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Beggar’s Opera

Monitoring the decline of democracy from the telemarketing trenches

With the 2020 presidential election still more than a year and a half away, the clanking machinery of the Democratic primary season has already lurched into gear. An epic debate schedule, a marathon scrum of breathless press coverage, and the endless degradation of big-ticket donor events all lay ahead for a whole new roster of presidential hopefuls. The sheer volume of money, audience share, and column inches mobilized behind presidential campaigns now rivals the gladiatorial postseason coverage in professional sports—which means, among other things, that it’s a safe bet that none of it is going away anytime soon.

I chuckled when I first read the line in Saul Bellow’s 2000 novel Ravelstein that “anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it,” but when I apply this to the Trump era it gives me a distinct chill. And for all that Bellow’s dictum might tell us about the readiness of our candidates to pander, it speaks, as well, about the insatiable demands, delusions, and vanities of the electorate.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I think it can be different. Friends, we have it in our power to make the political world over again, and Lord knows we need to. I don’t want to hear any more hand-wringing about “likeability” and “charisma” this time around—let’s make this campaign about the issues that affect our daily lives, about how millions of people are struggling and suffering, and now more than ever we need to dig in and hold up the president’s record to real scrutiny and show his fraudulence and foolishness to the rest of the nation once and for all. We can do it, if we fight harder and work longer and give whatever we can afford to keep democracy as we know it alive; we just need a lot of energy and a lot of focus. . . .

Oh God, there I go; I’m doing it again. It must be muscle memory. After all those years, it’s like I never stopped phonebanking.

I got into political fundraising because I’d gotten sick of yelling at the TV, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who failed to put their money where their mouth was.

As the political season commences, sometimes I feel a little like the proverbial patient itching for an amputated limb, only in my case that limb was a headset and a pitch to a donor with their name and giving history on the screen. I got into political fundraising in the fall of 2007 because I’d gotten sick of yelling at the TV, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who failed to put their money where their mouth was, ideologically speaking. I started with plenty of door-to-door canvassing; the transition to working the phones meant I was at least glad to be indoors during my workday. And for a brief, shining moment back when Obama was still just a candidate, mass telemarketing was not only a way of raising money—it also doubled as the most compelling means of showing an enlightened reformist spirit in the money-drenched agoras of public life. Caller and donor alike were united in the fugitive vision of a better life than this; by counteracting the disparities of social power and the ever-tyrannical maw of the cash nexus, we were becoming the change we believed in.

Dialing for Dolor

Of course, we were kidding ourselves—especially those of us on the auto-dial end of the conversation. Whatever else it may achieve, political telemarketing has little to do with political reform. The media will obsessively report how much loot a particular candidate stashes in their campaign war chest, but whoever’s in command of spending that lucre will necessarily face an electorate that most likely has already made up its mind about what it wants, what it doesn’t want, and what it thinks it deserves. Fundraising helps to win campaigns, sure, but it works best only when there are people around who still need to be persuaded.

At the same time, some basic misconceptions about the political fundraiser’s lot need to be cleared away. Even though I’ve done both, political telemarketing (a.k.a. phonebanking) should be separated from telemarketing proper. For one thing, you’re likely to make more doing general business-to-business calling than political fundraising. Second, telemarketing is a job like any other, but political fundraising demands a certain idealistic self-sacrifice. Political fundraising is not the same as selling timeshares or vacuum cleaners, though the amount of grit and grime exacted by both vocations may indeed be comparable.

The way that hourly pay and bonuses were structured in the company I signed up with in 2012, which had several large call centers around the country, is probably not dissimilar to the way it works in other companies. I was hired at $8.50 an hour, which was then fifty cents above the Massachusetts minimum wage. But your hourly rate would fluctuate based on how much you raised compared to your fellow workers. And it would fluctuate wildly alongside the broader fortunes of the campaign you were shilling for. There were small bonuses for getting credit cards, but landing the big gifts was what got you above minimum wage—so long as somebody else hadn’t landed a bigger one themselves. On a good night, if you were at the top of the heap you might earn about $15 an hour. But if your contributions dropped off (through no fault of your own) and others did better, you could drop back down to $10 an hour, or even back to minimum wage. Depending on how everyone else in the office was doing that day, a couple of large pledges might or might not put me in the pay pool for that particular campaign. Once a caller alights in that winner’s circle, his or her total amount of cash raised would compete against everyone else’s working the same schedule. Being suddenly pulled out of a particular campaign and shoved into another one (i.e., “rolled,” which happened all the time and for a variety of reasons) meant that you started all over again from the bottom as you launched a fresh fusillade of calls for a different campaign.

