Sorry to Bother You

A political culture shifts

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The apartment was in one of those large luxury apartment buildings, like dorms for young New Yorkers lucky enough to have the money to buy a real home but still lacking the inclination to do so. The property had several sprawling lounges, a weight room, and a doorman. A pets-inclusive happy hour was advertised in the elevator.

We were grubby interlopers in this world, canvassing for a democratic socialist candidate with a decent chance of winning her state Senate campaign. We were looking forward to telling people about her—even the people living in the sort of building that we hoped our anti-gentrification candidate would devote her political life to eradicating from the face of North Brooklyn.

Many of the occupants of this hideous-but-well-appointed complex weren’t home. So when we heard someone coming to the door we looked at each other and smiled a little, excited for a moment.

A small, apologetic-looking woman answered the door. When we asked for the registered Democrat on our list, she looked apologetically at a tall, broad-shouldered man. As we started to tell him who we were, and that there was a primary in the district on September 13 (news to most people we spoke with that day), he looked angrier and angrier. My canvassing partner would later call this an “I must speak to your manager” look. “Frankly,” he fumed, “nothing makes me madder than someone coming to my home to talk about politics.” He gave the word home a kind of treacly, self-righteous emphasis, as people defending values with no real moral content often do. “I find it really”—here he paused to deliver the most damning indictment the professional-managerial class can seem to manage these days, even in reference to Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore—“inappropriate.” Unless the person using it is your boss, that word makes the speaker sound like a substitute teacher who has completely lost control of the room.

Nevertheless, we smiled at him tolerantly. We waited for him to stop. He began to sputter a bit: he was going to say bad things about our candidate. Later we would laugh about this. What a threat, big man! Why would we care that this guy with too much money was going to trash-talk our candidate? Who would he even talk to, tucked away in his pet-friendly bunker? His friends are probably libertarians anyway.

Sending the Pollsters Packing

But what’s intriguing was why this guy was offended: he didn’t want politics to be participatory. He felt he had a right not to be bothered—it’s his pristine, sovereign freedom to be left alone in his condo castle unless he’s ordered a Seamless delivery. The present arrangements of civic life—in which political actors are mostly just polled and focus-grouped and treated as consumers and have no idea when the district is having a primary—are working just fine for him. That world has allowed him to live in a shiny building with a gym, and to find a girlfriend eager to oblige him. But since that world isn’t working well for most people, we kept knocking on doors.

In doing this, we were playing a small part in a slow, sweaty political shift.

The present arrangements of civic life—in which political actors are just polled, focus-grouped, and treated as consumers—are working just fine for him.

In my recent book, Divining Desire, I described our dominant mode of politics, the one our upscale condo dweller seems to prefer, as “the culture of consultation.” It’s a world in which we the people are constantly listened to—through focus groups, polling and social media—yet don’t actually have political power. We are expected to consume politics passively, like a new soft drink or an NFL game, not to participate. Though sharing our opinions is undeniably pleasurable, it’s also largely meaningless. As our consumer preferences and political leanings continue to be assiduously catalogued and cross-referenced to the point that they become virtually indistinguishable, the larger American political scene sinks deeper into plutocratic squalor.

Increasingly, however, as our political-marketing complex shows signs of overwhelming strain, more people are opting out of it. They’re rejecting their designated role as passive onlookers, and are acting collectively to reshape the political landscape. Inevitably, this kind of activist pressure from within the major party organizations produces a different kind of campaign, one driven by grassroots effort and commitment, rather than consultants and their labored mumbo-jumbo.

Focus without Purpose

This approach sharply contrasts with a Democratic Party elite whose last presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, planned to spend some $2 million on focus groups and surveys in 2014 and 2015 in order to come up with a “rationale” for running for president. Clinton’s braintrust—headquartered in gentrified Brooklyn Heights—sought, via its survey apparatus, to answer such questions as “Why is she running?” “Who is she?” and “Why does she care?” Let’s sit with that a moment: a person who spent the bulk of her adult years in public life is so estranged, both from the general public and from her own self, that she needed focus groups to tell her why she was running. This, one is tempted to say, is the alienation turned up to eleven: the complete enclosure of political life, unto its innermost parts, by the forces of marketing. Lest this seem a rhetorical exaggeration, here, from a Clinton 2016 memo, are some of the slogans generated by the campaign’s research process (warning—it will not gain in net intelligibility as you read on):

Theme: Fairness/Families
A fair shot and a fair deal
Hillary – For Fairness. For Families. 

