The Intellectual Situation
Feel the burnout
April 5, 2016
It starts with missed calls from unknown area codes. Text messages: Hey Nikil! Are you FEELING THE BERN as much as I am? There’s a new office in South Philadelphia, and a Political Revolution training going on this Saturday. Can you make it?
For weeks, I haven’t been able to make it. I’ve gone to the website, indicated my willingness to volunteer, emailed the local organizer to explain my background in labor organizing and why this ought to qualify me for a good volunteer position — but there are n+1 pieces to edit, plus a work trip to California that I’ve extended into a visit to my in-laws.
By the pool at their house, which fronts a golf course whose sprinklers turn on every ten minutes during the worst drought in California history, the calls and messages fill me with guilt. I recall the times in fall 2011, during the occupation of Philadelphia’s City Hall, when I’d do something frivolous, like browse in a bookstore, and be overcome by the shame that attaches to any private activity undertaken in a moment of public upheaval. Or worse, the feeling that intellectual work, even in the service of politics, is useless — that the only thing to do is to give yourself over entirely to the cause.
When Sanders announced his candidacy, I thought it was fun, a lark, a social democratic road bump for the cavalcade leading to the inevitable Clinton coronation. Then came the rallies, the speeches about democratic socialism, the debates in which he hectored opponents and declared the country in crisis. I spent some time looking at the left-wing debates online: It’s better for the left to organize outside the campaign than fall into the sickly embrace of the Democratic Party. It’s better for the left to use the campaign as a platform for getting its ideas out there. Electoral politics won’t solve anything. Electoral politics shouldn’t be ceded to the neoliberals and the far right. The endless rehearsals of strategy, the sense that every moment is a fork in the road, every decision critical and indelible — I could go back to 1972 and find the same arguments. No wonder everyone gets burned out: a century spent going over the same ground, trashing one another along the way. Why is the question facing the left always, Is it good for the left? What about everyone else?
At afternoon drinks at Melvyn’s with the in-laws, Trump’s name comes up, and before anyone utters the usual imprecations and prayers, I find myself declaiming that the focus on Trump is misguided — that every Republican candidate seeks to destroy Muslims, and for all the outrage over Ted Cruz’s proposal to surveil Muslim communities in the wake of the Brussels attacks, even Obama surveils Muslim communities. In fact, the candidate most likely to take the country to war is Hillary Clinton, and America’s endless war has always been against anyone with the slightest tincture of melanin, amirite?! The bartender turns, everyone at the bar turns. Everyone is white, their whiteness suddenly startles me — their skin seems drained, sapped. I’ve fomented an embarrassed silence. My father-in-law, drawing in his breath, waits out a beat. “I think . . .” he says. “I think that’s a little extreme.”
Extremism in the defense of liberty, et cetera! But my nervous energy has gotten me nowhere and might be better suited to action. I spend the rest of the afternoon embarrassed. Later in the day I return one of the calls — the Bernie volunteer seems momentarily surprised — and sign up for a canvassing shift.
April 9, 2016
The day of my first canvass shift is cold and clouded over, with a chance of rain and possibly snow. I make an extra pot of coffee to compensate for the dread and the instinctive desire to lie down that confronts me every time I undertake some modicum of real political activity. I think of a line from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: “And yet — like us all, when we swoon — like us all, every day of our lives when we wake — he is instinctively unwilling to be restored to the consciousness of this existence, and would be left dormant, if he could.”
“I like Bernie,” he says. “Trump’s just in it for laughs. I don’t think I’m going to vote.”Tweet
I walk down Passyunk, past the endless row of restaurants advertising their strong Inquirer reviews. (Philadelphia’s “rebirth” is chiefly measured in new restaurants; the urban renaissance will come nestled in a warm kohlrabi puree.) Not a single bookstore, but many vintage furniture stores, a vintage scooter store, a vintage bike-bag store. The office possesses the usual provisional atmosphere of campaign offices: posters, pamphlets, picnic tables, images of Bernie’s glasses and halo of white hair everywhere among the pizza boxes. A whiteboard asks why YOU support Bernie. “Because he’s for WORKING PEOPLE,” et cetera. The office is also empty. There’s just one extremely young woman there, who’s taken off a semester from college in Chicago to work for the campaign. I tell her I’ve come to canvass, and that I’ve done it before — a long time ago, for Obama.
