Monday, June 20, 2011

Canvassing (Part II) and Stumping

We thought we were close to being done with the canvas to get a 2nd candidate on the ballot for my district, so we could actually have democracy in my neighborhood. The election board has been incredibly helpful in keeping us informed about what they are accepting and what they aren't. Unfortunately, of the 180-ish signatures we collected, they are only accepting 111, meaning about 40% of the community we tried to include into the political process, have been disenfranchised. Granted some of those citizens should legitimately have been excluded, since they are outside of my district. But our estimate was that accounted for less than 10% of our signatures after we went back to our district map to check the addresses.

Today I started again in my area. My helpers from last week gave all they were able, and I can't believe how much help I had. The total work was about 50 hours, coming up to about 2 valid signatures per hour. Hopefully I had better luck today, since the income levels in the neighborhood I canvassed today is greater than Hovey, Ralston, Caroline and Guilford streets from last week. It's a shame when I can feel safe in assuming greater political voice of a citizen based solely on income level. Then again, data indicates this is the case, when the median net worth of a US citizen is $95k, for a US house representative it is $800k, and the median net worth of a U.S. senator is $1.7M (2008).

I don't get them often, but I occasionally run into the cautious person who won't sign because they want to "investigate who I am" first. I've been trying to decide if they really believe this line, since certainly they won't do any "investigation," or if they believe it's a polite way to say "no thanks." It's certainly any person's human right not to sign a document that grants them voting rights, and given our 35% voter turnout, that sentiment seems to be normative for our culture. I suppose I shouldn't complain since I was a voting protester for 20 years, but in this case it seems like a very different kind of decision. In my case, I consciously decided that I could foster democracy and humanitarianism in ways that did not lend support to power-politics. In the case of these folks who are refusing to sign the petition, they either like the current candidate and don't want him to have competition, or they don't want to be bothered and I suppose they are too polite to just tell me to go away. I have had several of the "get off my property"-type folks, who I have grown to respect more than these other types of citizens.

Yesterday I gave my first public "stump speech" to a small group, which won me my first political endorsement. Here is the speech that I read:

"Government and business are fundamentally different social structures. Especially in the United States where our laws and culture have developed to prioritize the individual consolidation of wealth, even when it harms the public good. This unification of culture and legislation has ramped up since the 1980s, such that both Republicans and Democrats have succumbed to the mythology of neoliberalism, that low taxes on the wealthy will allow them to invest in business, and cutting benefits for the poor will encourage them to go work. But neoliberalism ignores fundamental patterns of human behavior. First, humans derive fulfillment from work. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to assume that the poor are inherently lazy and inclined to criminal behavior, and that the wealthy are inherently inclined to invest in employment. However, 30 years of data, beginning with the 1980s, confirms that the wealthy tend to hoard wealth, and the poor will work if jobs are available. The tragedy is that the number of jobs has been plummeting, since corporations are more willing to send those jobs overseas where workers are little more than slaves and are far cheaper than U.S. workers. Similarly, corporations, rather than investing in the common good, invest primarily in projects that benefit their board and their investors, even if it means dangerous working conditions for miners or oil riggers, or dangerous products for U.S. consumers. Rather than increasing funding and transparency for public safety, neoliberals in both parties prefer to strip this function of government, assuming falsely that corporations are inherently incentivized to maximize worker, consumer and public good, when in fact, the record shows they are incentivized only to maximize profit at any cost.

What the record shows us, whether Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, or Obama, is that government does not need to be stripped of power as such, but the government needs to be returned to a social structure that is by and for the people, one that protects public safety, worker compensation, and the re-enfranchisement of the poor. This can only occur with an educated, empowered population who have the capacity to affect public policy. Locally, both Democrats and Republicans have been voting to sell public goods to private entities, and to disenfranchise women, racial minorities, sexual minorities and the poor. Our response to this must be to empower third party candidates and remember , when voting, that the wealthy and corporations already have far more power than they need, both of which have been consistently empowered by the current two-party system, while stripping the poor and middle class of political voice."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Canvassing Day 5

Today took a warm turn--it started to get hot, and made canvassing difficult. The street we were on seemed like a nice, quiet street, although still poor and with a lot of empty houses. However, residents said it was simply an unusual day, since normally the warm weather brings loud neighbors out of their homes to hang out on street corners.

