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The Impossible Will Take a Little While

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FOLEY’S MELTDOWN—THE SEDUCTIONS OF CLICKING
By Paul Rogat Loeb

It’s easy to delight in the Hastert/Foley meltdown, and how it’s hit a national nerve. Building on all the administration’s abuses, failures, and lies, the cover up of this out-of-control congressman may just give America the inadvertent gift of a chance to finally change course.

As I read the daily stories, though, I fear that too many of us will devour them with relish, then do little more than gloat. I worry that we’ll be so busy following each breaking revelation about the self-destruction of a regime drunk on its own power, that we’ll end up doing nothing but cheering. At a moment when those long disengaged or disagreeing might finally be receptive, that would be a profound loss. Because the degree of the electoral shift in this key election will likely be decided by the volunteer energy that turns out borderline participants to vote.

Many of us have followed the Foley/Hastert story by reading about it on progressive websites, and these sites have done a great job of placing it in context. Yet the time we spend online also risks being part of the problem. I’m not talking about the ability to click and donate. That’s played a profound role in making the Democratic Party at least partially one of small contributors again, and helped bring within reach the once improbable challenge of helping the Democrats take back the House and Senate. The dollars we contribute may make the difference between winning and losing.  

But we also need to get out from behind our computers, and realize that not all politics can be accomplished with the click of a mouse. That means walking local precincts, traveling to swing districts, signing up for the remote voter calling programs of groups like MoveOn, and talking to people who don’t normally agree with us. Just reading wonderful blog posts and forwarding inspiring emails won’t get sympathetic or newly sympathetic voters to the polls.

This last would seem obvious, but most of us don’t participate in these more direct ways.  For instance, MoveOn now has three million members, but just 38,000 have signed up so far for a powerful new program where people from less competitive geographic areas call potentially supportive voters in swing states or districts. Thirty-eight thousand people will make a real impact, but nothing compared to 300,000, which would be just a tenth of their members, or the half million or more who have signed their on-line petitions.  I’ve seen similarly precipitous drop offs in practically every progressive group that’s rooted in online communities.

This isn’t a critique of the online organizations trying to make this happen. To take the case of MoveOn, few progressive groups in America’s history have enlisted more people to be involved in at least some modest ways, gotten out more useful information, or raised more grassroots dollars for critical races and issues. But we need to look at why more people haven’t found ways of acting offline.

Most of us do have overloaded lives. Clicking and emailing gives us a chance to act despite them. But between now and the election, most of us could find a few additional hours to make calls or maybe even a day or two to walk precincts or monitor polls on the day of the vote.  But somehow we use the excuse of lack of time to rationalize a larger withdrawal.
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We also may not feel our small individual efforts will really make a difference, a resignation that echoes that of many of the people we’re trying to reach and turn out—those who similarly discount the importance of their individual votes. When I volunteer to walk a precinct or call voters, I envision the modest impact of my actions being multiplied by that all the other volunteers who are joining me. If we have 15,000-20,000 progressive campaign volunteers in my state of Washington, which we often have, and we each make the different for just two votes apiece, that’s 30,000-40,000 votes in a state where the past two elections have seen a US Senator elected by 2,400 votes and a governor by 129 votes following three recounts. But for many of us our reflex fatalism leaves us passive spectators, dismissing the power of our potential efforts before we even attempt them.

Even if we’re not feeling pessimistic, or at least not during the last couple weeks, we still may end up acting as little more than political spectators. Given a juicy scandal like the Foley/Hastert affair, it’s just too tempting to spend the entire time we devote to politics just following the news, on this or other issues, until we never have to face the question of how to actually reach beyond the chorus of the already committed. The potential for people to become political junkies didn’t originate with the Internet. We could always spend free hours reading piles of magazines and newspapers. But it’s far easier in a world of endless connected links.

Our blogs and listsservs keep us informed, offering facts and arguments to use in convincing friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Reminding us that we aren’t alone in our concerns, they give us quick and efficient ways to pressure our elected representatives to take wiser and more courageous stands--which if they do speak out will create powerful additional ripples. They help us reflect on every conceivable key issue, including the critical question of how to head America back from the present destructive course. But by themselves they don’t reach the unconvinced--those who’d potentially be receptive, but remain silent or disconnected. If we want to actually change America’s political culture, we’re going to have to find ways to act offline.

We now have an unexpected opportunity. Just under a month until a pivotal election, during which the Republican game plan has just imploded and voters long part of their coalition are beginning to question and bolt. A month during which our perspectives and outreach just might make the difference in deciding who chairs the committees, who brings bills to the House or Senate floor, and who has the ability to pass or block legislation. But this will only happen if we find ways to reach out. To do that, we’re going to have to step back at some point from our keyboards and screens, turn away from our favorite listsservs and blogs, and expose ourselves to the vulnerability of talking to people we don’t already know. The stakes are worth it.

 

The MoveOn voter calling URL is http://pol.moveon.org/phone/volunteer/pv.html?id=9027-5265689-JvbbykBFwfSb0p6ySZMVew&t=4

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org   To receive his monthly articles email sympa@lists.onenw.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles