My story of coming from the Upper Valley, working for Hillary Clinton, and witnessing the pitfalls into which well-meaning liberals often stumble.
Ten years ago at an Obama campaign office in White River Junction, I made my first ever voter outreach phone call. It was awkward but it gave fourteen year old me the feeling that I was doing something good. A few months after that, when it looked like he had a real shot to beat Hillary to the nomination, I was jostling for space at a rally in Claremont as then Senator Obama descended from the risers upon which he had just spoken, shaking hands on his way to the door. There was simply no question that I had to shake his hand, and to the smaller kid who I fully boxed out to do so: it is what it is. I was inspired by this soft spoken, lanky, biracial man in whom I saw myself. I could not have foreseen that a decade later I would be looking at his picture and asking what the hell he’d gotten me into.
With the 2018 midterm elections looming, the left is mobilizing with intentionality and a commitment to not repeat the mistakes we made last time. From President Obama to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, liberals across the spectrum are urging political engagement, encouraging people to make phone calls, to knock on doors, and to get involved in any way they can. In 2016, I worked as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, where my job was to coordinate the volunteer activities that getting involved entails. Organizers on the presidential campaign worked nonstop, seven days a week for months on end, recruiting and training volunteers, and building organizations before they came crashing down in November.
Now, political analysts perform top down autopsies on the party but they lack crucial aspects of the story, leaving their advice markedly incomplete. On a daily basis I witnessed the jaw dropping inefficiency, blinding arrogance, and dedicated resistance to change that helped get us to where we are now. In the aftermath of our defeat, I saw well-meaning liberals continue to perpetuate the culture that gave us our current president and all his ensuing chaos. I hope that my experiences, combined with troubling discoveries made in subsequent research, can shed a telling light on what really happened on the ground the last time the stakes were this high.
If liberals hope to correct past mistakes, it is obvious that there remains much work to be done. The question is, what kind of work is the right kind? For the answer to that question, I turn to the educator Paulo Freire, who insists that real progress can only be achieved through dialogue. True dialogue consists of two equally important dimensions: reflection and action, and the two must cooperate in “such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers.” They must be simultaneous. If deprived of its dimension of action, then reflection suffers and is reduced to mere verbalism. Lip service has become a democratic specialty these days. If dialogue lacks its dimension of reflection, then action suffers and becomes undirected activism, or simply action for action's sake. There is a desperate need for true dialogue between party leaders, organizers on the ground, and the voters who decide elections. That's why I’m writing this now.
With liberating praxis in mind, I urge the left to beware. We cannot afford to settle for verbalism or to waste precious resources with purposeless activism. It is imperative, now more than ever before, that we ask ourselves two all important questions: Who are we helping? And, is what we are doing truly constructive?
In Chapter Two, I’ll start at the beginning.