Building a fairer future today
Fairness worth the fight
Fairness First. 

Putting Fairness First
A fair chance for families 

A fair fight for families
You’ve earned a fair shot 

You’ve earned a fair chance
A fair chance to get ahead
Families first 

Building a fairer future
Fairness for all our families.

Theme: Fighter
Fighting for Fairness.
Fighting for You. 

She’s got your back
Your family is her fight
Your family. Her fight

Your future is her fight
Your future. Her fight.
A force for families

No Quit
A fighting chance for families

Theme: Basic Bargain/Making America Work
Renewing America’s promise.
Renewing our basic bargain
A new promise for a new time
A better bargain for a better tomorrow
Get ahead.
Stay ahead.
A better bargain.
For all.

An America that works for you.

An America built for you.

A new bargain for a stronger America
Time for a better bargain.
Putting America to work for you
Making America work for you
A promise you can count on

Theme: Strength
Stronger together
A stronger tomorrow
Strength and Fairness

Together we’re strong
Strength you can count on
A stronger America working for you
The ideas we need and the strength to deliver
A stronger America for a new day
America’s strength. America’s promise.

It goes on like this, for another teeth-gnashing forty slogans, with Mad-Lib-style word-assemblages blaring out decontextualized abstract nouns in random-search-engine fashion: Families, Future, Work, Together, You. Imagine Alfred Jarry working as a pollster while under the influence of psychotropic drugs and you get the general idea.

The Ballot Alibi

This is not to say, mind you, that the culture of consultation is hostile to every brand of participation: in the electoral scrum, the object of all this dubiously signifying sound and fury is to capture the research subject’s vote. Curiously, though, the right to vote—formerly the object of some of the most bloody and fraught confrontations in our political history, and still contested in much of the country for black Americans—likewise dwindles to a near-vanishing point in the straitened world of focus-grouped consultancy. Here, the preference for one candidate over another is not anything so lofty as a clash of ideas, or an argument over the best future course for the American republic; no, it is massaged assiduously down under the weight of survey questions and broad potential campaign themes into just another malleable consumer choice.

To be sure, the act of voting has long assumed the quality of a talismanic fetish in a mainstream political culture that gives active citizens little else to do. “If you don’t like it, vote!” we are scolded constantly in the wake of one or another brand of Trumpian outrage or Republican perfidy. When the “you” is understood as meaning one individual, the statement is as banal as an advertisement urging you to buy one brand instead of another.

Granted, when the “you” is collective—declared in the context of movement-building, it suggests power: “If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” urged Vernon Dahmer, of the Forrest County, Mississippi NAACP, in the sixties, and the saying became his epitaph. (Dahmer is a civil rights hero who devoted his life to fighting for black voting rights and was murdered by arsonists aligned with the KKK.) In cases like Dahmer’s—where not merely an activist’s blood and sweat, but his very life, was on the line—the act of voting was an enormous breakthrough for a mass movement seeking racial justice.

Yet today voting is spoken of as an end in itself—as though the only valid forms of protest and dissent issue from the ballot box. If young people hold a demonstration, senior onlookers will inevitably ask, in a tone of withering skepticism, “But the real question is, when the time comes, will they vote?” Their protest, it is implied, is trivial; it’s only the vote that’s meaningful. Even more sinister is the common silencing admonition, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” (George Carlin liked to reverse this adage: if you did vote, he joked, you have no right to complain because you helped elect the screw-ups who are now running things.) As libertarian Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting, has argued, this admonition is like saying the poor have no right to complain about being poor if they are not buying Powerball tickets every day. The analogy is especially apt since, like winning the lottery, the odds of your individual vote making a difference are very small. By some calculations, in a presidential election, your vote has a one in ten million chance of breaking a tie, and that’s only if you’re voting in a swing state for one of the two major-party candidates. Though the cliché is often trotted out as if it’s a new insight, English philosopher Herbert Spencer was pointing out its illogic as far back as the nineteenth century.