She quickly retrains me: Remember to ring the doorbell and also knock, sometimes the bell doesn’t work, try knocking twice; if they don’t know who they’re voting for, try to persuade them; if they’re voting for Hillary, leave them alone (that’s between them and their rotten, cynical conscience, she neglects to add); here’s the list of Sanders’s policies ($15 minimum wage, single-payer health insurance, free higher public education, antifracking, all of it true but not to the point — the point is he’s the first candidate in two generations who is not a neoliberal, the first in decades to call himself a socialist, running as a Democrat but, bless him, not one). In the moment, I have trouble recalling why I canvassed for Obama, or what I said in his favor. The virtue of the Sanders platform is that I have no trouble articulating what he believes, because much of what he believes, I believe. I can say what I think, for the most part, and it comes out sounding like what Sanders thinks. It occurs to me that I have never felt this way about national electoral politics in my life.
The list of voters she gives me is in deep South Philly, south of Snyder, west of Broad. Dense, hermetic stretches of row-house monotony, where the names largely still rhyme with Yahtzee, Nietzsche. On Saturday afternoon I encounter empty houses, places where people don’t answer the door. Nine out of ten times I’m left standing outside, scratching the “Not Home” box with cracked hands, bits of falling ice smudging my marks. Some addresses are impossible to find, and in many places the doorbells don’t work. There was a time when these campaigns must have been easier to manage, I think: when people picked up the phone as a matter of course. When regular mail delivery and frequent house visitors meant that having an easily locatable front door and a working doorbell were necessary.
As I walk down one block, a woman not elderly but aged by dire circumstances sucks from a limp cigarette and asks if I’m working for Bernie. I tell her I’m a volunteer, and she asks, her open mouth revealing a stretch of missing teeth, whether Bernie will help. I tell her that he’s for working people, that he’ll raise the minimum wage. “No,” she says, “I need a different kind of help.” She tells me she despises Clinton. “I don’t think a woman can be President.” Gently I suggest that I don’t think this is true, but she demurs.
At other doors, I find the fathers of the voters I’m looking for. “She’s not home. The rest of us are voting for Trump,” one says, “but I hope Bernie wins. I can’t stand Clinton.” There’s something uncanny about facing a Trump voter, someone who presumably wants me expelled from the country, or simply killed by the National Guard, but who nonetheless is the picture of gruff politesse. Or maybe they’re just friendly nonracists who vote Republican. I do encounter one genuine racist, whose inner door stands open to the elements as I approach the house. Through the screen door I can see his knees and legs. When I knock he rises slowly, and when he sees me he rushes to the door, swings it open, jabs at the pin I’m wearing. A 75-year-old toothless Italian American with a buzz cut, he sputters, “Vote . . . for him! Not in a million years. I’d sooner vote for — for,” then he spits it out, “Sharpton.” Spent, he lets the door shut. “Now beat it. Scram.” I obey.
Another door, vinyl siding: a white woman with several kids racing in and out of the doorway gives me her time. She knows vaguely about the upcoming election, but not who Bernie Sanders is. “There’s Trump, but he’s just for rich people, right?” He is, I say, but so is Hillary Clinton. I tell her about the speeches to Wall Street, with their significant honoraria, and she raises her eyebrows. I tell her Sanders is for working people like us, and she seems to believe me (though “us” is a questionable concept in this context). I leave some “literature.” My last few blocks, I hit a stretch of enthusiastic Sanders supporters: a black woman who has her child tell me the good news, a white woman who actually worked for Sanders in Vermont. One Clinton supporter, the lone professional male in a working-class neighborhood, seems quietly aggrieved by his own choice, mentioning it in a tone of either shame or resignation. When I try to find the door to an apartment above a bodega, a young man in a nearby car asks with palpable suspicion what I’m up to. He relaxes once I explain. “I like Bernie,” he says. “Trump’s just in it for laughs. I don’t think I’m going to vote. Politicians can’t do anything. The whole system’s rigged anyway.”
