“The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Jean Giradoux.
My father once said that all honest labor is honorable labor. I wonder what he would make of my latest employment.
I have become a paid phone bank staffer for political campaigns.*
That’s right, I am that chipper voice who interrupts you just as you are sitting down to a romantic dinner of linguine ala carbonara and pinot noir with your girlfriend, to ask you to vote for Frank Smith** for dogcatcher. I and my colleagues are some of the most hated people in America right now.
Phone banking is telemarketing — salesmanship with a veneer of political idealism laid on top. I have worked on four different campaigns thus far,*** each with its own scripts to recite and personalize. I have trouble with this, not with the recitation part, but with not sounding like I am reading a script. Oddly enough, the less connection I feel with a campaign, the more likely I am to detach and be loose. We are told to smile when we call — apparently research says you sound friendlier when you do — and it is easier to do so when you only know what’s on the script and you don’t have any real skin in the game. The more you care about an issue (and some of these I care about very much), the stronger the temptation to argue with naysayers on the other end of the phone.
Because different campaigns are being run out of the same location, the same phone number shows up on people’s caller i.d.s. As you can imagine, this makes the third person who calls, especially if it is a wrong number, very unpopular.
I knew it would be stressful work going in, but I don’t think I grasped exactly how stressful. Even aside from dealing with the people on the other end of the line, I am always worried about how I am doing. We have been told we have quotas, but we don’t know what they are (at least I don’t). It’s a numbers game, I keep hearing: get as many people on the phone as possible, as many people to hear the name of the candidate, as many people to hear the arguments for the measure, as many people as possible to say yes. And I worry, do the five seconds I take to politely say good evening to people at wrong numbers and where the targeted voters are not home mean I lag behind everyone else? Those five seconds add up — but I can’t bring myself to hang up on people without goodbye. It is simply rude.
There is, I figure, a strong chance I will not make it to the end of next week without being let go for poor performance. I am not sure how much I would mourn that.
Telemarketing is, like waiting tables, something everyone should do sometime in their life, if for no other reason that to have empathy for those poor souls who do this long-term. It is seconds of interpersonal interaction, during which one must remain polite and alert, never argue, never take offense, repeat the talking points even when the voter keeps insisting they are undecided, followed by empty silence which can last from a few seconds to a minute or more, depending upon the calling software. Yet that empty silence is not down time: any second the next call could come through and bang! you’re on again.
My coworkers are good people. There is a sense of shared mission, perhaps because we all are facing the same stresses. The younger ones tend to be more idealistic, I suspect, than the older ones. The bosses seem like reasonable people (except for one who scares me a little bit). They pay relatively well, for this kind of job, and they feed us dinner. Aside from the actual phone banking, this would be a lovely place to work. That is a big “aside.”
You have to intrude on people, without having any way of knowing where they are or what is going on for them. I have called people at dinner. I have called people who were walking in the door from work. I have called and woken up sleeping shift workers.
I have called people who have moved away, and called for kids who were at college. I have called people who were sick. I have called people who were in the hospital.
I have called homes where the voter we were looking for had died. It is always easier the further back the death occurred: the voices of the loved ones of the recent dead are frozen and filled with pain.
In one case, I called the home of a woman I had gone to church with, who I knew for eighteen years, and who I liked a great deal and respected, only to be told she had just died. I left my station, went outside, cried, and in under five minutes was back on the phone fielding calls, smiling as best I could. I came away wondering what it said about me that I could go on without leaving work early that evening.
I have, thankfully, had relatively little abuse. I have had a lot of people hang up on me, but that comes with the territory, especially the closer we get to the election and the more phone calls people receive. Their patience runs out. I have had one woman tell me to go to hell, and one man threatened legal action, but that was about all. The most difficult cases can be the sweet elderly ladies who want to keep you on the phone talking to them. My heart goes out to them because they are clearly lonely, but I need to get off the phone to move on to the next voter.
The “Yes” voters please me. The “Undecided” voters don’t bother me, and I am able to shrug off the “No” voters. (Although the people who dismiss an idea simply because the Mercury News or Mike Honda likes it annoy me.) But the people who ask, sincerely confused, “Who should I vote for? Tell me, please?” worry me. They are mercifully few, but they exist, most of them elderly.
Part of me wonders how much good all of this is doing. I suspect it actually does quite a bit, which I find disturbing in other ways: for every person we place on the phones, the other side has at least as many, maybe more. The fact that “it’s a numbers game” may be true, but makes me faintly despairing of the state of the electorate.
Intellectually, I am not naive: I know that the more a person hears of a candidate spoken of favorably, even if it is just by a random stranger on the phone, the more likely they are to vote for that candidate. My voice may mean the difference of several votes, and contrary to popular convention these days every vote does count, especially in local elections where there are not that many votes cast to begin with.
I know how important it is to get people to vote. I know how important it is to get people to vote for candidates and measures that will make our communities stronger. This is where it all starts.
That’s how the conservatives have become such a power in state houses and Congress: they started by running candidates for city council and school boards. They fought for their agenda in city and county ballot measures. They understood, in ways that progressives seemed to have forgotten, that real political power wells up from below, not descends from above. (This thought, by the way, does not originate with me — if I could remember where I read it I would link.)
And as one of the bosses said to us, this is just the beginning of the process. It is our responsibility to follow up, to make sure that our elected officials did what they told us they were going to do. It is part of being an involved citizen. What he didn’t say was how hard doing so can be.
Politics is such a messy game. I know this is naive, but I just wish it were not so.
*I am not sure how Dad would feel about this, but then again he was dubious about me becoming a lawyer, too.
**Not a real candidate.
***I am not going to identify the measures or the candidates, other than to say they fall generally in line with my political views, with which long-time readers of this blog are familiar. I could never work for campaigns or candidates I disrespected or opposed.