Robots on Alert

We don’t have to follow critics like Brennan all the way into a political ethics of extreme individualism. One can acknowledge a value in being part of a collective, even a tiny part, and exercise a bit of Kantian imagination to grace the ballot with a greater communal significance. Personally, as a civic-minded square, I’m a diehard fan of voting—that was, after all, why I was knocking on doors in the windswept condos of North Brooklyn in the first place. I never pass up an opportunity to exercise my democratic rights, no matter how futile that chance proves to be and no matter how minor the difference between the candidates. I get a little frisson of illusory influence, just as I do from answering a call from a pollster. But the liberal insistence that voting is the only valid form of political engagement that matters is almost totalitarian and certainly misleading. As Brennan observes, “it’s one of many ways to promote the common good,” yet hardly the sole, or most effective, one. And voting doesn’t necessarily have much connection to other forms of engagement. In much of the sixties and seventies, with that period’s explosion of political activism—volunteering on political campaigns, showing up to protests, joining political organizations, attending meetings—Americans didn’t vote in significantly larger numbers than at any other time.

Even with all the terrible slogans, tetchy-yet-smug social-media pronouncements, and shallow exhortations from pundits and political leaders to vote or forfeit the “right” of complaint, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by nearly three million.

Trump offered an alternative form of participation: the campaign rally, that strange ritual of white togetherness.

But everything else of importance that happened in the 2016 election—and most of what has happened since—reflects a growing public exhaustion with the culture of consultation and the consumerist model of voting. Above all, there’s a public disenchantment with the branded products of all this frenetic window-dressing outside the polling stations: politicians who are, as one Trump-supporting Reddit commenter put it, “shiny robots built not to offend.”

The really bad event, so bad that our world may never quite recover, was Donald Trump’s victory. Asked during the campaign if he used focus groups, Trump pointed to his head and replied: “I do focus groups. Right here.” He exemplifies the conservative male rejection of the culture of consultation, which is nothing new (both Bushes also claimed not to pay attention to focus groups and not to care about polling and marketing). This worldview might seem refreshingly iconoclastic and even somewhat radical at first glance, but in reality it’s authoritarianism dressed as authenticity: what Trump means is that he doesn’t have to listen to anyone except himself. This is a profoundly anti-democratic gloss on consultant-free politics. Yet for Trump’s hardcore supporters, he offered a form of participation beyond voting or focus groups: the Trump rally, that strange ritual of white togetherness, memorable for the spectacle of friendly Middle Americans cheerfully chanting “Lock her up!”

Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has observed that attending a Trump campaign rally in person was different from watching a video or seeing it on TV. In real life, people listening to the candidate looked bored and Trump himself lacked charisma, contrary to what we often assume about the libidinal lure of proto-fascist entertainment. Yet for his supporters, the rallies offered a chance to be part of something that looked like change, as well as the opportunity to add their bodies to a crowd. And their presence would inevitably be added to Trump’s ever-expanding litany of outsize personal achievements; at some future rally or press interview, he’d boast about the turnout like a teenager trying to start a fight.

Learning by Doing

Yet we’re already too apt to forget that the other big thing that happened during the 2016 presidential cycle was the Bernie Sanders campaign. Clearly, the unexpected popularity of this lifelong socialist had an explosive effect on American politics, making space for left-wing ideas that had been excluded from our public sphere for decades. And Sanders offered his own rejection of the top-down culture of consultation. He didn’t find the focus groups useful, his staff has told me, and his message didn’t change much over the course of his campaign. Instead, he exhorted people to participate and build power, arguing frankly that to defy capital and its paid establishment lackeys, and accomplish any of the ambitious policies he ran on would require massive amounts of popular pressure.

