Sunday, November 09, 2008

The flip side of history (by Skylanda)

So the election has come and gone, and with it the elation of a new day, a new administration, a new turn on the world stage. For the first time in years, the newsreels from around the world run a picture a planetary celebration around news coming out of America; instead of burning our flag, spitting on effigies of our leaders, throwing rocks at our consulates, there's a sort of cheer that matches - just maybe - the cheers coming off the streets of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, the streets of America. Take a moment to fancy that.

The next four years will test a young president the way few have been tested before; the only comparisons that come to mind are JFK and Clinton, because few modern presidents have been so fresh out of the box and faced with such turbid waters. It is unlikely that Obama will be able to do everything he set out to; if he accomplishes half of it, if he merely makes the progressive left feel like we're not fighting a headlong upstream battle just to keep things from getting exponentially worse, well, I'll consider that a win given the steaming heap of economic and foreign policy shit he's been handed from the git-go. And if he manages to throw in some legacy-building health care reform, climate reform, sustainable energy policy, whatnot, more power to him. My expectations after the Bush years are mighty low indeed; it will be hard for an Obama administration not to exceed them.

But before looking too far forward, it might be interesting to take a quick look back to Tuesday, before the landslide came screaming down the mountain to sweep eight years of Republican rule to a demoralizing ruin.

Like thousands around the country, I worked in one of the local precincts on Tuesday. I was part of the local voter support crew (one woman raised an eyebrow and nixed the previous term, "comfort captain," saying it made her sound too much like post-war geisha). These were the people you might have seen handing out snacks and water in long lines at the heavily-tread precincts, lending out umbrellas in the particularly rainy and sun-shiny states, there to provide voters in long lines with whatever it might take to keep them there and cast their vote despite the odds of wait times and inclement weather and voter intimidation and the like. They wouldn't have been wearing Obama t-shirts or pins supporting their local Dem candidates, and you might have mistaken them for the local chamber of commerce for all the non-partisan talk they professed; we were under strict instructions to avoid mentioning our party affiliation unless directly asked, and not to talk politics with the voters in line. Just make sure they reach the head of the line and vote.

As you can imagine, this was all very strategic. There was no "voter support" in the historically red precincts; there were no democrats handing out bottled water in districts where registration is 75% GOP and prior elections show a heavy lean to the right. This was among the most data-intensive grassroots efforts I've ever seen; the national security apparatus and your local credit bureau alike would be cowed by the means with which data was put to on-the-ground strategic use.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the half-launched, half-failed (but sure to be tried and tried again) "Project Houdini." Newsweek ran a blurb about it last week, so I assume the cat is out of the bag and all the hush-hush about it is so relevant as last week's bird-cage liner, so here goes: ya know those folks who knocked on your door so many times before the election, begging you to get out and vote? And all those folks who were peering over the precinct judges shoulder, checking off your name as you came in to vote? All that data, all that information, every bit and byte of it, was streaming into a real-time database. On election day, canvassers in the target blue precincts started out with a precise list of who had voted and who had not (naughty and nice, oh yes, you've heard this before), and they knocked on the not-yet doors. At three intervals throughout the day, every precinct in the nation was to live feed their lists into a central system, and that system would spit out new, honed lists for the canvassers to hit up. Five hundred canvassers in my podunk town alone. This was a massive effort, build from the ground up with volunteer true-believer labor, wratcheted into place by the technological prowess and mass communication infrastructure of the internet generation waking up to realize that we might just elect a guy who actually admits he's never used email. The effort was a wonder to behold.

Of course, in most states the system crashed at least once during the day. In my state, it hit the skids early in the morning and never picked up at all. It was replaced by hand counting, eyeball cross-checking, and the late-afternoon realization that come Tuesday, just about everyone in this town who was going to vote had already done so.

In my assigned precinct on Tuesday, it was so quiet that the epic lines we were expecting never materialized: a steady trickle of voters strolled in, took up their ballots from some very bored precinct judges, and strolled along their merry way. By the end of the day, the precinct judges were joking about our efforts out front that the only people we were supporting to stay through the chill of the day were ourselves; I know this because I ran into one of them at the local brewery during the McCain concession speech and we about it over a couple of beers (this is, as I mentioned, a very small town). Boredom was the goal, I reminded myself during some of the slowest hours: because of the push for early voting, the day itself ran smooth as silk in just about every precinct in town. I couldn't tell you the final numbers, but my precinct had an early voting rate of about 54%; we rough-counted the remainder who voted on Tuesday, and came up with a total around 80%. Eighty percent - in a state where a good year turns out maybe forty percent of the voting public. Whatever the turnout, when the winds drove us in just short of 7 pm, we couldn't help but think that this was democracy done right.

But all was not quite so unruffled throughout the rest of the state. Because of the heavy early turnout, voting on election day was unusually light. At five in the afternoon, a wave of panicked phone calls came out from headquarters; too few voters were coming out in the target precincts, the number weren't crunching, the statistics weren't spinning their tales just right to guarantee the state for Obama. Every able body was being pulled off every other position to canvass for every available vote in the urban areas where the houses are close enough to go door to door trolling for those last few votes. The polls had just closed on the east coast, they had just called Kentucky for McCain and New Hampshire for Obama, and that didn't make it look too promising on the numbers alone. I polled my crew of four (one of whom was raised Jehovah's Witness and swore on her undead mother's grave that she would never knock on a stranger's door again), and we collectively decided the best we could do was uproot a four-by-six foot Obama sign from an unguarded corner, hike it down to the busiest nearby intersection, and wave it around like idiots in the wind hoping that by dumb luck a few souls would drive by and remember - d'oh! - that they hadn't voted yet.

By the time the polls closed and we had showered and turned ourselves back out onto the streets, the polls for the eastern states were coming in, then the south and midwest, and once you cross that threshold where all you have to do is add California's ridiculously large blue block of electoral votes, the night came to a thunderous head. My state did indeed go blue - and by a very comfortable margin - and the five o'clock panic was all for naught. There were few mourners on the streets around us that night, and even in this small town, the celebration ran dark into the night and light into the morning.

Nearly a week later, and for many years to come, November 4th, 2008, will be a date to reckon with. Not so much because the country swung so far to one side or the other (the electoral college may have slid home like mud from a clear cut forest slope, but the popular vote never wavers more than ten points off the midline), but because the Democratic party finally grew up to run a 21st century campaign. This is how the GOP has been running campaigns for thirty years - sophisticated, well-thought, well-organized; this is why red routinely comes out on top even in states like New Mexico, where registered Dems outnumber registered Republicans by half again their number but so few bother to go to the polls that the state's electoral weight often swings a dozen shades right of the state-wide sentiment.

Still, there is something tragic, something profoundly anti-democratic about the reality that winning a campaign relies on strategizing, planning, playing a game of Risk with your demographics and your people. Gone are the days when people could simply decide what they think, vote their conscience, and government could answer to their constituents on that basis. Maybe it is naive to think that ever existed anyhow. But if this is the game we are to play - the game of grassroots demographic man-handling - thank god the bare remnants of the progressive left that we have in Washington have learned how to play it too.

And so, bottoms up: to a Democratic executive branch, to a Democratic congress, to the promise of a reasonable Supreme Court into the foreseeable future. History is upon us, and suddenly - the unmitigated travesty of Prop 8 aside - it just isn't looking quite so bad.