Lately, I have been haunted by a vision of the future where my little grandchildren, all grown up and remarkably articulate, ask me, “What did you do when an unstable ruler with tyrannical tendencies separated children from parents and locked both in camps, abused women, lied incessantly, and tried to destroy the environment, the free press and American democracy?”
With a mixture of pride and doubt, I say, “I made phone calls.”
Since the 2016 presidential election, I have been anxious and depressed. The discomfort begins each morning when I read the newspaper, wanes slightly as the day progresses and revives in the evening when I watch cable news (including up to 30 seconds of Fox) during which I engage in the time-honored political activity of yelling at the TV.
Much of the time, I am convinced that the moment is imminent when dissidents will be rounded up, interned, and executed. To hold off being rounded up, interned and executed, I volunteered in 2018 to work in a flippable congressional district. Since I am much too scary-looking (I wouldn’t open my own door if I came knocking), door-to-door canvassing was out. Instead, I did phone banking.
Phone banking is a ghastly activity for anyone with a fragile ego who is incapable of handling rejection. (Being a traveling salesman, despite the encounters with farmers’ daughters, must have been a terrible career.)
My phone banking training began at the 2016 Hillary headquarters in Princeton. I was encouraged to be polite and engage people in discussion of major issues. Mostly, it was an exercise in self-restraint and not taking anything personally. The majority of calls were met by answering machines either because no one was home or because no one with any good sense answers the phone these days without knowing who is on the other end. Numbers were often “out of service.”
On the rare occasions when I did connect, I’d be met by either warmth or suspicion, “I never tell anyone who I’m going to vote for.” Sometimes, despite the call list being vetted, I found myself talking to the opposition. One guy began shrieking, “Lock her up!” to which I responded, “Sorry to bother you.” What I really wanted to say was, “What if I came over and jammed your phone down your throat!”
Until I was asked not to, I ended calls with the traditional, “Vote early and often.” After several weeks of making calls four hours a day, every day, I was honored with the title of “captain” and asked to train others in being polite and self-restrained.
For the 2018 campaign, I presented myself to a nearby flip-prone congressional district as an experienced phone-banker. However, the call world had changed in two years. Instead of punching in numbers, laptop software did the dialing, and I would only take action when a human being picked up. The tedium of dialing was gone. Of course, I was now a willing colluder in something I’ve always despised—robo-calls.
Using the advanced technology, I logged in hundreds of calls in three hours. What didn’t change was the rejection and hostility. Despite the cheery voice with which I asked people if they were supporting my candidate, I was often told, “Put me on your no-call list” or “Your campaign has called me seven times already. I’ll never vote for your candidate!” I expressed deep sympathy and apologized. I really meant it. If I’d been the one receiving the calls, I’d have just hung up.
I encountered lots of blatant anger. “Who is this? What do you want?” One guy was more subtle. “Did you have dinner? Well I’m trying to enjoy mine.”
Occasionally, a contact responded with an easy-to-identify doper-stoner voice, “No, man, I never vote. They’re all the same, man.” Figuring that I had someone under-the-influence who could be influenced by me, I tried extra hard to convince Mr. Marijuana of 2018 that it was “Really important to vote, man.”
Occasionally, I talked to people who were genuinely undecided and wanted to know about the issues. I may have changed the minds of both of those people.
In 1954, I came home from elementary school and joined my mother watching the Army-McCarthy hearings. Since then, I have watched, with angst and intensity, the Watergate hearings, the Iran-Contra hearings, and the Clinton Impeachment hearings. In each case, US democracy was preserved despite attacks from the most craven in the nation.
I am expecting the same preservation coming from the imminent 2019 House hearings, hearings made possible only by flipping 40 congressional seats. And I was involved, ever-so-slightly, in flipping one of those seats. That is what I will tell my grandchildren.
Robin Schore lives in Titusville.