November 6, 2008
Politics, Big and Small
Times Square, 11-04-08
Primrose St., Philadelphia 11-02-08
On Election Night, I walked through Times Square twice. The first time was sometime after 7. Obama had won Vermont and McCain had taken Kentucky. No surprises yet. No real news. I was enroute to an election bash at some club on W. 50th. The party turned out to be insufferable. Awful club. Too crowded. And every big screen TV was tuned to CNN. No MSNBC. No CSPAN. What kind of party was this? I didn’t stay. I went back to Times Square and stood for a while opposite the big, undulating ABC screen at 44th St. taking great pleasure in the spontaneous gathering going on all around me. People had come to Times Square to watch the election results as if it were New Years Eve, but without all the security apparatus and the manufactured jollity. When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared on the big screen as a guest commentator on ABC, a loud “boo” rose from the pavement. Somehow, on this evening, Times Square had morphed from a place for contrived public spectacle to a place for genuine public spectacle.
I stood there thinking about how politics actually works. On one hand, there’s nothing bigger in terms of national media presence, money spent, and production values than a presidential campaign. It’s all broad strokes — “Country First,” “Change” — and media blitz. But on the Friday before the election, I found myself sitting in a crummy little storefront in a part of Philadelphia miles from Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross’s old haunts, generating Google maps with a fellow Obama campaign volunteer named Mary.
We were making sure that the packets volunteers would be using for the weekend’s big Get Out the Vote (GOTV) drive contained clear, correct driving directions. Inside each packet was a detailed block by block list of the Obama supporters in one small section of NE Philly. Scores of canvassers would spend the next days “walking” the packets, ringing the doorbell of every known supporter and urging them to go to the polls on Tuesday. But some of the Google maps were incorrect, so Mary and I were generating new ones.
Mary would say to me: “Primrose Road and Lavender Street.” I would enter the coordinates into the computer and hit the print button. “Brous Avenue and Brocklehurst Street,” she’d say. “Blue Grass Road and Winchester Avenue.”
And it struck me, as we were working, that politics isn’t just about the big ticket image making and endless spin, but about this micro-scale process of identifying and motivating individuals, one by one. Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local.” But I never really understood how local he meant until I found myself wandering the curving lanes of NE Philly, walking from one modest duplex to the next, clipboard in hand, Obama button pinned to my lapel, trying to remember to smile.
So there I was standing in Times Square watching the election unfold at Jumbotron scale, and thinking about all the little houses I’d personally visited in Philly, and all the doorbells rung by my fellow volunteers in that one neighborhood multiplied by many thousands of volunteers systematically ringing doorbells in neighborhoods across America. Standing in Times Square I was seeing the big picture, but what I was thinking about was how that picture is actually comprised of tiny pixels.
I snapped the iPhone photo (above) in Philly, while standing on the front steps of the duplex across the street thinking, “This is what politics looks like.”
P.S. For the theory of big and small, watch this 60 Minutes interview with the Obama team.