April 10, 2016
The first sunny day of the year, I get a neighborhood of “turf” (as the campaign calls it) closer to downtown — closer, specifically, to the Whole Foods — and the results speak for themselves. Door after door, Clinton, Clinton, Clinton. “I haven’t decided yet, but I’m leaning toward Hillary Clinton.” Do you want to discuss why? No, as the door slams in my face. Still, most of the houses are empty, or people don’t answer the door — somewhere around 80 percent.
In between stretches of unanswered doors, one comes across the full spectrum of weird American habits. At 4 PM: “I’m sorry, we’re having dinner.” Wha? I should have noted how many times I rang the bell, loud barking ensued, and the resident cracked open the door, motioned down at her excited dog, and lifted both arms in a “What can I do?” gesture before shutting the door. Something truly shameful about using the dog as your excuse. “If you ask me they have no business living amongst us!” as Newman said on Seinfeld.
At Fitzwater and 9th, the throbbing heart of upper-middle-class row-house Philadelphia, a late-middle-aged woman with closely cropped hair, unfashionable wire-rimmed glasses, and an overall demeanor of skepticism and practiced condescension emerges at the sound of my knocking and engages me in endless street conversation. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know,” she says, raising her hands questioningly before dramatically shoving them in her jeans pockets. “This week, it got ugly. Sanders showed his grumpy side.”
What had happened? Clips of Sanders’s discussion with the New York Daily News about the banks were released, and led to some hubbub about whether his plans for financial regulation were lucid. Clinton questioned whether Sanders had done “his homework.” Sanders said, I’m not qualified? She’s not qualified, followed by indecorous comments about Clinton’s support of NAFTA and the war in Iraq. A vapor cloud of horror wafted out from the Clinton camp, how dare he, et cetera. I barely followed it — the more I hit the streets, the less I follow the news. I find it unbearable, beside the point, to listen to the debates, even to Sanders himself.
My rough sense is that Sanders was responding to a Washington Post headline — “Clinton Questions Whether Sanders Is Qualified to Be President” — rather than to anything she actually said, and I say so. But for this voter, it’s a sign of terrible things to come. “I’m worried that you millennials won’t vote in the fall if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination. Don’t you realize that the key thing is to defeat the Republicans?” This is another headline she’s quoting. It’s amazing, in fact, how often I find that news headlines simply migrate, verbatim and unprocessed, into people’s minds and out their mouths; how often I hear people say, “No matter what happens we’ll need to unify the party,” as if they were Democratic Party strategists. I reassure her that “we millennials” understand the nature of the threat from Trump and the rest of the gang, even though I vow to other Sanders supporters that I’ll cast my vote for Jill Stein, should it come to that. She voices skepticism about whether Sanders could win a general election (painful memories of the McGovern candidacy), points out that her wife is a staunch Clintonoid and wouldn’t even let me in the door. After nearly twenty minutes, she concedes, “Look, I’m going to vote for him.”
This conversation feels like a victory and inaugurates a string of houses — closer now to South Philadelphia — where nearly everyone is voting for Sanders. People seem to enjoy keeping me in suspense. “Can I ask if you plan to vote on April 26th in the Democratic primary?” “Yes, you can.” “Uh. Are you planning to vote on April 26th in the Democratic primary?” “Yes, I am.” “Right. Can I ask who you’re voting for?” “Yes, you can.” “OK. Who are you voting for?” “BERNIE SANDERS!!!” They shake my hand and send me on my way. I mark box after box: “Strong Sanders.”
It seems implausible, entire blocks voting for this weirdo. I can barely believe it, and it occurs to me that I’ve been thinking of my support for Sanders as a private obsession, a strange fascination unconnected to the preferences and actions of most people. Even the millions of votes cast for him so far seem spectral to me, mere data, unrelated to everyday life. Yet here were strangers who seemed to believe more or less the same insane things I believe, things I usually have trouble uttering, let alone defending, in polite company. The high this gives me is inspiring, and for the first time I begin to fantasize, blithely, about what it would be like for Bernie Sanders, self-described democratic socialist, to become President.
April 14, 2016
Jeff, one of the two lead organizers of the South Philadelphia office, is tall, thin, and stooped; he looks crescent-shaped when standing.1 Just 22 years old, he has the manner of a desperately shy child much younger. He wants to meet to talk about what drew me to the campaign. I fear another of those inevitable organizing conversations, the “story of self,” in which you’re compelled to provide psychological explanations for your political choices. Yes, the personal is political, but it isn’t only the personal that is political.