Of course, the amount of money I raised in a typical day was vastly disproportional to what I took home. On an average day, I’d call roughly thirty to forty people an hour, abrupt hang-ups included. I might expect to cajole maybe three or four into giving, at levels varying from $35 or less (we were told to refer to it as “our most grassroots pledge”) up to a few hundred bucks or more. So on an average day I might raise anywhere between five and six hundred dollars a shift and bring home roughly 10 or 12 percent of that. Whenever a campaign ended, we would be encouragingly told that one out of every eight dollars raised for a particular campaign came from us. I’m not a math whiz, but that’s definitely a grander way of putting it than saying that the entire company accounted for 12.5 percent of the money a campaigned raised.

Oral Fixations

Unlike most other modes of political organizing in our relentlessly narrowing public life, telemarketing brings in a genuine cross-section of workers at the most contingent margins of the gig economy. There’s a common misconception that political phonebanking is done solely by college kids making beer money in off-hours. That can be true, but, by and large, it’s way more Dickensian than that. Your average caller was hired off the street one day and ended up staying longer than he or she expected to, which was certainly true in my case. Lots of businesses these days like to tout their cloying attempts at “diversity” and “inclusion” as New Economy virtue signaling, but you haven’t seen diversity in the workplace until you’ve done a tour or two at a call center. An average day is a combination of The Office, Harry Hope’s saloon from The Iceman Cometh, and last year’s great political fable of telemarketing, Boots Reilly’s brilliant film, Sorry to Bother You.

Working at a job like this is a brutal reminder not only of how the other half lives, because sooner or later you realize that the other half is you, but also a foretaste of where more workers could be heading.

The mix of people you might sit next to on any given day is unlike anywhere I’ve seen before or expect to be again. Burnouts and has-beens rub shoulders with fuckups and also-rans. Freaks and geeks and the occasional trans person swap change for the candy machine. Ivy Leaguers debate the finer points of sports trivia with high school dropouts. Smoking pregnant women, recovering addicts, aspiring rappers, writers, actors, and hustlers of all kinds are coming in to talk, all day long. While the process of selecting the optimal names and numbers to target has grown more sophisticated, the script itself hasn’t changed much. Once the shift starts, everybody’s in always-be-closing mode: talking smooth, talking back, talking trash, to the donors, to the management, to each other, into their surreptitiously held cell phones as they lurk in the halls, or to the walls themselves.

Nearly everyone smokes—imagine the emotional needs of orally fixated working people who have just been screamed at for several hours—and the smoke breaks are a combination of reality TV-style grousing and plotting, group therapy session, and recess. More than a few people around you have done time. You’re with them all day long, pretty much every day, and it’s only natural that you become a part of each other’s lives and stories. I’ve worked with some stand-out people, people I would never have met otherwise. It’s the kind of job where you don’t know whether working there makes you crazy or whether you have to be crazy to work there in the first place. Make no mistake, the majority of callers are struggling to survive on little more than the kindness of strangers. It’s no wonder that Reilly’s film treats telemarketers as the vanguard forces in a revived militant union movement—though in reality, most rank-and-file phonebankers are still too invested in other jobs or family issues, too focused on the draining internal psychodrama of making their individual quotas, and too ultimately hopeful that this is just a temporary job to dally with any big ideas about unionization.

Which is a shame, since if there’s anybody who could use a rousing dose of solidarity and control of the workplace, it’s the bedraggled postindustrial army of telemarketers. In the roster of occupations that it’s still socially acceptable to look down on, political fundraising is about as low on the social hierarchy as it gets. It’s not every day that you find yourself in a position where people feel that it’s OK to stop you in mid-sentence and interrogate you about why you are still doing this, how old you are, and primly tell you to simply get a better job. Would you say that to someone working at Kmart or handing you coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts? I’ve heard otherwise considerate-seeming people brag about how they told off some poor schmuck who had the nerve to call them during hoops season or whatever, and then describe in oddly vivid detail how they chewed them out, without considering that it was entirely possible that the schmuck was me.

Bound and Gigged

It’s often said you can take a person’s measure by seeing how she treats her social inferiors. Working within a winner-take-all economy, everyone donning a headset knows this dysfunctional dynamic as a daily fact of life. Pretty much everybody in retail or customer service has stories about callous, entitled, and tantrum-prone customers who are not, in fact, always right. But believe me when I tell you that callers have them beat on that particular score. In the fraught encounters that go by the euphemistic name of customer service, there’s at least the possibility of exacting some small measure of proletariat revenge via various schemes of passive-aggression. Abused waiters famously can register their irritation discreetly into the soup.

