“Hello, I’m not a citizen, but as a recipient of taxpayer monies I follow your politics quite closely.”
In early November I received an invitation from Pascal, a fellow graduate student, to attend my first “informational and agitational event for people interested in progressive organizing off-campus.” Pascal ended the invitation on an effective note: “You’re on this list because I already have reason to think you might be interested.”
I knew what that reason was. Pascal and I had taken a class together on Marx’s Capital, and we’d had several long conversations after seminar, often centered on the relation of theory and practice. This was the third or fourth Marx class I had taken since arriving at University of Chicago in 2009. I had already settled on an interpretation of Capital and was in the habit of using the phrase, “after the revolution” to preface statements about the ideal state of human affairs. Most importantly, I took from Marx the idea that most current political activism, though well-meaning, ends by reinforcing the structures whose pernicious effects it intends to ameliorate.
Pascal opened the meeting by asking us why we hadn’t gotten involved earlier. Most castigated themselves for being lazy or weak of will. I waited for my turn and said I don’t suffer from a weak will. I haven’t acted because I’m leery of activism, which is often ineffectual and sometimes worse. It seemed to me my time was better spent analyzing problems and assessing the adequacy of their solutions, rather than plunging myself into uncertain causes.
But I was sympathetic to the group Pascal works with in Chicago, the People’s Lobby. They hold an economic outlook I broadly share, thoughtfully integrate theory and practice, and are always attentive to the relation between the concrete issues they are directing their efforts towards in the near term (e.g. living wage, mass incarceration, electoral races) and their long-term goals. If anything could work, I thought, this was it. At the end of the evening, I filled the information card and expressed an interest in learning more. Pascal didn’t contact me again. I was as much relieved as disappointed, and I bore no grudge: he prioritized his potential recruits prudently, and directed his efforts elsewhere.
Then in mid-January this came along:
In election season, we have a lot to win and a lot to lose. I’m writing about two opportunities that we have now for making an impact on important races. Please consider participating in at least one of these efforts. More importantly than supporting these particular candidates and resisting their opponents, you will be contributing to building a durable progressive movement with material power over the electoral process.
I figured that campaigning for Bernie Sanders—to the best of my understanding, an unelectable candidate—would keep me safe from promoting too much inadvertent harm. As a foreigner, I pay taxes but cannot vote. I had never been to Iowa.
With trepidation, I offered to join. At the preparatory meeting a fellow recruit said he was worried that, just like Obama, Bernie wouldn’t be able to keep his promises. Pascal explained that the goal of the campaign was not only to elect a president but also to shift the national conversation to the left. I added that we have no reason to worry since we all know Bernie is going to lose. Pascal patiently corrected me: the race was close in Iowa and in 2008 Obama’s early victories initiated a shift of support from Clinton over to him.
I asked what to do if the Iowans asked me a question I couldn’t answer. Pascal said that if that happens we should own our ignorance and tell them something about why we personally support Bernie. I suggested, “He’s just like Obama, but white and old!” My fellow recruit said, “Lenin is dead!”
On Saturday, January 30th, two days before the Iowa Caucus, I woke up at 5 a.m. and Ubered across Hyde Park to the meeting point. On the way to Iowa we discussed a recent lecture about the active intellect in Aristotle’s Metaphysics and gossiped about departmental politics.
After three and a half hours we reached Muscatine, a small city of roughly 23,000 on Iowa’s eastern border. The streets were empty, and peppered with pawnshops. We found the Bernie Sanders campaign office next to the “No More Butts Vapor Lounge” and enjoyed a requisite local diner breakfast.
Upon our return to the office, two-dozen college kids from Chicago stormed the premises. I pushed my way to the tables, picked up a copy of every sheet of information and began to commit to memory my new talking points. On my forearms I pressed two round, blue “Ask Me about Retirement Funding” stickers. I didn’t want to be asked about retirement funding and inquired after alternative buttons. A college kid with too much debate experience and no sense of humor started lecturing me about lifting the cap on taxable income. I wore the bumper stickers around my shins and placed a large one on the back of my winter coat. One of the college kids pointed out that the hood of my coat was obscuring the slogan.