At UNITE HERE, the union I spent several years volunteering for, my lead organizers explained how years of poor childhood health or an early growth spurt that left them uncomfortably tall gave them a propensity to feel ill at ease and, consequently, to fight for justice. (But why this fight? Why this form of action? There was always an intellectual leap.) I could never provide the same explanations. It wasn’t that I hadn’t suffered deprivations, but I didn’t see those deprivations as the primary sources of what I believed. And yet failing to divulge painful secrets made for a very one-sided conversation. It was like failing to rise to the demands of union fraternity: your brother loosed his rich, thick blood and held his wrist to yours, only to watch you pull away. To shirk duty was to invite recrimination.
“I’m sorry,” he would tell his comrades, “it is Sunday evening. Thrones is on. Winter is coming.”Tweet
And so there were subsequent conversations, less forthcoming and more punitive: you were not committed, you lacked the gumption and will to carry the fight to the end. Once I declined to attend a union organizing retreat so I could work on my book, and my lead told me, “Well, you can spend time observing the fight, like a journalist, or you can actually be part of it.” I went on the retreat. Another time, when I missed an all-hands meeting so I could represent n+1 at, of all things, Left Forum, I was told, “You can’t flit in and out of the movement. People aren’t going to trust you.” A friend of mine in the union was practiced at rebuffing these requests to give up his life. “I’m sorry,” he would tell his comrades, “it is Sunday evening, and I am not going anywhere. Thrones is on. Winter is coming.”
After I quit volunteering for the union, I found myself spending afternoons weeping through TV screenings of Norma Rae. I missed the commitments I had spent years building. To stand up in the textile factory, to raise the ragged placard with the word UNION on it. To stand up to everyone around you. To spend nights and weekends in a kind of exhausted frenzy, making hundreds of phone calls, digging deep into the news archives for a bit of telling data that would help you screw the bosses, driving to one home after another, one workplace after another, pleading with workers, pleading with everyone you knew but, in truth, with yourself, that there was nothing more important, that your work, that laundry and cooking, would all have to wait for this higher cause . . . was there anything greater? I missed it like a limb.
Jeff and I meet at the office around nine in the morning. He and three other organizers are silent, barely awake, craning into the glow of their laptops. We walk to a café down the street; Jeff confesses that he has gone nowhere in the city besides the office and the house he’s staying in. He tells me his salary amounts to about $24,000 a year — manageable, in Philadelphia — with free housing, and he lets me pay for his coffee, and for the toast and jam he orders.
Then it begins. Jeff grew up in upstate New York, awkward and weird, in circumstances that were financially uneasy if not grindingly bad. This instilled in him an instinct to fight for those who also felt “left out.” He wanted to be a writer, but once he realized he’d leave the University of Chicago with a pile of loans, he got into organizing. Writing fell by the wayside; it no longer meant what it did. Sanders’s position on student debt persuaded him to apply for a job with the campaign.
And myself? I give the only story I know to be true. That I grew up a weak liberal, largely unconcerned with politics and more concerned that chain bookstores were displacing my beloved independents. In college I watched from my dormitory as Yamasaki’s twin towers, which I had loathed for architectural reasons, fell, and I only became incensed by the war in Afghanistan and Iraq over time. I got a job in publishing and, unhappy with the working conditions, tried and failed to organize a union. At n+1, writing about the Atlantic Yards project got me interested in political theory beyond Adorno and Žižek. While in graduate school in California, I began, for reasons that escaped me, to subscribe to Labor Notes. I attended panel discussions about the now-arcane fight between SEIU and UNITE HERE in 2009, and found myself impressed by the UNITE HERE crew. I became a regular volunteer until 2013, when I burned out. I wanted to get back into politics, and though no longer a Democrat, I found Sanders to be a candidate who held many good positions. I strongly disliked the Clintons, Bill more than Hillary, and was tired of their stranglehold over Democratic politics.
Jeff stares at me mutely the whole time — only stopping me to note that he was 13 or 14 when Obama was first elected — and by the end he doesn’t quite respond. Even I recognize something dissatisfying about the story. There is perhaps some part of me that is unwilling to give up the real goods, but in truth I don’t even know what they are. All I know is that when Jeff says that he can’t write anymore, that organizing has taken over everything, there is something in me that responds.