One of the unexpected side effects of a career as a do-gooding headset jockey is that it will probably make you really, really hate liberals.

Callers, by contrast, not only have to take the perpetual abuse; we were often ordered to keep pitching the same persons, thus incurring increasingly greater donor wrath in the process. And if all went (more or less) to script, we then had to make sure we got whatever we could wheedle out of the now royally pissed donor on a credit card. The expectation of ultra-deferential interest in a would-be donor’s life and state of mind and the ever-present threat of tirades and abuse (not to mention angry hang-ups, or the people who repeatedly instruct you to hang up on them, which you are forbidden to do) are so fundamentally at odds as to be virtually bipolar. It’s a wonder that anybody manages to raise any money at all in the whole mad profession, let alone eke out a living.

Of course, management knows all this perfectly well. Gig economy jobs like this—designed to be temporary, ad hoc, offering little in the way of advancement, security, overtime pay, or health insurance—make up about 10 percent of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some places make you sign a contract informing you that you are an “at will” employee—meaning that you could be fired at any time, for any reason, at management’s sole discretion. Working at a job like this felt like a glimpse of the future; the gleaming gears of neoliberalism are grinding us further toward a working situation infinitely more precarious than the sturdy, family-supporting jobs of yesteryear.

In some cases, I’ve heard how new callers are recruited at addiction recovery groups. That can represent a welcome chance at a better life for the addicts in recovery or otherwise traumatized populations. But the strategic decision to target down-and-out souls as entry-level employees has a darker side: not unlike the recruitment of a workforce of undocumented immigrants, it likely ensures that your chosen stream of new workers will be extra pliable in any workplace disputes over their rights. This is far from an abstract problem. I’ve seen plenty of people abruptly booted off the shift because their numbers weren’t up to snuff. Getting the bum’s rush could come for a number of reasons: because they just weren’t great talkers that day, or they were reeling from a couple hours of bad luck, or were dealing with a family or health emergency, which was not at all a rare occurrence, especially given how broke everyone was.

And this is where the ruthless free-market logistics of the place collide with the façade of liberal idealism. At the end of the day, for all the uplifting rhetoric in the scripts about fighting the good fight against the fat cats and the bully Republicans, the motives of our own managers were scarcely any less avaricious. The call centers need to maintain an average of money-raised-per-person-called, under the terms of their contracts with client campaigns. The race-to-the-bottom logic of most campaign deals also means that, in order to be competitive, companies tend to undersell the competition. That means, among other things, they receive the least promising donor lists and call and recall them mercilessly—again, think of the moribund Rio Rancho leads in Glengarry Glen Ross. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t exactly boost morale to be greeted by an endless string of indignant, agonized, horror-movie-outtake variations on “How did you get this number?” all the livelong day.

Calls for Help

It’s understandable that all the relentless calling pisses people off, but contrary to what the recipients of these calls assume, none of it is the caller’s fault. The machine that dials the numbers, in all its binary efficiency, has no grasp of just how many times it’s called the same person for the same campaign, and hence it’s unable to know when it’s financially or emotionally reasonable to stop. As far as the dialing software is concerned, an unanswered phone presents the ideal sales opportunity—and always will.

For the all-too-human caller prodded forward by the demands of the dialing list, however, getting hung up on a few times in a row doesn’t just result in a headache. It starts to put the rent and food money in jeopardy. The company where I worked was continually promoting a mixed message: on the one hand, make as many calls as possible. (Higher contact numbers are better for the company.) But on the other hand, raise more money. (That improves the average of money-raised-per-call.) I have attended any number of mandatory pep talks aimed at pushing the callers scraping by at the lower end of the quota scale into dramatic new feats of donor poaching. With due allowance for variations in emotional pitch and sporting-cum-military metaphors, the essential takeaway never changes: we’re here to make a difference, push for change, and beat the GOP, but the prime directive is always to get that money! The fate of those who fall short is left unsaid, but it’s all too plain in the daily life of the office.

Another widespread misconception is that call centers are an organ or an appendage of the Democratic Party proper, or of any of the liberal-left advocacy groups that a center might have as clients. Not so. Think of them as independent subcontractors. Sure, there are plenty of hardcore left-wing types who gravitate to these jobs, and many have called for years while brooding over thick texts explicating the big-picture case for radical social change. But even for these true believers, the passion for political change quickly pales before the nightly need to meet your quota. And this is where the capricious nature of the all-powerful donor base sheds some queasy light on the current malaise of the left.

