The Presidency of Donald Trump has seen the soft guard rails of our democracy eroded. For the first time in recent memory, the protections that many thought were intertwined with American style democracy have begun to disappear. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these concerns even more urgent. These soft guardrails as identified by Levitsky and Ziblatt include the norms of forbearance and mutual toleration. Both of these norms have been eroded over time, beginning long before a Trump presidency. Both deal primarily with the respect of legitimate political competition and an agreement to play within the established rules. Against the backdrop of these actions we have seen mass political participation increase markedly. This was evident from the massive popular protests of President Trump following his inauguration and has continued throughout his presidency. This erosion of norms has led to more people who would typically not be active in politics see the urgent need for them to do so. This can be seen in the explosion of online campaigning tapping into existing networks on social media and creating their own, particularly amongst young people.
With the current pandemic raging on, traditional voter outreach efforts have had to be rethought and modernized. Typically one of the best and most impactful ways to reach voters is to knock on their doors and talk with them directly. This helps campaigns identify their supporters and make sure that these voters get out to the polls. With worries about transmission of the COVID-19 virus still ongoing, GOTV efforts have been retooled for the online world. For my first civic engagement assignment I volunteered for a phone bank. Unlike traditional phone banking that may conjure up images of volunteers sitting in a conference room dialing calls and sharing pizza, this phone bank was held over Zoom. The phone bank was coordinated by the Ed Markey for Senate campaign and was for a slate of down ballot candidates.
From the list of down ballot candidates, I chose to make calls for Meg Wheeler. I chose Wheeler’s campaign because I had learned about her candidacy and great work at a previous internship. I found Wheeler to be incredibly driven and interested in policy specifics, both good indicators of success for future legislators. I also was interested in the race itself. Wheeler is facing stiff competition from Patrick O’Connor, an incumbent Republican. O’Connor had received bipartisan support and portrayed himself as a moderate Republican, looking to make deals from the center. It will be interesting to see if a self styled progressive can break through in the traditionally conservative area of Plymouth and Norfolk MA.
The phone bank started off with a brief informational session. Run by two Markey campaign fellows, these young people helped guide us through the phone bank. This helped clarify things and gave new phone bankers a solid ground to start off from. The organizers were available to answer any questions that participants had. The phone bank took place through vote builder, and allowed each caller to work independently.
I decided on this specific phone bank because I thought it would reveal some information about the Markey campaigns political outreach. As a sitting U.S. Senator who was facing a tough re-election campaign, Markey relied on down ballot candidates to help turn out the vote. Now after the primary Markey is hoping to use those connections to boost his turnout in November. By using his campaign to help organize phone banking for down ballot candidates Markey is helping out and shoring up his support. This speaks to the effectiveness of the Markey campaign in mobilizing grassroots organizers to push for progresive candidates up and down the ballot. Markey’s victory was also in large part due to his support from engaged young people who have been inspired to political action due in part to the precarious state of American democracy.
Phone banking also revealed some things about Wheeler’s campaign. Her messaging was simple and seemed to resonate with the voters who I spoke with. However the script provided was less robust than most and may have been challenging for those with less information about her campaign. I was already working with some knowledge of her positions and goals but those less familiar may have had some difficulty in talking with voters. Wheeler’s website on the other hand provides lots of detailed information on her plans and policy goals. If I could give some feedback to the campaign I’d say that they should include some of this in the script given to phone bankers.
Overall the experience of participating in the phone bank was engaging and rewarding. I’m glad that I was able to participate in this important race. This phone bank allowed me to reach out to voters and make a connection that hopefully leads to their voting in the November election.