Monday, April 4, 2011

Journalistic Elitism

In is swampland blog on the Time magazine website,Michael Sherer does a great disservice to electoral organizers and campaign workers. To be fair, his general theme-hunting Barack Obama's reelection campaign announcement video is not particularly problematic, and could even prove insightful. However, his fourth point rests entirely on an elitist distaste for campaign workers, volunteers, and organizers:
4. Obama will be running on his character. The most interesting quote of the video comes from the southern white guy. "I don't agree with Obama on everything. But I respect him and I trust him." Consider what an extraordinary line this is for a video meant to recruit volunteers to organize for a presidential campaign. Have you ever met a campaign organizer that goes door-to-door or works the phones for a candidate that they admit they don't agree with? The reasoning behind this line can be found in a recent Associated Press poll. As of late March, 53% of the country approved of the way Obama was doing his job as president. But 59% said they had a favorable view of Obama, 59% said Obama "cares about people like" them, and 84% said he was a likable person. Obama would rather make his pitch to 84% of the country than from 53% of the country. That white guy from North Carolina represents the gap between.
Well now you have. I have campaigned door-to-door for candidates with whom I hold fundamental disagreements. I also doubt that I'm in the minority of campaign workers, who are as able to balance conflicting allegiances as reporters, if not more so.

The first-past-the-post electoral scheme encourages exactly this hold-your-nose-and-work for the candidate attitude. Campaign workers commonly disagree with the principals on a variety of issues, but strategically devote their resources to work for the best possible option. It's as if Michael Sherer has never heard of politics being the art of the possible.

Campaign workers, volunteers, and supporters are generally derided as "idealistic," especially if they are young and liberal. That perception is based on sloppy accounts like Sherer's which fail to take into account the contradictions that strategic actors face when evaluating opportunities to achieve incremental change. A campaign works because everybody pitches in towards a common goal, which the same reason that a corporation works. Yet no serious reporter would describe all employees of GE as "doe-eyed" idealogues hoping that pooling capital and laobr will deliver incremental improvements in their individual lives.

The fact is that campaign workers have as many disagreements with their bosses as people in any other field, from tactics to strategy to goals. I'll never forget the arguments in the Iowa field office where I worked over whether the individual mandate should be a part of the health care plan. The organizers simply didn't let their personal preferences from interfering with their jobs: amplify and organize support for the candidate.

The myth of a sheep-like following for any candidate is an obvious falsehood, yet elites are willing to baste in the fantasy. The lie allows political actors to dismiss the will of the voters, even to the point of encouraging eliminationist thinking. The tendency is perhaps more forgivable for arm-chair bloggers who uncreatively imagine unintelligent, undifferentiated opponents. Coming from a journalist, the idea that politicaly active workers are simple-minded, or can't carry two ideas in their heads at once, is offensively lazy.

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