Many people took him up on his call to participate—joining volunteer canvasses and rallies—and have continued to do so, helping out political campaigns that focus on participation rather than consultation. While the ideology of these campaigns—some fusion of socialism and New Deal liberalism, advocating what the late socialist economist Robert Heilbroner called a “real but slightly imaginary Sweden”—gets a lot of attention, the emphasis on participation over marketing may be at least as salient. In the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx Democratic Socialists of America member all but certain to become the youngest congresswoman in history this November, the volunteer canvass was crucial to her victory—a triumph that astonished the political class, as well as her supporters and the candidate herself. When pundits clumsily attributed her victory to “demographics” (Ocasio-Cortez is Latina and from a working-class background, like many voters in her Bronx and Queens district) she tweeted out a picture of the shoes she’d worn out knocking on doors.

Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is just one of many participation-driven upsets that reformist Democrats have already racked up around the country.

A person who spent the bulk of her adult years in public life is so estranged, both from the general public and from her own self, that she needed focus groups to tell her why she was running.

“Demographics” may vary. Already this year, similar grassroots efforts have yielded primary victories to two democratic socialist women running for state representative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who are expected to win their general election. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American woman (also a democratic socialist) won her primary in Michigan and is unopposed in the general election, which will make her the first Muslim woman in Congress.

The approach has also worked to the benefit of the good liberal, a species that had seemed as dead as George McGovern’s presidential prospects until Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign. As I write this, Andrew Gillum, a black left-leaning reformer endorsed by Sanders, has won the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary. Two other black liberals, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Ben Jealous in Maryland, have also won gubernatorial primaries this year.

Not all the good guys have been victorious, but the level of participation still stands out. In Michigan, Abdul El Sayed, another democratic socialist, had volunteers knocking on hundreds of doors per day in his bid to win the Democratic nomination for governor. Though he came up short, he drew new activists in. A Twitter rant by a sixteen-year-old who was one of El Sayed’s volunteers contrasted his style with that of his centrist Democratic opponent, Gretchen Whitmer. At fifteen, Roxie Richner had met Whitmer and asked how someone her age could get involved in politics. Whitmer told her to wait till she was old enough and then run for office. Wrote Richner, “I found her answer very demeaning.” She turned to El Sayed’s campaign, was offered an internship, and quickly became head of the Volunteer Orientation Team, working alongside the candidate himself. She wrote during the campaign, “I lead a team that is almost exclusively older than me. I’m proud to have gotten to this point.”

Of course, the major parties have long enlisted enthusiastic volunteers in their campaigns. But embracing such participation as a central organizing strategy marks a dramatic departure from the ossifying political culture of consultation. For eager recruits to the cause of reform, participation is the most direct and inspiring path out of the morass of messaging, focus groups, polling, and far more insidiously, data mining, to name another favorite tactic of the doomed Clinton campaign.

Honest Work

Similar participatory upheavals have lately overtaken the long-moribund labor movement. Like mainstream Democratic politicians, unions, at least those based in Washington, D.C., have been deeply embedded in the culture of consultation for decades. Union leaders have spent enormous sums of money on focus groups and media communications—tactics that are likewise completely detached from their membership and its labor power. They are entrenched in the same culture as the national Democratic Party, using the same consultants and messaging strategies. As a result, much of the labor movement has been caught off guard by the Supreme Court’s recent, and entirely predictable, Janus decision, which will greatly reduce public sector unions’ bargaining power.

By contrast, unions actively organizing people, rather than messaging, have a chance of survival. So do the workers organizing one another without the help of unions. This year’s wave of teacher strikes was an important political development. In West Virginia, wildcat strikes by teachers across the state resulted, in March, in a pay raise and a freeze on health care costs. In April, striking Oklahoma teachers won wage increases and more school funding. In Kentucky, also in April, a teacher walkout resulted in a tax increase to pay for more school funding.

And the strikes have continued to have ripple effects in the electoral realm. Hundreds of teachers will be candidates on November ballots this year, whether for school board or state legislature, the Chicago Tribune reported in August. In Oklahoma, about one hundred teachers ran in primaries and about half of them won. Some thirty-four current or former teachers in Kentucky will be on the ballot in November. Some forty education professionals are running for office as Democrats in Arizona, plus four Republicans.

