“All honest work is honorable.” My Dad.
An area manager for a large insurance company tried to recruit me to be a sales agent last week. He kept talking about how my qualifications didn’t match my work history. “Whenever someone takes humbling work, it is usually because they are afraid to try for more.”
“Humbling work.” He stopped just short of saying that political phone work is menial labor.
It’s not. Not if you do it right.
Phone banking requires a specific set of skills. You have to have a skin thick enough to let the sometimes nasty abuse roll off your back and sensitive enough to be compassionate towards people facing tragedy and understanding towards voters struggling to figure out what is going on in their world. You have to read the unspoken echoes in a voter’s voice to see whether they meant it when they said yes or if they were just trying to get you off the phone. You have to have great customer service skills. You have to be able to explain why your candidate or your proposition will make the world a better place; most voters want their world to be a better place, even if they have different views than you do of what that means. You have to sell a person or a concept (and the person often represents a concept).
Calling for campaigns is sales plus. Selling in person allows the luxury of observing body language. And at the end of the day, the voters get benefits that however important are nebulous. They don’t end up with a timeshare in Hawaii.
A chunk of people we call think we’re helping the cause of representative democracy, a large chunk find us annoying but useful, a smaller but no less significant (and more vocal) chunk think that on the great taxonomic scale of life we fall somewhere between used car salesmen and pond scum.* Each campaign I’ve worked I’ve talked to voters who fall into each of those groups.
The job is not for everyone. I still remember the woman who started work in one campaign, who quit at lunchtime her first day, saying “I don’t see how you people can do this.”
We can do this because what we do matters. I work local government issues, and as I tell voters, the President is important, but your city council can determine how bad your daily commute is. What I don’t say, or say only to people who share my political leanings, is that this is where change happens. This is where we start fighting for everyday people.
The rise of the Tea Party was not unforeseeable. Archconservatives started in city councils, and school boards, and county commissions, before they moved onto state legislatures and Congress. They played a long game; progressives need to do the same, rather than displaying the political attention span of a rabid squirrel.
A deeper issue arises from the insurance manager’s disdainful statement, however.
I risk alienating people by “admitting” that I do this work. I risk people thinking less of me. When I went to my law school reunion, I made a conscious decision to talk about what I do. I often started with “I’m a professional pest,” before explaining. Some people seemed a bit uncomfortable, but most let me rattle on about Santa Clara County politics. That I even considered lying about work, or skipping my reunion altogether so I wouldn’t have to, shows how much I have internalized societal hierarchies of labor respectability.
Simply because a job requires extensive training or pays a lot of money does not mean that the person performing that job matters more than someone lower down. The CEO may make a tremendous amount of money, but their Executive Assistant makes it possible. I have come to understand that, legal education notwithstanding, I am by temperament designed to be in a support role.** Which does not mean I’m not smart, or resourceful, or talented, or creative, or able to manage people. Good support personnel are all that and more.
And I’m good.
No matter how I feel about it, I am not my job. Life is richer than the hours I spend at work. There are people who live for their job, and if they are happy that way, then good for them. We should not expect all of us to follow their example.
There is dignity in work. All work. Even “humbling work.” All work is honorable, and each worker who strives to do a good job, be that a bricklayer or the President of the United States, deserves our respect.
Competence should be celebrated, wherever it is found.
*One voter had the following voicemail message: “Hi, please leave a message. Unless you are a telemarketer or a political caller, in which case you really need to get another job.”
**Preferably a relatively high level support role. I may the only person I know who feels she was designed to be a middle manager. I have also been told I am a terrific Muse, but I can’t really put that on my resume.