What was supposed to be the last day of canvassing, a thought that helped me get through the hot afternoon, turned out to be far more demoralizing. The city-county workers have been very helpful so far. However, today they had to inform me that they are throwing out over 1/3 of the names we have worked so hard to collect. Various technicalities, including things like putting an address on the petition that was next door to where they were registered to vote. We went to poor neighborhoods partly to empower the residents by meeting them and including them in the political process. Now that they have joined the political process, their voices are being silenced by the bureaucratic process. Not only is this disappointing for the residents, but that also means that I have several more days of canvassing during a week when it is supposed to be hot and stormy.

Canvassing my own neighborhood later that night after this bad news was further demoralizing. I assumed if I waited until 6pm that I would catch people when they got home from work. However, I had failed to remember that the data indicates that since the 1980s, workers have been taking fewer vacation days per year, and working more hours per week. I found this to be true in my neighborhood which is being populated by under 40s professionals. As late as 6pm, on average I found one person home for every 2 blocks, and I didn't see people start coming home until after 8pm, which I felt was too late to impose, plus it had already been a long day of disappointments.

The positive for today is that I had my first Letter to the Editor published in our local paper. I have never thought about writing one, since I never read them. As a social scientist, a positivist no less, I typically don't read anything other than news and studies--I don't read fiction and have even less interest in the opinions of random people. In fact I tell my students at the beginning of all of my classes that I don't care about their opinions, and they shouldn't care about mine, that as a professor my job isn't to tell them about opinions, but to teach them about scientific research and data, and how to extract fact from opinion. So it felt like a step backwards to write and publish something that was going to be called an "opinion." However, several of my colleagues said that a letter to the editor was a good way to "announce" my candidacy. So while the letter was published, the responses were dismally predictable--readers saying yes or no, with no interaction with actual data.

This lack of interaction with real data is one of the tragedies of our "modern" political system and a profound deficit in our public discourse. Neither politicians, nor the public, listen to real data, and have become, instead, convinced that you can find any study to prove anything you want, having little understanding that there is a mountain of "good" data available, but haven't been taught to distinguish opinion polls from scientifically collected peer-reviewed research, or empowered to feel like they can state fact from opinion. Take the recent economic crisis. The federal government commissioned several groups to advise them how to handle public policy. The Congressional Budget Office, comprised of bipartisan and non-partisan social scientists to put together a plan for creating jobs. Lowering taxes on the wealthy was at the very bottom of the list for what would create jobs. However, the entire public discourse, and the primary political strategy, was to lower taxes. Similarly, when the president commissioned the debt commission to advise us how to deal with the national debt, it was completely ignored. Rather than following the data, our politicians are simply following opinion. The utter lack of respect for science has permeated our culture, and is contributing to a lack of hope by the public, and a lack of viable policy from politicians.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Canvassing Day 4

Canvassing started up again today. A third person joined us, and we continued back into a blighted area. I didn't register any voters today, whereas I think we have registered about 25 people earlier in the week. Today I got slowed down because one of the residents decided to argue about issues for 45 minutes. He spoke from experience, which has to count for something--but he seemed to have a fairly limited field of social networks, from the middle-class as opposed to the poor. While I was arguing about Democrats in City-Council who have been voting like Republicans, failing to support the poor, he adamantly denied that the city-council's and mayor's policies were disenfranchising the poor. Considering his surroundings, an extremely poor community, it was difficulty to understand his motivation or his reasoning. I thought perhaps he had a personal connection to his city-councilor, Jackie Nytes (who is leaving), but he hadn't even heard of her. He also had several misconceptions about charter schools, and was FIRM in his (wrong) beliefs, like the belief that most charter schools around the nation are doing better than public schools (only 3% are doing better than public schools), and that Peterson didn't put any special guidelines on charter schools (which he did, making them follow the same restrictions as public schools, guidelines that Daniels' plan wants to rescind).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 3 of Canvassing

Three of us were supposed to canvass today. The previous 2 days there have been just 2 of us. However, it was supposed to storm all day so we cancelled the outing. However, the rain let up so I canvassed my neighborhood by myself. Our previous canvassing was in very poor areas with high unemployment. My neighborhood is transitional, with quite a few wealthy people who took advantage of low home prices from the gentrification process, as well as long-time residents who were able to keep their homes, despite attempts to force them out by high taxation and incessant citations.