A strike is the most high-stakes participatory form of political action there is: it requires you to risk your livelihood, stand on a picket line all day, and to organize your fellow workers to do something they may well not want to do. In a capitalist society, it’s also probably the most effective way to wield and build power. It’s a remarkable testament to that power that even in these red states, Republican primary voters, the most conservative part of the electorate, have been turning against incumbents perceived as enemies of the teachers.

For eager recruits to the cause of reform, participation is the most direct path out of the morass of messaging, focus groups, polling, and data mining.

Some Republicans who opposed the teachers’ strikes are paying for it politically, losing their seats in their own party’s primaries, as the Intercept has reported. Building on the popular power they had created by striking, teachers organized to use the Republican primaries to oust their enemies and advance their interests. Anti-union West Virginia state senator Robert Karnes lost to an opponent of right-to-work laws who had expressed sympathy for the teachers’ strike. In Kentucky, the House Majority Leader lost his seat to a math teacher whose number-one issue was protecting public education. In Oklahoma’s June 26 primary, of ten Republican state legislators who had voted against a tax increase to fund a teacher pay raise, nine failed to decisively defeat their challengers. Two lost outright, and seven squeaked by so narrowly that runoff elections were needed. Of those seven, six lost in the August runoff. And speaking of right-to-work laws, Missouri labor activists organized a successful campaign to defeat them in still another traditionally right-leaning state, by a stunning two-to-one margin, courtesy of a campaign based—yes—on participatory grassroots activism.

There’s plenty of old-fashioned, issue-oriented protest going on, too. Teenagers are demonstrating against horrific gun violence in their schools, demanding to be part of the legislative process. Nuns and indigenous leaders and many other Americans are putting their bodies in the way of pipelines. Like the teachers strikes, these direct actions can also have ripple effects on the electoral realm. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of those protesters trying to block the pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian reservation—and now she’s about to become a congresswoman. Electoral races have also been growing out of pipeline protests in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

People are also joining political groups, not just organizations like the ACLU that ask you for money, but rather the kind of groups that hold meetings and have committees and try to organize you into doing and attending things. The Democratic Socialists of America, partly responsible for many of the electoral victories I’ve noted here, had about 6,000 members in 2015, and now has 49,000.

For some, such engagement is an antidote not only to the passivity of polling and focus groups but also to the numbing, soul-deadening discourse of social media—a twenty-four-hour focus group in which we are free to give our opinion but rarely feel we build power. (Though of course when people use it skillfully, as teachers did during the strikes, it can help with larger political aims.) Many canvassers say they feel discouraged and helpless on the internet, exhausted by all the divisions among people who should be on the same side. When they knock on doors, by contrast, they feel productive, useful, and energized. Americans are in distress; suicide and drug addiction, afflictions of despair, are way up, and banding together with others in common cause can help.

For What People?

The mainstream Democratic Party is resisting this participatory revolution, determined to do things as they’ve always been done. They remain doggedly determined not to afflict comfortable folks like our North Brooklyn bro. After extensive market research, in July the House Democrats unfurled a winner of a slogan: “For the People.” It’s almost hard to believe how fully this captures the modus operandi of the party’s elite. As a friend of mine pointed out, of all the genuinely emancipatory language in the Gettysburg Address, leave it to the Democrats to pick the least radically democratic phrase. Not “of the people” or “by the people”—mob rule!—but rather, “for the people.” It’s as if the Democratic Party’s establishment leaders are going out of their way to underscore that “the people” should remain passive clients of the political process rather than its agents.

Make no mistake: the culture of consultation is alive and well. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who owes her victory to the volunteer canvass—that is, to her community’s rejection of a passive role in politics—has consultants swarming all over her now. It remains to be seen whether her grassroots political style will survive Washington, D.C. Early signs are far from encouraging. In all likelihood, the Democratic Party will nominate one of its all-too-shiny robots yet again for the critical 2020 campaign against Trump, and desperately deploy the same tired methods on that automaton’s behalf. For the sake of human survival, let’s hope these wretched strategies work out better than last time.

But meanwhile, something else is on the rise. And if this new way of doing politics continues to prove successful, more than a few assholes will find their comfortable routines disturbed.

Liza Featherstone writes the Nation magazine’s advice column, “Asking for a Friend.” 

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