way resembled the American immigrant experience, I have always felt a kinship with those who yearn to work and live in this country, whether they entered the U.S. legally or illegally. But I set my personal opinions aside and assured the man that our number one priority was job creation. In Barack Obama's America every hard-working (read "white") American who wanted a job would be able to have one. I never directly responded to the man's concerns about immigration, but I placated them indirectly.

This would hardly be the last time I appeased the racial concerns of certain voters. Reasonably often I found myself saying, "Which would be worse: losing your job or having a black president?" In my life prior to the campaign, it wouldn't be beyond me to say I didn't care about winning the vote of someone who had concerns about Obama's race. But once I was an official representative of a candidate for the presidency, I had to respect every voter's opinion equally. If someone ever used the word "nigger" to describe the President-elect (which happened infrequently, but often enough that it left an impression), I merely thanked them for their time and walked away. But anything short of that and I said to myself "this is a vote we can win."

I don't want to give the impression that I think all working-class white people are racist, or even racially ambivalent. I had far more union workers in my office excited by the idea of a black man in the White House than I ever encountered racists while out canvassing. But the divorce between the socially progressive, intellectual wing of the party and the economic populists who actually win elections remains very real. Navigating this divide will remain the fundamental challenge of Democratic politics long after Barack Obama has left office.

I also don't want to paint a picture of a ground operation that was one extended moral compromise. I have never been more proud than of the work I did in Michigan. I was surrounded by tireless volunteers and selfless co-workers, without the emotional support of whom I could never have finished the task I had set out to accomplish. The days bled together and at points it seemed like election day would never come. The mornings were early, the night's late, but there is nothing more energizing than working alongside a group of people who share a common dream. I saw my fellow staffers infrequently (we all worked out of separate offices) but I don't know if I have ever felt so strongly about a group of people I have known for such a brief period of time as I do the men and women of Region 15.

The notion that this campaign was won from the ground-up borders on common knowledge. The ground operation employed by David Plouffe (affectionately known on the campaign as "Plouffe Daddy") is the most sophisticated in the history of the United States. What is less acknowledged is how essential a ground-up approach will be to the continued success of the progressive movement. As I previously mentioned, anyone who has actually been to Michigan can recognize that the economic situation there is dire. I may have made compromises on the campaign trail, but compromising our commitment to an economically just United States is unacceptable. I would like to note that it is our commitment, not President-elect Obama's. The change we seek cannot be brought about by the powers of the presidency alone. Our focus must remain tireless or else we will squander what is easily the greatest political opportunity of our lifetime.

For Neil Potter, Andy Oare, Rosy Kalfus, Lindsey Franklin, Emily Thielmann, Jake Hoffman, Mike Stroyan, Nora Lardner and Justin Strekal