April 23, 2016
The Sanders people need a “campaign hub” in my neighborhood for the weekend before the primary, and there are no houses or empty offices available. Cautiously I suggest Jeff take a look at my house, a cramped two-and-a-half-story row house that my wife, Shannon, and I rent. He comes over and immediately judges it to be fine. He reminds me that this means hosting volunteers from roughly eight in the morning until nine at night; the day of the actual election, it means starting at seven and working until the polls close, at eight. I would have to train canvassers, another volunteer would enter data from returning canvass packets, another would report totals to the main campaign office in North Philadelphia. I agree to do it.
I get trained in a computer program called Voter Activation Network, or VAN, an extraordinary compendium of voter information and campaign planning software chiefly developed by Obama data nerds. In it, you can look up voters’ histories, filter names by demographics and location, use the same methods to target volunteers, look at volunteer histories. What do they do with the data? No one ever explains. But somehow it motivates the entire way the campaign handles canvassing.
The days leading up to the get-out-the-vote are tense. I can think about nothing else, and slowly a poisonous contempt for anyone who can creeps into me. I despise my friends who support Sanders but don’t lift a finger to help him. I lament my colleagues, who don’t seem to have done anything either. I pick a fight with Shannon, a Sanders supporter who has done no door-to-door work (and who, I decline to remember, is sharing our house with volunteers for four straight days). I can’t understand how anyone could be doing anything else, thinking anything else. At the same time, I find it impossible to read election news, or to listen to the simpering voices on NPR. The deeper I get into the campaign, the less I know about it, the less the candidate matters to me, and the more the activity becomes the point. At some point, the success of Sanders’s platform forces Clinton to endorse a higher minimum wage. A victory for the campaign — but it barely registers.
Late on Friday, a van pulls up and Jeff unloads several file boxes full of turf packets organized by neighborhood and “ward” (Philadelphia’s arcane district system). That night I sleep poorly and wake up early to arrange packets of turf, separating them by ward, stacking them at perpendicular angles. I make a large pot of coffee and drink most of it myself. Andrew, the campaign hub leader, arrives, and we begin to call the volunteers scheduled to arrive at 9 AM. (Part of “following orders” means we don’t send text messages, based on some bit of ancient campaign wisdom whose empirical basis is never disclosed. Later in the day we break this rule and achieve much better results.) The calls go to voice mail, and we leave mildly threatening messages asking volunteers to call us back if they can’t make their shifts. Andrew gets one guy on the phone and engages him in a lengthy conversation about changing shifts. Overhearing it, I feel the contempt rise in my throat. I corner Andrew in the kitchen and violently whisper, “GET HIM TO COMMIT TO A SHIFT!” Andrew mouths back, “I’M TRYING,” and it’s only then that I recognize what’s happening to me.
I have a flashback to the last conversation I had with my union leads, three years ago, when we were in the middle of a campaign to draw attention to budget cuts in the Philadelphia school system. In a drastic escalation, several workers had gone on a week-long hunger strike. The strike coincided with closing an issue of n+1, and I owed the magazine a new draft of an essay. So while workers were starving themselves for justice on Broad Street, I was sitting in a library carrel at the University of Pennsylvania, twenty blocks away, subjecting the phenomenon of visiting professorships by poets from the global south to a quasi-Marxist analysis. I was called to a meeting with my leads in the food court of a shopping mall, where they screamed at me for my apostasy. I screamed back, explaining with a palpable lack of success that I had to write an “Intellectual Situation” on “world literature.” I couldn’t understand why they were so upset with me. Didn’t they realize I had obligations to other people? Finally they said it was impossible to continue this tripartite existence, as writer, editor, and activist; I would have to choose. Only now, as I feel myself trying to undo the choice I made, do I recognize their anger.
The early-morning shift turns out to be a bust — a volunteer or two arrives, we train them and send them off with packets. But it leaves time for one of us to go out, and so I leave Andrew and take a packet in what the campaign has deemed, for reasons again unknown to us, a “high-priority” ward: the fifth, which encompasses some of the richest real estate in the city and some of the most highly touristed areas of “Revolutionary” Philadelphia.