I had a neighbor question about something that I thought was fundamental common sense. By the posters she had around the house, she clearly has an interest in education, and I assumed we would agree that strong schools create the foundation for strong communities. She visibly shut down at that point and called me a social engineer. I wasn't sure what she meant by that and when I asked for clarification she acted like I wasn't worth her time if I didn't understand why having safe, educated children was social engineering. She wouldn't sign my petition, which is fine, but considering there's only one person on the ballot for our district, I hope she realizes that refusing to allow anybody else on the ballot means that there is no democracy.

On a more positive note, later in the day I met with another local candidate who is also trying to get on the ballot, but for state, whereas I'm running for city. She and I had a great talk as she talked about her previous experiences running and shared ideas.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Day 2 of Canvassing

The second day of canvassing went as well as the first. Not as many vacant houses, but still a lot of unemployment, so there were a lot of people home during the day. Like yesterday, people were eager to talk about issues and expressed dissatisfaction with both parties. Running as an Independent seems to be working to my benefit so far, although we've been targeting districts that will tend to be supportive of Independents. I also canvassed my own neighborhood, and am getting almost unanimous support. Interestingly, the residents in my neighborhood don't know I live near them, yet they aren't asking any of my political views. In the poorer areas, they seem more engaged.

I filed my paperwork for candidacy today and things went smoothly. The man who is acting as my campaign manager worked on Nader's campaign and has horror stories. The election board and voter registration were obstructionist. The citizens they were asking to sign petitions wouldn't sign. I don't know whether it's the district, a change in times, or something else, but since I don't take rejection well, so far it's been a great experience.

We're more than halfway through and it's just the 2nd day--I've got 100 signatures so if we double that, it's far more than I need. But now I'm exhausted from walking all day, talking to strangers, and shaking hands, and I haven't even walked the dogs yet.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Today I announced my candidacy for office--Independent for District 9, Indianapolis, IN

Today I began my first public campaign for office. I am running for city-council district 9 in Indianapolis, in one of the most Democratic districts in the city. Currently the incumbent is leaving, a right-leaning Democrat, and the only candidate running to take her place is currently on a local board of education. Why not give him some competition? I am a professor of sociology/international studies at three local universities (Butler, Marian and IUPUI), so being steeped in the social science research literature I should have the background to provide an intellectual challenge to current ideas about tackling our social and economic problems, which have for far too long been addressed abysmally by market fundamentalists from both parties.

Today began with a meeting with a local political activist who has taken me as a cause and motivated me to stop being lazy. We met today for what I thought would be a discussion about my politics, but turned out to be a day of street canvassing, my first. I thought it would be dreadful, since it is stressful and draining for me to talk to strangers. However, it was actually fun. We canvassed several streets for 5 hours. About half of the houses were vacant, and another quarter appeared to have occupants, but nobody was home. The houses where we actually had people talk to us were exciting, because almost every person signed my petition for candidacy, and many of them had insightful questions, comments, and stories. We were in one of the poorest areas in my district, but also one of the lowest crime rates.

After 20 years of being a religious protester against politics and voting (Mennonite-leaning), ten years of studying the sociology of poverty as a researcher/professor, and two years of living in a blighted area where unemployment, vacant houses, and a government that ignores the poor while subsidizing large corporations, I've come to the realization that while we never read about Jesus advocating that anybody go into public office, he clearly wanted us to serve the poor, and since contemporary U.S. poverty is perpetuated on the structure of poor governance, stepping into governance seems like a good place to start.