We formed a circle in the back room around the office managers Jared and Michael. The task on Saturday was to reach more or less confirmed Bernie supporters and encourage them to caucus. On Monday they were to go to the nearby caucus location, a local middle school or media center, at 6:30 p.m.—and under no circumstances later than 7 p.m., when the doors would close—and stand with a few dozen of their neighbors on one side of the gym or the other.
Through the glass walls of the nearby coffee shop, across a large concrete patio, the Mississippi river reflected a cold sun. We practiced our lines. The script called for a discussion of the Middle Eastern quagmire. I preferred free public education, while others pitched campaign-finance reform and single-payer health care. Pascal encouraged us to try to develop a personal connection with the people we met. With door hangers, pens, lists and outdated maps in hand, we hit the road.
The small suburban street and perpendicular cul-de-sac my partner and I were assigned to canvas lay between a large field and a cemetery.
People opened their doors halfway. They weren’t reluctant to talk, but they were coy about it. Some answered directly, Clinton or Bernie (“That man is smart as a whip!”). Some, leaning Clinton or still undecided, were willing to listen to me explain why I had come all the way from Chicago to campaign for Bernie before they thanked me and promised to think about it. A few let themselves be drawn into longer conversations. The rest were Republicans.
I quickly solved the mystery of why Bernie was faring worse with older voters. They know what old age is like. Voters over 60 consistently raised concerns over Bernie being 74. I tried to counter their worries, but they were left unsurprisingly cold by my mention of the YouTube video of Bernie running to catch the subway, which we had so enthusiastically shared with each other back at campaign headquarters.
At 3 p.m. my group was ready to lunch and leave. But another group, likewise composed of University of Chicago graduate students, was staying for another shift and had one more spot in their car. I forfeited lunch and joined them. I was tired and it was getting cold, but my new team members were in high spirits. I inquired about the highlights of their day. The first and only reply was from one member who saw the decomposing carcass of a dog flattened on the ground.
On this last canvassing shift, each of us was given about seven houses. It was late afternoon and the neighborhood was wet and still. At the first house a very old woman told me again that Bernie was too old: she would have voted for Bernie five years ago, but not today.
I slumped and crossed the street towards another house, where the couple I was sent to speak with stood in their garage.
“Hello, I’m looking for Jessica Thompson,”* I said tentatively. Mrs. T greeted me with a suspicious smile.
“My name is Anastasia and I came all the way from Chicago to canvass for Bernie.” I turned sideways, raised my arm in a high bicep curl and brandished my sticker.
Mr. T was connecting white plastic pipes to one another. Mrs. T was unloading things from the car.
“Will you be caucusing this year?” I asked.
Mrs. T had caucused in 2008 and it was a nightmare, she said. She wouldn’t be caucusing this year, or ever again. I had heard that once before earlier that day: caucusing in Iowa can be a four-hour process and if a candidate gets invalidated a loud tug-a-rope ensues between the remaining candidates’ supporters. Her husband was a Republican.
I asked for permission to say a few words about why I liked Bernie. I said that as a student and a teacher at a university—I was warned I should mention teaching to imply I am gainfully employed—I think free public education and relief of student debt is very important. I mentioned that affordable higher education is standard worldwide.
They said that’s nice and asked who is going to pay for all of that. Every response carried the danger of being caught off guard, but this one was easy: “No policy comes without a concrete payment plan,” I said. “Higher education reform will be paid for by a tax on a fraction of a percent on high-volume speculative Wall Street transactions.” The husband asked me what kind of transactions. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure.” I wondered whether I’d made up the claim about volume.
They were in nearly the highest tax bracket, they informed me, and they were worried their taxes would increase.