“Oh, rock on, brother, we’re all feeling the Bern!” He motions to the rest of the waitstaff, a diverse group in 18th-century garb, ferrying plates of squab and flagons of ale.Tweet
Unfortunately, the area was also subject to an infamous instance of urban renewal, with black residents ejected and their homes razed to make way for high-rise apartments — a history that appears to have some bearing on my ability to contact voters in the area. Many of the addresses are nonexistent in physical reality; the ones that are turn out to be high-rises. Google Maps doesn’t help, and I spend hours wandering through parking lots and across modernist expanses of lawn, looking for houses that don’t exist. It’s as if the voter information hasn’t been updated since the 1960s. At other buildings, I spend what feels like an eternity pressing apartment buttons and getting no answer, or dealing with recalcitrant doormen. I mark entire buildings — containing dozens of voters — “inaccessible.” I wonder what the Clinton people are doing with areas like these. Can they just count on the luxury dwellers to be theirs?
After walking up and down one block for twenty minutes, I pop into a tourist restaurant, City Tavern, which purports to serve Ben Franklin’s own recipe for beer, among other colonial-era delights. I grab a waiter in a tricorn hat, ruffled white shirt, and breeches and ask after the address. He tells me that it doesn’t exist and asks what I’m looking for. I explain that I’m part of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and he lights up. “Oh, rock on, brother, we’re all feeling the Bern! I’d say 75 percent of us are voting for the guy.” He motions to the rest of the waitstaff, a diverse group in 18th-century garb, ferrying plates of squab and flagons of ale.
I get back to my house after this futile exercise, which has taken hours longer than the usual canvassing shift, and discover that, to meet to the campaign’s data needs, Andrew has sent a number of volunteers on these high-rise suicide missions. We call up to the deputy field director, who acknowledges that the area is “tough,” but tells us to keep at it, a proposal that is neither reassuring nor comprehensible. Then, after some complaining, a plan emerges. Jessie, our data-entry captain, who is terrified of knocking on doors and making phone calls and therefore sits on the corner of my couch alternating between data entry and complaining about the campaign methods, proposes that we select likely Bernie supporters from apartment towers, “cut” turf designed specifically for their building, and train them over the phone to canvass their buildings. This strikes us as a brilliant idea, and all the more enticing because we have to hide it from the higher-ups.
Volunteers arrive in waves, in ages and colors that bear no resemblance to the demographic data constantly used as a cudgel against Sanders by the media. We train new canvassers in the art of talking to strangers; we mimic slamming doors in their faces; we pretend we’re on the fence. New Yorkers arrive, bearing the scars and wisdom of their recent primary. A Danish visitor has traveled from Aarhus to campaign for Sanders, whom he says would be a center-right candidate in most of Europe. Nonetheless, he gives Bernie the Scandinavian stamp of approval. “What Bernie says about Scandinavia is absolutely true!” he says. “Look, it’s not that we don’t have social problems. But at least we have health care, and we take vacations.”
April 26, 2016: Primary Day
After three fourteen-hour days, I’ve gotten used to the ritual of waking up and arranging packets of turf; of grabbing a slice of cold pizza from the fridge and all but dipping the crust in my coffee; of looking up lists of volunteers and texting reminders; of greeting Andrew and Jessie and making them coffee. My house has become the center of a Bernie cult on my little block, with its own strange hours and endless stream of visitors, its piles of paper and “literature.” Weird autodidact campaigners come by: the teenager who made his own list of Bernie’s accomplishments and hands it out at the bodega where he works; the woman who made sports-themed Bernie buttons (sadly all Pittsburgh-related, so we can’t wear them into the streets without courting violence).
Happier than I’ve ever been, I also feel the beginnings of burnout. The real staffers are well past this point. Jeff told me days ago he plans to leave the campaign after the Pennsylvania primary; he can’t keep up the hours and is starting to lose his mind. One day he comes over to my house, arbitrarily rearranges our turf packets, and then stretches out on my couch and falls asleep for nearly an hour, even as canvassers filter in and out. Everyone on staff is chugging coffee and energy drinks, and I’m surprised not to hear of harder drugs. I’m worried about the out-of-town Bernie staffer we’re hosting, who “sleeps” on a roll-out mattress in my office upstairs. She arrived in Philadelphia at eleven o’clock Friday and went straight to the campaign office to work before arriving at our house at 3 AM. At seven the next morning we heard her coming down the stairs, but she headed out to work without even stopping to use the bathroom. All weekend she kept to the same schedule. Yesterday she spent the night at the office.
