Among the many ways the mass media devalue democratic politics is their habit of talking about a “ground game.” By describing grassroots organization as a top-down effort in manipulation, no different from the “air game” of TV commercials, this ugly phrase conceals the reality of what happened on Tuesday.
The Obama campaign in the swing states, in 2012 as in 2008, was a mass mobilization on a scale that American politics has not seen in a long time. I saw it in action in Danville, Virginia, an old mill town where I was sent as a volunteer for the last few days of the campaign.
A long summer of voter registration and an intense focus on personal contact with marginal voters paid off on Election Day. First-time voters, more than a few in their forties and fifties, flocked to the polls. Obama carried the city with 60.5 percent of the vote, 1.5 percent more than he received four years ago.
This outcome required an intense effort. Scores of local volunteers were on the streets, knocking on doors and talking to neighbors. The national campaign sent in organizers, of course, and rented an office, but the real work was done within the community. (Only on the last weekend were there a half-dozen volunteers from out of town.)
Voters and activists alike understood what the election was about. Marginal voters—many of them so little attuned to politics that they weren’t sure, the weekend before Election Day, which candidate for Senate was the Democrat—knew exactly what was meant by “the 1 percent.” Among white voters, the affluent went overwhelmingly for Romney; Obama supporters were mostly found lower down on the economic spectrum.
This politicization around class issues has immense potential for the future. It is hard to say how the forces stirred into action this year might express themselves next. It might be a continuation of the campaign organization—emails have already gone out to volunteers saying that the movement will continue—or something independent could emerge.
Either possibility depends on the president’s leadership. By running a class-based campaign like nothing this country has seen since at least 1948, he made himself the embodiment of the fight against plutocracy. If the fruitless search for compromise at almost any cost resumes, a moment of opportunity will pass. But if he uses his second term to fight for the values he was elected on, Barack Obama can be a transformative president in terms of class as well as race.
Benjamin Ross is author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment. He is an environmental consultant in Washington and has been an expert for community groups in lawsuits over cleanup of chromium manufacturing sites.