© Nathan Becka

The People Squeak

One of the unexpected side effects of a career as a do-gooding headset jockey is that it will probably make you really, really hate liberals. To be clear, I’m talking about a specific type of liberal: the complacent, self-satisfied, bien pensant type who thinks that voting in presidential campaigns (and rarely any other time) and posting stuff on Facebook is activism, and that watching, say, YouTube videos of so-and-so destroying somebody else is proof of fearless contrarianism. I’m talking about the left-leaning version of the milquetoast average American who likes to have opinions about politics but doesn’t really like to think about politics that much. The lady who said to me once: “You know the phrase ‘act locally, think globally’? . . . Yeah, we do a lot of that . . .” in a tone of serene omniscience—that’s who I’m talking about.

I realize that the job of coaxing cash out of irate strangers puts telemarketing drones in an awkward position, rhetorically speaking. But while your stomach is growling and you’re trying to make rent by plying the hard sell for a candidate or a cause and the penalty for any productivity downturn is getting sent home, suspended, or fired, you will become mighty sensitive indeed to the attitudes and ideas of the client base you’re charged with endlessly courting.

I came into the job considering myself an egalitarian type, but prolonged exposure to the righteous outbursts and petulant whims of the engaged citizenry will curdle the blood of even the staunchest populist. Once you’ve logged enough calls, you can just tell when someone takes a deep breath and is about to launch into a tirade. The one thing that most people can agree on is that no matter what’s happening, it sucks. But God help you when there’s a particular initiative afoot in Congress: be it gun control, health care, getting troops out of Iraq, or a garden-variety culture-war dustup, a disturbingly high number of the people I talked to needed their fifteen minutes of therapy through indignation.

Sometimes it was as though they’d been waiting on hold for a talk-radio show, to have their moment of heroism, champing at the bit to say how enlightened and outraged they were about whatever the issue of the day happened to be. Having an opinion of any kind, the more conspicuous the better, makes some people feel important. It’s like they finally have their chance to achieve self-expression through outrage. And when your workday is largely made up auditing such compulsive monologuing, you can’t help but wonder whether late capitalism has left them with anything else.

I’ve never forgotten what it was like to call during the prolonged legislative agony over Obamacare and having to literally hold the phone at arm’s length on too many calls to self-styled civilian experts in health care policy. I could still hear the yelling, too. I admit I’m jaded, but it became increasingly clear to me how the vast majority of self-described liberals I spoke to felt personally scandalized over how “the system” or “the party” wasn’t “listening” to them and their concerns, whatever they might happen to be. There would be many stern directives to “TELL Obama” about this or that misguided compromise or strategic oversight, as if the president of the United States was standing beside every phone with a clipboard, dutifully recording the complaints of Debbie from Phoenix. Of course, there were plenty of things to criticize about the Affordable Care Act, and God knows my own criticisms of the Democratic Party are legion, but regardless of the issue at hand, I came to feel that nothing met the discriminating standards of John Q. Public.

Indulge Me, I’m a Liberal

The specific topic coming in for such righteous, forensic discussion would alternate from call to call, depending on the national mood, but structurally speaking, nearly all the complaints I fielded tended to hit the same pitch. Potential donors needed to believe that their personal concerns must necessarily be the immediate and only topic of discussion: whether a particular bill was too ambitious or not comprehensive enough, whether it cost too much or too little, whether it meant too much government intervention or not enough. Wading through this miasma of self-righteous soapboxing on an hourly basis, I started to grasp why zombies enjoy such a vogue in our popular culture. Over the course of a night’s work, you would hear dozens of people say slight variations on the same phrase or make a virtually identical argument about the same topic. When your shift was finally done, you’d go home and wearily turn on the news or click through some blogs and discover which pundit had supplied the hot take du jour. And then days later, something else would come up and the circuit of sophistry would replenish itself anew.

Sometimes it was as though they’d been waiting on hold for a talk-radio show, chomping at the bit to say how enlightened and outraged they were about whatever the issue of the day happened to be.

There were, however, some reliable leitmotifs in the calls. Everybody just loved Obama, and they were quite proud of having voted for him, as if that in itself proved something about their leftist credentials. Voting is very nice, and no doubt nearly as effective a way to feel like you’re advancing the common good as speechifying on a telemarketing call, but what really matters is organizing the vote in many complex and geographically huge states. It’s tedious, painstaking, necessary work that culminates in the drama of Election Night, but it was in the service of just this elusive majoritarian coalition on the left that I’d signed up for the telemarketing game in the first place.

