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The mobilization

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

Multitudes who despise politics are today discovering politics – discovering, as Marshall Berman once put it (paraphrasing Trotsky), that they may not be interested in politics but politics is interested in them.

What’s looming is without doubt a which-side-are-you-on moment. The armies, knowing and ignorant, clash by day and night as the electorate polarizes for and against the force that is George W. Bush. The alarms are not confus’d. They are dead on.

The legions of the distraught who view America in alarm and despair from outlying regions – Europe, Asia, the Upper West Side of Manhattan – tend to dwell on the chance, or the likelihood, that the fix is in. Voting machines may be rigged. Absentee votes may be rigged. Republicans have been spotted filling in the party registration forms of newly naturalized citizens – in Florida. Local police have been scaring African-American voters – in Florida. There are plenty of reasons to fear the worst – not just in Florida.

There always are.

But the grimmest of Democrats, liberals, and reconstructed left-wingers may not realize the scale or intensity of the current mobilization. Voters under 25 – do the arithmetic: they were born since 1979 and so have no memory of a president before Ronald Reagan – are blinking their eyes, discovering that their anguish is more than private. Barely more than one-third – 36 percent – of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2000. Odds are that this number will soar, even if just this one time. Surveys on who is paying attention show that the numbers are impressively up since 2000. But the numbers don’t speak for themselves.

Talk about battleground states. Republicans nourish their own pre-apocalyptic sense of imminent conquest. At their New York convention, they cheered the crackpot caudillo fulminations of Zell Miller as much as they cheered anyone milder. They are getting the idea that this is – by right – their country. Call it bravado, but you have to take the master right-wing organizer-lobbyist Grover Norquist seriously when he writes in fervent hope: “The modern Democratic Party cannot survive the reelection of President George W. Bush and another four years of Republican control of both Congress and the White House.”

Figures about the right’s national mobilization are hard to come by, which may betoken either their successes or their failures. Nationally, the Republicans claim to have registered 2,250,936 new voters through June, but have not published more recent figures, possibly because they’re not looking so good from their point of view. Evangelical churches have been spurred to sign up their congregations – though their degree of compliance is also unmeasured.

In crucial Florida, the St. Petersburg Times reports that “Republicans have added nearly 20,000 more voters to the rolls than Democrats” since 2000. “The recent trend, however, looks much better for the Democrats,” added the Times’ Adam C. Smith on 5 September. “From December to August, they gained nearly 186,000 registrations, compared to nearly 128,000 for Republicans and 174,000 registered to neither party.” The roughly 100,000 Arab-American voters in Florida, who went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2000, will probably not repeat.

Northern college Republicans, observing a huge Kerry margin among students, are opting out of cross-party registration campaigns, and focusing on their faithful.

On the Democratic side, the mobilization surpasses in scale and intensity anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a recognition that, if Bush wins this time, it will be harder to say that the American people stumbled into a cataclysm in a fit of inadvertency. To use the adage Bush once garbled: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. (Of course, arrogant Bush couldn’t get his mind around the possibility that he might be fooled twice.)

The officially nonpartisan (“527”) groups, so-called after a provision of the election law, claim big successes in mobilizing voters so far. The liberal group U.S. Action claims about 400,000 new registrations in swing states. Americans Coming Together, the biggest and best-funded group, claims an equivalent number. Democratic despair after the recent big-bulge-for-Bush survey results (about which I wrote last week resulted in mushrooming numbers of volunteers. The spirit of “Don’t mourn, organize” is abroad in the land.

One example: the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood are mobilizing women, 50 million of whom didn’t vote in 2000. Single and divorced women make up a huge potential Kerry constituency, but they – especially the poorer, more vulnerable ones – tend not to register. Some people speak about organizing direct approaches to beauty salons, laundromats, and other such female stomping grounds.

Another example: Moveonpac.org, a spin-off of the phenomenal internet network, is raising this week a $5 million budget to send 500 full-time organizers into battleground states to stoke up Kerry voters before Election Day. When I started writing this column this morning, their tally stood at $3.7 million. I thought I should check again before filing, and sure enough, five hours later, the sum stands at $4.5 million.

Striking a blow against abstinence-only campaigns, one of the more original mobilizations calls itself Votergasm. Talk about making the political personal: This is a sort of affirmative-action reverse Lysistrata operation: “I pledge to have sex with voters. And nobody else.” “On Nov. 2…I will vote. I will get laid. I will love America.” Votergasm offers three levels of membership: A “citizen” pledges “to withhold sex from non-voters for the week following the election.” A “patriot” pledges “to have sex with a voter on election night and withhold sex from non-voters for the week following the election.” An “American hero” goes all the way, pledging “to have sex with a voter on election night and withhold sex from non-voters for the next four years.”

Far wittier than “Sex in the City” – if that’s not too easy a mark – Votergasm offers the sassiest, best-laid-out, and runaway funniest website of this political season. “We’re trying to make voting sexy,” said spokeswoman Michelle Collins to the Columbia Daily Spectator. “We care as much about voter turn-on as voter turn-out.”

When I asked her how real the project was, Ms. Collins said that was a good question. “It started tongue-in-cheek,” she said, “and then it’s gotten more serious.” In two weeks of existence, they’ve scored about 2500 pledges. This week, the group starts advertising in college papers in swing states – the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State, the University of Florida. They haven’t been denounced yet, but they’re hoping. They’re nonpartisan, and Ms. Collins has gotten more e-mails expressing Republican interest than Democratic, for what that’s worth.

Vote early and often, they used to say in Chicago. Bitch Less, Fuck More, said a T-shirt I once saw in San Francisco. Votergasm might be a first: the making of the first twenty-first century make-love-not-war machine.


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