The SMITH Diaries Project

The Future of Politics Are Oldsters (Like Iris & Dot)

Sunday, September 10th, 2006

By Tate Hausman

Iris and Dot are my new friends.

Iris is 74. She lives in Syracuse, NY. She has six grandchildren, and they delight her, but none of them live nearby. Syracuse is driving the younger generation away, she says. I think her husband died rich.

Dot is 62. She lives in White Plains. Dot doesn’t have grandkids, and her one grown son “isn’t the marrying kind.” Dot’s a little lonely these days — she recently lost her 13-year-old basset hound, Lucky. She’s got a great voice and a forceful personality; after 35 years as an actress in NY, “there are some things that stick with you.”

I’m 29. I live in Brooklyn. I won’t havegrandkids for another 30 or 40 years. You wouldn’t say Dot, Iris and I have a lot in common. We’ll probably never meet in person. We’ll never share a meal. I’ll never see the photos of Lucky I imagine sitting on Dot’s mantle.

But in the past two weeks, Dot and Iris and I have become friends, and more than friends — comrades-in-arms. Dot and Iris were the first two members of the Home Team, a volunteer program I’m running for my congressional candidate in upstate New York. The three of us share a passion for political change, and a belief that this year it can happen. Thanks to the beauty of the Web, we found each other easily. Or, more accurately, I hung out a shingle and they found me.

The Home Team is an experiment in the Holy Grail that all campaignsters like me are questing for — distributed activism. That is, using the Web to turn “armchair activists,” who are distributed across the town or state or country, into real world activists.

Needless to say, this is no easy task. It is (relatively) easy for
Web users to connect with other Web users who share their values, or care about their campaign or issue. Where pre-Web it would have been hard for, say, a Jewish housewife in Provo to form a “Free Mumia” club, now she’s three clicks away from 20,000 new friends.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the “activism” stops at the mousepad. Sure, I’ll send a petition to my Congressman. Yeah, I’ll fire off an angry form email to a greedy CEO. But get inspired enough to devote an afternoon to flyering my neighborhood or stuffing envelopes? Not usually. The Web is still an impersonal medium, and it doesn’t pack the emotional punch that moves people to real activism. No matter how good a MoveOn email reads, it has 1/100th the motivational power of any meatspace appeal.

So, the dividing line between online and offline activism has held fast. Traditional organizers brush off the Web as a distraction, or worse, as a palliative. Web nerds brush off traditional organizers as old school, pre-21st century neanderthals who don’t “get it.” The truth is somewhere in between. The only semi-proven political use of the Web — fundraising — keeps many a campaignster lucratively employed. Giving money is a form of activism, to be sure, but it ain’t no Molotov cocktail.

Enter Iris and Dot. As you can imagine from their demographics, neither are terribly Web proficient. But neither are they Luddites. I’d guess that both of them got their first computers from their children, maybe from their children’s children, and struggled their way through a few exasperated intergenerational lessons; “No, Ma, its a ‘mouse,’ not a ‘mole’ …” Today, they both email with friends, and that’s how they came to me. Someone on my candidate’s email list forwarded them an appeal I’d sent out: “Make Calls to Take Back Congress from Your Home, on Our Dime.” This appealed to both of them. I got emails back from them within a day. They joined my first training call.

Our relationships started off tentatively. Our first date seemed solid; they followed me through the online lesson and said they understood everything. After we parted that first night, Iris made a few dozen calls. I listened in on a couple (the volunteer side of every call is recorded, which gives me a newfound respect for those “calls may be monitored for quality assurance” disclaimers). On her calls, Iris spoke confidently and seemed to be enjoying herself. She reached a number of sympathetic voters, and clearly won some hearts.

Seemed quite successful to me. But then, no more calls.

Dot didn’t even gets started for a week. I trained her on a Wednesday, and she didn’t make her first call until next Tuesday. Stage fright? I couldn’t figure it out. Like Iris, the few calls she did make sounded successful. Why did she drop out so quickly?

The ugly and obvious flipside of distributed activism was showing its head. Without the social interaction that binds so many activists to their causes, interest quickly wanes. We human are fickle creatures, and the next shiny object that passes draws our attention away from our loose, volunteer commitments. This is nothing new. Attrition is a constant factor for volunteer organizers. Without meatspace contact, the factor seems to triple.

Clearly, a special push was needed to keep these ladies involved. I tried emailing them both, full of pep-talk and cajoling. Nothing. Granted, the end of August is a hard time to motivate a grandmother in upstate NY to do anything other than porch sit, but still. They seemed so enthusiastic on that first call … and hadn’t they contacted me? I tried calling, left messages. I just about wrote them both off.

I wish I could take credit for salvaging the relationships, but credit lies with necessity, not inspiration. I had scheduled another Home Team training call on a Friday, and had two other women signed up. Then I missed an airport connection and was forced into a flight that conflicted with the training call. No one else on my staff could cover. So as a last resort, I called Iris. This time I got her, and I asked her a big favor — if she would lead a training, just like the one she’d received herself. I gave her Dot’s number, and told her to call Dot if she wanted backup. She agreed.

The training went terribly. One of the two students bailed, and so it ended up being Dot and Iris and an older woman who had lots of political experience. “I think she was probably older than both of us, but smarter than both of us combined,” Dot joked. They started the training, ran into a technical glitch, and had no idea how to troubleshoot it. The student got frustrated and never made a single call.

And yet, the galvanizing effect on both Dot and Iris was remarkable. Their participation shot through the roof. They each started making a concerted series of calls, practically every night. I started get emails at 9:15 pm, just after our calling deadline. “Good night tonight; I got five 1s in a row!” [In organizer-speak, a "1" is a strong supporter.] Or a question: “What’s his [the candidate's] position on the second amendment? A caller asked me today, and I didn’t know what to say.” And thus, my relationships with both the women grew.

There’s a concept in campaignster circles called “pushing power to the edges.” De-centralize your authority, the theory goes, and you will attract more (and more dedicated) human capital. Trust the people at the edge of your movement, and you will build your movement.

Dot and Iris were my edges. When I pushed even the smallest bit of power to them, it paid me back handsomely.

I did pay a price. They didn’t do anywhere near as good a job as I could have done in training the older woman, and that lost us another potentially useful volunteer. Giving up control failed to produce the short-term desired result. But in the long term, Dot and Iris got hooked. They’ve each made as many phone calls as the 30 least productive callers combined. They’ve spoken to hundreds of voters on our behalf. If we win this primary on Sept 12, they can rightly claim a piece of the victory.

Now, if I just could meet more 65-year-old single women.

Up Next: Primary Colors

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