Still, this particular vision of politics was remote from the prime concerns of most of the people I called; they were too busy gnashing their teeth over the pundit-scripted version of national politics to bother with the mundanities of field work or putting together a durable network of activists and funders. In some ways, this was zombie thinking at its formalist zenith—never underestimate the tendency of the middle class’s need to be a herd of independent minds.

And the more that the zombified narrative of political hysteria and legislative myopia was indulged, amid the Sisyphean need to make quota, the more truly hopeless the whole endeavor started to feel. As much cash as I’d happily raised for him during his first run for the presidency, after a while I couldn’t shake the feeling that Obama’s centrist, hopey-changey agenda was faltering precisely because of its vast, vague but very electable scope. You just can’t be all things to all people, even if the people themselves expect you to be. Few know this fallacy better than the harried factotum hunched over a phone.

There was also a grim dialectic of the most unappeasable rhetoric of grievance arising from the most comfortable donors on the call list: the more money people gave, the worse the bellyaching got. I noticed a few leading callers who, asked for their secret, shrugged and said they just repeated whatever the donor said back to them in a tone of total validation. The infinitely more disheartening variation on this customer-empowerment refrain was the oft-cited injunction “don’t talk about the issues!” When all else failed, you could always just trash the Republicans. That usually worked fine as a start, but the hazy nebula of Democratic policy still hung in the air like a big bubble about to pop.

United We Vent

To some extent, the gap between expectation and performance is simply the way of the political world; you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. As frustrated as I was with the Obama administration in power, I didn’t blame Obama as much as I did the people who had jumped on his bandwagon when it was the brightest, shiniest one in town and then spent the next eight years complaining that the hope and change they’d ordered wasn’t being delivered fast enough. I wanted desperately for the party to give me something to work with, but no matter how many Jimmy Stewart speeches I gave, and I certainly gave my share, I guess it just felt safer or more comfortable for most people to be against something rather than for something, to be consumers rather than creators, passive rather than active.

Much of the same dynamic is likely at work with Trump supporters and the ongoing fallout from the Brexit referendum, only at a more brutally nihilistic level. I don’t like what’s happening, cry the beleaguered masses, and I don’t know what I want to replace it, but give it to me right now! It reminds me of Slavoj Žižek’s observations about caffeine-free soda or sugarless chocolate; I felt I was seeing a variation on his point about mixed-up and manipulated desires: people want “politics” without the politics. People like to think of themselves as politically engaged without ever bothering to truck with the messy business of politics itself—such as, for example, giving or raising money. Someone else, that ever-elusive “they” is supposed to solve the country’s problems and do it in a way that will satisfy everyone without causing offense, demanding sacrifices, or increasing taxes.

Never mind the patient, collective work of promoting workplace solidarity or community organizing; venting is what now passes for activism, both on the platforms of social media and among many of the people I sought to gingerly procure campaign cash from. It’s made me profoundly cynical about the pronouncements of pollsters and the general assumptions about the drift of the political winds that billow forward from the punditsphere. People will say they agree with or believe in any number of things on paper, but in daily life it’s a whole different story. People most enjoy supporting candidates and issues when they don’t have to be personally responsible for them. When I started hearing that Obama was polling ever higher in his last years in office, and that Obamacare is more popular than ever now that the GOP is salivating at another chance to cut it to shreds, or that the GOP has gerrymandered everything in sight after taking back scores of state legislatures (I called about that years ago too), I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a headset.

I thank my lucky stars that I got out when I did, in the summer before the apocalypse. If I had been working the phones during the final months of the 2016 presidential election, I’d probably be scrawling all of this on the walls of my padded cell. Still, cranky as I am, I find that I can’t fully regret the time I’ve spent participating in some small way in the manic political life of my country. Amid all the quota-driven agita, I had plenty of thought-provoking, sometimes moving and hilarious conversations with some very interesting people. I had plenty of time to read and write and consider the ideas I absorbed in light of their real-world application. It’s one thing to theorize about politics, but it’s another to do it while constantly taking the anxious pulse of the hoi polloi. Those were not wasted years.

Nor has the long tour of duty in the headset trenches put me off leftist politics entirely—far from it. After so many evenings facing the painful narcissism of the middle-class liberal, I find that I am more interested in radical critiques than ever before. I’m not switching sides—just digging deeper into the roots of my own. I have logged enough long hours supporting Democratic causes to feel something more than just sentimental attachment to the Democrats and their motley agenda. It was on their behalf, after all, that I spent so many years raising truckloads of cash and enduring a veritable tsunami of aggrieved complaints. But now I also know quite well how far they need to go to represent a person like me.