Politics In Isolation

Rural Polling Place

It must be hard for out of state political organizers to penetrate the shield of work, family and friends behind which many Iowans spend most of their time.

That’s especially true as the large field of presidential candidates self-sorts in the polls, resulting in what seems an inevitable field of Biden, Harris, Sanders and Warren. If they can gain traction through some sort of campaign breakthrough, maybe add Booker, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and one or two of the others people recognize. A recap of 20 Iowa polls from 538.com is here.

According to a June CNN poll 44 percent of primary voters had decided their first choice for president, with most of the rest saying their choice is subject to change. There is a long Iowa tradition of waiting until the last minute to decide for whom to caucus in presidential years. What plays a role this cycle is the common statement, “I support X, but will vote for whoever the party nominates because we have to beat Donald Trump.” Against this background, organizers have to identify voters to support their candidate, knowing minds could change in the more than six months until the Iowa caucuses. Based on my experience there will be a groundswell behind candidates who are perceived as potential caucus winners.

The basics of political organizing haven’t changed in a long time. My father explained how he organized for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. The union provided mimeographed 8-1/2 x 14 inch sheets with a blank grid of homes on it. Dad’s job was to contact people in each house on the blocks he was assigned, discuss the election with them, and record the results on the sheet. The completed sheets went back to the union hall. Dad had no trouble completing this work in a timely manner and he enjoyed meeting with neighbors. It was pretty basic, and of course Kennedy won that cycle.

Things are different in 2019. To be successful, candidates have longer range plans than contacting voters and dutifully recording their opinion in a database. For example, Elizabeth Warren has organizers holding “office hours,” working on art projects, tabling at farmers markets, attending local events, and working on farms. There may be some payoff to such activities in the form of signed commitment cards. What seems more important is outside organizers become part of the community. When we think of the candidate, we can put a face with that name and have a contact for outreach if there is a question. It is not just Warren using a longer term approach and candidates who don’t seem unlikely to gain traction.

There is also the money issue, which has rendered contact with most candidates via email, social media and other communications methods meaningless. People get it. Campaigns cost a lot and sending me three or four emails per day soliciting donations is a numbers game in which you hope to wear us down with repetition.

What makes this year different is the shield. It is hardening. In case you missed it, things are not great in America these days. Beginning with health care, including Medicaid, Medicare and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Republicans are trying their best to undo it all. The care provided in these programs has never been the best. Just ask someone who needs care or knows someone who does. At the same time, they represent something positive in our lives. Social Security is a target even though it is funded separately from the government and viable at least until 2034. Republicans also seek to break up the scientific approach to problem solving in USDA, EPA and other government agencies turning them more political. The Justice Department re-instated the death penalty this week. Government is becoming more political than it was. Post-World War II progressive initiatives are being rolled back.

Whatever the outcome of these long-standing Republican initiatives, voters are withdrawing into smaller, isolated communities where they protect their own interests first. As others have noted, this gives rise to an us vs. them view of the world with which political organizers have to work. People have become skeptical that participating in politics has much meaning and push back on politics except within their group. Under the shield, political discussions can be very active, but mostly among group members regarding their core concerns.

Community organizing remains an important aspect of penetrating the shield of isolation. Finding common ground with friends and neighbors and with others in the community, is no panacea, yet it remains a centerpiece of problem solving. The trouble is picking an action, and there has been little agreement in groups to which I belong or with which am familiar unless a problem is obvious and significant.

Behind the shield, behavior harkens back to tribal both in selection of targets for action and in attitudes and methodologies used to achieve them. If a community’s drinking water is sub-standard, members are likely to take action if they can. Politics? Not so much.

It is difficult to see how the Democratic presidential nominating process will turn out. What seems clear is voters’ disaffection with politics has created a type of isolation that requires a new kind of campaigning. Someone will be the Democratic nominee for president and a majority of Democratic voters will support him/her. However, the thrill is gone in primary campaigns among Democrats, which makes traditional, individual campaign strategies and tactics less useful in producing a winning candidate.

There are no easy answers. Hard work and grit will play a role as they always have. Voters will be canvassed as they have been for generations. To the extent campaign organizers don’t work to penetrate the shield, their efforts seem unlikely to produce a winner in the Iowa caucus.

In the meanwhile, summer is here and is fit distraction from political talk. Maybe people will engage outside their tribe when the new year begins. For now we need protection from the harsh summer of Trumpism.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

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