I’m used to taking for granted that the person I’m talking to will agree that the widening gap between the rich and the poor is a problem, but I didn’t know how to justify to this couple why their taxes should increase. I couldn’t guess how much they were making, and I wouldn’t know what tax bracket that would place them in even if I could. I said that they would save money on health care.
I saw that my canvassing street partner was done with all his houses and was waiting for me by the car.
We continued to talk. I told them what I knew about single payer health insurance, about education, the TPP trade deal, and said that the polls show that only Bernie can beat each and every Republican candidate in the general election. I even tried to explain retirement funding.
To my surprise, Mrs. T suddenly paused and asked, “What is really the difference between Bernie and Hillary?” No one had asked me this before. This was my moment. I would have to deliver my Mr.-Pink-“I-Don’t-Tip”-meets-Braveheart speech here on a darkening Saturday afternoon in Muscatine, Iowa. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the whole group had gathered around the car nearby. What came next would need to be worth the wait.
I said that we can trust Bernie. That Bernie did not mold himself to fit America; Bernie has been Bernie for a very long time, and now America has finally come around to him (I came up with this one during the day). I said that Bernie doesn’t owe the kinds of favors that Hillary does, that he’s running for president and not thinking about a career on the lecture circuit afterwards (I worried I was implying he would die as soon as his term was up). I said Bernie is running his campaign on small private donations, whereas Hillary took months to refuse contributions from private prisons. As I felt myself trailing off, the husband chimed in, “Most Americans don’t even know there is such a thing as private prisons.” They were listening.
I said a vote for Bernie is not just a vote for one candidate or another; it’s a vote to change the face of politics. We have to make sure, I said, that policy doesn’t just represent the interest of corporations and the ultra-wealthy. Campaign-finance reform makes that possible. A vote for Bernie is a vote to make sure that our votes count in the future.
I said to Mrs. T. that I was sorry for asking her to go to caucus, that it sounded awful, but that if it was any consolation, we had driven a total of seven hours to come out here. I said that I’d never done anything like this before myself.
Mr. T walked into the house. Mrs. T asked me if one could change their party registration at the caucus, referring to her husband. They certainly could, I said. (I had learned that, too, earlier that day.) She said that Obama was the first Democrat her husband ever voted for, back in 2008.
Mrs. T said that she saw us getting out of the car and thought we looked cool. She pointed to a house across the street with Bernie lawn signs and said, “They’re the richest family in the neighborhood.”
I don’t know how long we talked for. Wanting to leave on a high note, I said I should go and thanked them for their time. I turned to my notepad and asked if it was okay to put her down as undecided.
Ms. T said, “Go tell your friends you got a no to a yes,” and turned to her husband. “Will you come caucus with me? Come stand with me?”
Her husband refused. She looked at me and smiled.
At 6 p.m. we were back in the office in time for pizza. I remember saying that I didn’t remember the last time I felt like I had “earned a meal.”
I returned to Chicago and attended a magazine release party, taking every opportunity to share that I had just come back from Iowa. I spoke about education and health care and campaign-finance reform to anyone who’d listen. But what was most remarkable, I repeated, was how seriously Iowans took Bernie. Perhaps especially the ones who said they wouldn’t vote for him or were undecided. They didn’t say he was unelectable; they didn’t say they’d vote for Hillary because it was the pragmatic thing to do.
During the caucus on Monday night, my adoptive late-shift team reconvened the text-messaging group they had established on Saturday. Someone sent the information on Muscatine county: Clinton had an early lead. Expletives followed. To express how I felt, I sent a row of emojis of an ape covering its eyes with its hands. The gap between Clinton and Bernie was slowly closing. I left to take a shower and the gap narrowed dramatically. I considered taking another one for good luck.
Bernie won Muscatine County by 144 votes, 972 to 828.
Image credit: Kara Brugman
*Name has been changed.