On the trail in Virginia

By Scott McConnell

I spent the weekend canvassing for Obama in the Virginia Beach area. The task for the hundreds of volunteers who descended from DC and New York was to make sure the maximum number of Virginia’s “sporadic Democratic voters” — a designation which seemed to mean, pretty much, poor minorities — get to the polls on Tuesday. People needed to know where their polling place was, what ID they needed, be reminded that it’s important and make a foolproof plan to vote. And, of course shooting down the various disinfomational memes that “someone” has been circulating in the area: that “because of the hurricane” you can vote by calling this number, or that you can’t vote a straight Democratic ticket — if you do, your Senate or Congress vote won’t count.

It is a core axiom among Democratic activists that the essence of the Republican “ground game” is to suppress the Democratic votes with lies, intimidation and whatever might work.

It was a curiously moving experience. Much of the sentiment comes from simple exposure. I have led most of my life not caring very much whether the poor voted, and indeed have sometimes been aware my interests aligned with them not voting at all. But that has changed. And so one knocks on one door after another in tiny houses and apartments in Chesapeake and Newport News, some of them nicely kept and clearly striving to make the best of a modest lot, others as close to the developing world as one gets in America. And at moments one feels a kind of calling — and then laughs at the Alinskian presumption of it all. Yes, we are all connected.

At times when I might have been afraid — knocking on a door of what might of well have been a sort of crack house — I felt no fear. I was protected by age and my Obama campaign informational doorhangers.

And occasionally, one strikes canvassing gold. In one decrepit garden apartment complex, where families lived in dwellings the size of maybe two large cars, a young man (registered) came around behind me while I was talking to his mother. “Yeah” he said, “Romney wins, I’m moving back to the islands. He’s gonna start a war, to get the economy going.” Really. He stopped to show me a video on his smart phone, of one of his best friends, a white guy in the Marines. I couldn’t make out what the video was saying, but I took it as a Monthly Review moment. In a good way.

And Tomiko. Plump, pretty, dressed in a New York Jets jersey and sweatpants. “If the campaign can get me a van, I can get dozens of people around here to the polls on Tuesday.” Yes, Tomiko, the campaign might be able to do that, and someone will be calling you.

A very small sample size, but of the white female Obama volunteers with whom I had long conversations, one hundred percent had close relatives who had failed marriages with Mormon men. I think Mormonism is the great undiscussed subject of the campaign, and I don’t quite know what to make of it myself. But contrary to Kennedy’s Catholicism (much agonized over) and Obama’s Jeremiah Wright ties (ditto), Mormonism is obviously the central driving factor of Romney’s life. This may be a good thing or a bad thing — but it is rather odd that it is not discussed, at all. I think it’s safe to say that if Romney wins, the Church of Latter Day Saints will come under very intense scrutiny, and those of us who have thought of the church as simply a Mountain West variation on Protestantism will be very much surprised.

I spent a good deal of time driving and sharing meals with three fellow volunteers, professional women maybe in their early forties, two black, one white, all gentile, all connected in some way, as staffers or lobbyists, to the Democratic Party. All had held staff positions at the Democratic convention. They had scoped out my biography, knew the rough outlines from neocon, to Buchananite, to whatever I am now. They knew my principal reason for supporting Obama was foreign policy, especially Iran. They spent many hours interrogating me about my reactionary attitudes on women, race, immigration, all in good comradely fun of course. At supper last night before we drove back to DC,  I asked them (all former convention staffers) what they thought about the contested platform amendment on Jerusalem. Silence. Finally one of them said, with uncharacteristic tentativeness, “Well, I’m not sure I really know enough about that issue.” More silence.

Then I told them I thought it was a historic moment, (though I refrained from the Rosa Parks analogy I have deployed before) which portended a sea change in Democratic Party attitudes on the question. I cited various neocon enforcers who feared the same thing.

And now, with permission to speak freely, they spoke up. It came pouring out. Yes, obviously Israel has to give up something.  There has to be a two-state solution. We can’t just one-sidedly support Israel, and so on. But really striking was their reluctance, perhaps even fear, to voice their own opinions before hearing mine.

— Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative

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