Every day, after all the volunteers leave, Andrew, Jessie, and I enter data, drink beer, and talk about the problems of the candidate and his campaign. Why aren’t there more campaign staffers from Philadelphia? Why didn’t we campaign more heavily in the city’s gay neighborhoods? Why isn’t Bernie campaigning for downballot candidates? Why can’t he commit persuasively to Black Lives Matter? We discuss conspiracy theories about Ryan Hughes, the Pennsylvania director for Bernie’s campaign, who was apparently taking money from Hillary’s Super PAC. We seem to be preparing for a loss, even though we’re all feeling remarkably bullish about Bernie’s chances. In the midst of one of these bitchfests, we turn on the television to catch the last minute of Sanders being interviewed by Chris Hayes in Philadelphia, just a mile or two from where we’re sitting, and Sanders’s virtuous civics teacher voice, intoning eternal social democratic truths, makes my eyes mist over. I’ve grown, despite myself, attached to him as a candidate.
The morning of the primary I go to my polling station and push a button for Bernie Sanders. I also cast a gratified vote for John Fetterman, the lefty mayor of Braddock, PA, who’s running for Senate against the Democratic machine candidate Katie McGinty. I stave off the melancholy knowledge that this is all coming to an end by selecting a packet that takes me to the low-rise Section 8 homes near my house.
It’s Tuesday morning, and not many people are at home. Most of the activity in the neighborhood comes from the bustle of paid-up staff for the machine attorney general candidate, Stephen Zappala. One of them, an older black woman plastering windshields with leaflets, yells at me from across the parking lot. “They’re not opening the door for you,” she says. “This is Hillary country, boy!” putting a nasty emphasis on the last word. I find myself shaken by this outburst of political malice, only managing to smile weakly and chirp, “We’ll see!” as I continue to the next house.
I pick up one of the leaflets and discover to my horror that it’s a piece of total misinformation. Marked “Official Democratic Ballot,” it instructs voters that they should vote for the following names: Hillary Clinton, Stephen Zappala, Katie McGinty. I phone the legal team, who say they’ve gotten reports of these leaflets from all over the city, chiefly in poor neighborhoods, within spitting distance of polling stations. I call back to my house, where there are worse reports, of people — it’s not clear who they are — going into the polling booths in the poorest neighborhoods and “helping” voters push buttons for Hillary Clinton. Someone hears through the grapevine that Gloria, a Latina volunteer in Fairhill, a mixed black and Puerto Rican neighborhood with a high percentage of Spanish speakers, has been encountering voters who claim to have voted “for Bill Clinton.” On primary day, there are still parts of the city where nobody knows who Bernie Sanders is; many people know only the name Clinton, and are being softly coerced into marking that name, with its long history of varied, unstable meanings. Suddenly the weight of the world begins to fall on me, on all of us. The Bernie bubble is leaking air. It feels like we are up against more than we understand or can handle.
About half the voters I speak to are planning to vote for Hillary. Some laugh when I ask whether they plan to vote for Bernie. Others, predominantly younger, say, “Bernie 2016, brother!” and shake my hand. Near the polling station, I overhear one woman ask another, “Did you vote her in?” and the response, “I voted him in!” In the scorched-earth mode of primary-day canvassing, I don’t linger to convince Hillary voters or even to tell them their polling place (most already know). I’m not even supposed to waste time with fence-sitters; the point is to get the Bernie supporters to the polls. I try gamely with a woman I spoke to just a few days ago, who seemed impressed with everything I said about Sanders. When I speak to her again, she says she still doesn’t know whom she’s voting for, and her wary expression lets me know that she’s not willing to entertain my attempts to convince her.
