So this is it. After a week in the Canadian northwoods girding my loins (it's a messy process, don't ask) for election season, we're off and sprinting here in Madison. I've got to say, I still get goosebumps whenever election time rolls around in Madison. This is a city that gets fired up about its politics, something I starved for growing up where I did.
In the next two months, I'll be working a LOT, especially if the race in Wisconsin is as close once again as they're saying it's going to be. Wisconsin went to Al Gore and John Kerry by 10,000 votes or less in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain has really closed the lead Barack Obama had going into the summer.
In 2004, Kerry supporters (myself, while hesitantly, among them) felt certain the race was in the bag. After all, the country was already halfway into the rut we're in now, so who in their right mind could justify another four years of the same?
Turns out, a lot of people. It's still easy to villify people who voted for George W. Bush that year, to say, "51 percent of America is idiots" and "the United States of Jesusland strikes again," but that could prove to be a dangerous mistake going into the final push of the 2008 election.
At his rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard today, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean made an appeal to a small crowd of mostly UW students. Flanked by local celebu-ticians Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and County Executive Kathleen Falk, he told them his generation, the crowd's (and my) parents' generation, had a fine thing going in the late sixties and early seventies, until they got jobs and had kids.
"The mistake we made was we let ourselves get out of politics for a while," Dean said, and I think he has a point.
My mom was a hippie. She won't tell many stories about it anymore, but I've seen pictures. My dad was a rebel in his own way, and then served a term on the Monroe School Board back in the day. But from the narrow point-of-view I held of them as a kid living in their house, I never viewed either of them as political animals.
After all, I was the one listening to politically-charged punk rock and getting into shouting matches in the middle of high school classes over whether invading Iraq was a sensible decision. They were busy putting clothes on my back and food in my mouth, for some reason.
But since I graduated high school, my parents have become noticeably more active in politics. I'm certain that it has as much to do with the declining state of our country as it does with their decreasing parental responsibilities as their kids get older. The last four years it's been especially pronounced, particularly since last winter when the build-up to the Presidential election began.
My Mom made it to Barack Obama's speech at the Kohl Center in February, and it was a thrill to see her as excited as I was about it.
So I do think the sixties generation is more pissed off and paying more attention than they were four years ago, but that's only half the battle. The big purpose of Dean's visit to Madison today was to kick off Wisconsin's voter registration drive.
"It's not just about you going to vote," Dean told the crowd. "You need to go out and register other people to vote, and get them to the polls."
But I disagree, I think that's still not doing enough, and it all gets back to that 51% who voted for George Bush in 2004. I know that 51%. I've spoken with them when I was growing up in Monroe, or working for the newspaper in Portage. They're smart, hard-working people, they just haven't had the time to do their own research, and every source they've ever listened to is still telling them the same thing they've based their decisions on for years: "The Democrats are going to break you with taxes, rip the fetuses out of your women, sieze your guns and force you to get married to a gay partner."
What they hear on the news won't change their minds. Statistics won't change their minds. And if someone shows up at their door wearing an Obama '08 tee-shirt, they'll pull down the blinds and act like no one's home.
The only way to speak to these people, the REAL voters of the American heartland, is to do just that... speak to them. Not as a politician, not as a news man, not as a political activist, but as another person. From as non-confrontational a stance as possible, it is possible to explain the facts to these people: to tell them the policies of the past eight years have left them penniless and benfitted the top crux of American society; that in spite of what old men on fishing trips say, Canadians really are happier with their health care system than we are in America; and that the Republican Party has thrived by convincing blue-collar working people they're going to bat for them, while backing corporate interests.
But no one's figured out how to do that en masse yet, because it's a slow, face-to-face job, and it requires political activists to leave the safe confines of their peers and delve into age and class groups they wouldn't normally interact with. As a UW student, I was bombarded with people who were happy to show me the way to the polls and how to register, but how many of those volunteers ever set foot in a town like Monroe or Portage? Or Rio or Cambria or Juda or Brodhead or Argyle or Evansville or Lodi or Cross Plains or Jefferson or Fort Atkinson?
That's where there are people who stand to make a difference, if they hear the message from someone with the right intentions, someone who can break them out of the voting rut that was handed down to them from three generations ago. And Obama supporters need to figure out how to reach these people, and fast, because as Dean said today, we only get one shot at 2008.
"Don't blow it," he said, and he's right. This is the chance to get a real, respectable leader into the highest office in America, at a time when our nation sorely needs it. It's the kind of chance that comes along maybe twice in a lifetime, and the way things have been lately, it could be our last shot ever if we don't do it right this time.