Nov. 5, 2008: Millions of student activists around the country wake up to a crushing hangover after an all-night celebration of an Obama blowout. After piecing together faint memories of CNN’s “Magic Map” mixed with Irish Car Bombs, the students give themselves a thunderous pat on the back. After all, they worked for it, didn’t they?
These student activists who rallied the undecided and uninterested had, in the past, neither voted nor cared. They drove hours to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, or walked the perilous few blocks down Dixwell to turn out supporters. Because of Sen. Barack Obama’s ability to inspire and mobilize this large group of young, dedicated frontline soldiers, he will probably be the next president. So on that historic morning, shouldn’t these grunts overcome their hangover with one more celebratory Keystone before basking some more in their own glory?
If only it were that simple.
That Obama’s victory will be attributable to the engagement of the disengaged is a compelling story. But what happens when the newly engaged stop paying attention? What happens when Obama fails to meet his sky-high expectations and deliver the Utopia we’ve all been dreaming of?
In all likelihood, a significant faction of his support will vanish. Some will argue that this doesn’t matter, so long as they can be whipped up into a hope-filled fervor every two years. But this assumption represents a misunderstanding of how our government works.
The summer after freshman year, I had the opportunity to work for a Democratic congressman from Kansas. As a Democrat in a very red state, reelection was always on his mind. As such, his staff made sure that all constituent calls were treated seriously, and when they expressed support for a particular position, their opinions were tallied up. It’s not that these voters were a representative sample of constituents; it was because they must have felt strongly enough about it to call in. They were not just likely voters but also potential volunteers for one side or the other, like Obama’s young foot soldiers.
I specifically remember one time when every phone in the office began ringing at once. The staff stopped their work, donned telephone headsets and prepared for battle. The district was in the middle of a “robo-call assault”: A pressure group was robotically calling everyone in the district with a few skewed facts and a bill number, which they should tell the congressman to oppose. The calls also came with an automatic transfer to the congressman’s office, hence the barrage of phone calls. Many of the constituents I spoke to had little idea what they were asking the congressman to oppose, only that they felt very strongly about it. Like the opinions of every caller before them, theirs were tallied.
When legislation comes to a vote, moderate congressmen like the one I worked for will ultimately be the ones who decide whether it passes. Such congressmen weigh a number of different things in their decision, but they take into account each angry phone call.
If all the first-time voters who put Obama over the top disappear from the political scene on Nov. 5, moderate congressmen will be less pressured to support Obama’s agenda. The hard work of countless young volunteers will fade as these voters do.
Yalies, like other young people across country who have worked tirelessly to help get Obama elected, should realize that the hardest part lies ahead. As President Obama governs, he will need vocal support from as many people as possible to put into effect the policies his supporters fought for.
Instead of phone banking and reminding people of the upcoming primary, they should be reminding voters of the upcoming healthcare vote, and they better let their congressmen know how they feel. If Sen. James Inhofe, R.-Okla., and proud owner of the phrase “global warming is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind,” decides to filibuster renewable energy, his voters have to let him know that they think otherwise.
If my robo-call assault example demonstrates anything, it’s that voters are susceptible to suggestion and might even be persuaded to speak out if convenient. Student volunteers aren’t robots, but they have been cogs in one of the most effective political machines of all time — a machine that must keep on going if any of the much vaunted change is to occur.
Will Kletter is a junior in Pierson College.