At what is nearly my last door, I break the rules one last time to linger with a black woman in her early sixties who’s on the fence. “I thought I knew who I was voting for, and now I don’t,” she says, her rheumy eyes searching. “I’ve been listening to Bernie on TV just now, the things he says, they give me chills, to hear him say it. But the man has been there for a long time, the man keeping us down, ruining the land. Maybe time for a woman. Where are you from, brother?” India, I say. “You’ve been there too, you know what I’m talking about, they took everything from you. At the African church, you know they found all those bodies the other day, a burial ground that they didn’t even know about? Who knows whose bodies we’re walking on? There might be our bodies everywhere, they don’t care, black bodies everywhere underneath us, nobody even knows.” From here, it’s hard to get to the usual topics, but I don’t want to get to them, I don’t want to leave. Some odd communion is taking place above and beneath the election, something more important, something closer to the limit of what anyone can articulate. She tells me about not going to war anymore, about taking care of her own, and I lightly go over Sanders versus Clinton on these issues, which again seems to miss the point. I leave the door after thanking her for her time — for once really feeling grateful for it — and realize I’ve spoken to her for half an hour. I still don’t know how she’s going to vote.
As the day creeps toward zero hour, we find that we’ve run out of turf. We’ve covered nearly everything. The South Philadelphia office has run out too. When the main Bernie office hears of it, everyone cheers.
To tamp down my hopes, I give myself turf in Society Hill, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, hoping to encounter dozens of Hillary voters and to feel appropriately bad as the polls close. But as I start down roads of tall brick rowhouse mansions and a summer downpour commences, I find that the tactic doesn’t work. The voter lists have been narrowed to the point that I encounter only Bernie supporters. A house of five that voted for Bernie, including one 18-year-old in his first election. A 75-year-old white woman who arrives at the door with her two East Asian grandchildren, whom she asks to let me know who she voted for. “BERNIE SANDERS!” they cry in unison, and mawkishly enough I choke back tears. I suddenly feel as if an era of my life were passing. I leave half my packet unfinished and head back to the house.
Everyone meets at a bar called The Gaslight. As soon as I enter, someone asks, “Did you see?” When I look at the screen, I see the result. Hillary Clinton is standing at a podium next to a giant version of her stolid blue-and-red icon, the H-arrow, somewhere in the Philadelphia Convention Center. It looks like something out of Citizen Kane. The campaign staffers are all on their phones, making contingency plans, buying plane tickets. I’m not sure what they’re doing. I see Tiffany, my elusive Bernie lodger, and give her a hug. Most people are standing in meek attitudes, stirring their drinks, regarding the TV screen with stoic acknowledgment. We look up wards and districts on our phones. It turns out we won the wards we canvassed, even while Philadelphia as a whole voted almost twice as much for Hillary as for Bernie. Things are somber until the networks call Rhode Island for Bernie, and a modest cheer goes up. A socialist whom I’ve seen at other primary watch parties does what he always does when Sanders wins a state. He begins to sing an old song:
For justice thunders condemn-a-a-tion
A-a bet-ter world’s in birth
No-o more tradi-tion’s chains will bind us . . .
Wearily, I mouth the words along with him. “You know this song?” a volunteer friend asks me incredulously.
I find Jeff, who’s already handed in his resignation, at the bar and buy him a drink. There, to puncture what might otherwise be one of those ridiculous silences I fall into with him, and in a spirit of sorrowful drunken confession, I retell my “story of self,” but I try something different. That I went to a private school on scholarship, where I was one of a few people of color, and felt alienated and unhappy. That I grew up in a wealthy neighborhood and I felt the injustice of a capricious market society keenly. That I took this with me into my writing, but that I wanted to do more. He tells me that this is more convincing than anything I told him before, but I’m not so sure. I tell him that I don’t want to be a writer anymore, that I want to give it up, that it seems impossible to do both things — one will always seem false to the other. This, too, seems inadequate, insufficiently “dialectical,” but I can’t face it any other way.
April 27, 2016
Wake up late. Instead of arranging turf in the morning, I start to pile it up for discard. Still somehow wary, I set aside the turf packets that we printed privately for the apartment towers, which we had not so covertly kept in a folder marked ROGUE OPERATION. Jeff texts me around noon, saying he can come pick it up. He arrives and wordlessly we begin shifting boxes and piles of paper into his station wagon. I open the trunk and find dozens of plastic-wrapped copies of the London Review of Books. I wish Jeff good luck. He gives me another one of his mute stares, leavened slightly by the hint of a smile, and heads back to Chicago.
Names have been changed. ↩