Here is one possibility:
As an alternative, consider Arnie Graf, who’s been an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for thirty years. Graf and about ten fellow community organizers from Maryland and DC took the last two weeks of the 2004 election off and headed to East Cleveland, a city of
about 30,000 mostly poor and working-class African-Americans. They had been invited by a community-based organization that set them up in a local church to work on boosting voter turnout in the city. “We learned as much as we could about East Cleveland and got to know the issues,” says Graf. “We wound up covering every door, about 30,000 people, and we decided instead of canvassing and talking about Iraq or how many jobs had been lost in Ohio we would talk to people about what was happening in East Cleveland.” Through the network of the East Cleveland Concerned Pastors for Progress, they recruited 140 volunteers who went door to door among their neighbors, and when election day was over Kerry’s vote total in East Cleveland exceeded Gore’s by 97 percent.
What was important here? They didn’t just “hit and run”, they didn’t just knock on the door, run through the canned script and run away, trying to hit their thirty doors per hour quota. They actually stopped to listen to the people they were trying to influence. Someone finally realized that before you can persuade someone to come to your point of view, you must start by listening to theirs. Before they can solve your problem (winning an election) you have to show that you will help them solve their problems, and you can only find out what people need from you by listening to them. But you can’t listen to people you are targeting to ignore.
The 527 PAC ACT (America Coming Together) wanted to follow the 2004 election by creating just such a grassroots precinct system (as the above quote continues):
In a business plan circulated after the election, ACT painted a picture of a kind of ACT 2.0, with deeper local roots, a focus on local issues and races and a mission of training a permanent, stable cohort of professional organizers. “The greatest experience for me,” says Rosenthal, “was going out to places and seeing young organizers who knew how to cut walk lists and put material together and run a GOTV. That was one of the stated missions from the beginning: We were going to train a whole new generation of organizers, and we were going to figure out a way to keep them working year-round.”
Well, if you followed the ACT link, you discover they didn’t get their wish, and if we want it to happen we cannot depend on wealthy Democratic funders to bankroll it. In fact we will have to rediscover that money is just a means to measure human labor, and if we are wise we will emphasize people’s efforts more than money. After the failed election, I went to a meeting where hundreds of those Progressive volunteers who had been working for ACT or MoveOn or NARAL or the League of Pissed Off Voters, (in fact just about all the local Progressive groups I know of) all were looking for ways to continue the struggle. We all put wrote our names and contact information, but I notice we never got any calls back from the Democratic Party. So if it is going to get done we may just have to do it ourselves.
Any group can put together a precinct system. It does not require top down leadership. It merely requires someone with energy and a real liking for people get some neighbors together to contact everybody in their local neighborhood. Ask what issues are important to them, what problems are besetting them, and what would they like to see happen. Ask if they would like to help out. Have some handouts showing people where they can find help for common problems…and have the precinct contact information prominently displayed. (Have block parties and other functions where people can stop seeing each other as strangers and start seeing each other as neighbors for the first time in decades…) And if you find any local techies willing to help out, put all the information down in a local database, ready to share with other databases.
It can be done, and it can be done from the ground up. If people are willing to get out there and do it. If the Party is wise they will encourage it and reap the benefits. If not, they could watch the rest of the country do an end run around the Old Guard…and maybe take our country back.