What Nobody Sent
#4. The point of Swing Left is to harness the talents of people who don’t live in a swing district, and use those talents where they will do most good. It’s good sense: it’s also radically strange.
In 1952, a law student named Abner Mikvah stopped into his local Democratic Party office to volunteer to work for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas. “Who sent ya?” asked the ward boss in charge.
“Nobody sent me,” Abner replied.
“Well, we don’t want nobody that nobody sent.” (Mikvah would eventually become a legendary Illinois Congressman, judge, and White House Counsel.)
This story is baked into the Democrats’ DNA. It actually made sense once: the typical law student was Republican, back at the turn of the 20th century. So were the lawyers, the doctors, the ministers, the university professors. If it mattered whether your shirt was clean, you were probably a Republican. Democratic volunteers were stevedores, horsemen, plumbers. Good men (they were mostly men, back then), strong men, men you would want at your side in a dark alley when the Pinkertons were closing in. But not educated men or sophisticated men, or men of rare talents: if you turned away one volunteer, you could find another just as good walking down the street.
That’s not our world, not now. If you have an advanced degree now, you’re likely a Democrat. Still, we worry about impostors, and we worry about volunteers who are just going to barge in and muck stuff up.
I’m finding that a big part of my job as regional coordinator, at least in all these meetings with party officials, is assuring people that we’re really here to help and that we won’t break their china. This shouldn’t be as hard as it is. I mean, look at me: I’m obviously not running for office, or bucking for a job with the party, or anything like that. We’ve got people who are dying to help, just as soon as the Party decides who to endorse. (That’ll be settled this Tuesday!)
One problem, of course, is the memory of past organizations that tried to split or wreck the party: Reds, Dixiecrats, George Wallace, Yippees, or whatever Democratic goblin haunts you. Schism is a worry. Then again, imagine a world in which Hubert H. Humphrey, Minnesota’s greatest politician, found the strength in 1968 to give one more great speech at the risk of splitting the party a second time: we might have been spared Nixon and Reagan and Trump, and George H. W. Bush and John McCain might have gone down in history as honorable heirs to Ike rather than the poltroons they became.
What do we do about these talented volunteers? It’s silly to send everyone out to knock the same doors, just because door knocks are objectively measurable and we still believe in management by objectives. Some people are good at knocking doors. Some aren’t. Some people have different talents. For example, today’s mail brought a skilled ASL interpreter, eager to accompany candidates on the stump. On message and useful! Most Congressional campaigns would dismiss the idea as a costly extra, but here’s a volunteer! Not without risks, admittedly. Not equally useful all the time; lots of stumping in a Congressional race involves a tiny audience and what are the odds? Still, it’s worth a try.
After a breakfast meeting in Duluth, I drove 120 (gorgeous) miles to Grand Marais for lunch with a bunch of brilliant local activists, an extremely insightful crew who were not hiding their talents or their opinions. The best local briefing I’ve had in my (admittedly short) career.
Then back to Carlton MN for the annual Chili Bakeoff, which should be an inspiration to the Malden Dems. But I bollixed the dates: no chili today! (Google and Apple Maps each have a different idea of where the chili bakeoff will be when it will be, but both are about a mile wrong. In different directions. Fortunately, one of the erroneous places is a house occupied by Good Democrat-Farmer-Labor supporters.)