Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Vote! It Ain't Illegal Yet!

Peace to all Berniacs who've begrudged their 2020 votes to the imperfect Joe Biden while hoping these perfectionists realize that in a highly imperfect year mere voting will require not just acquiescence but commitment. This is for the angry subset of Americans who actively long to witness the defeat of fascist fraudster turned impeached president Donald J. Trump--who keep thinking about it in the daytime and lose sleep over it at night. It's to urge them to get out of their heads and act.

I've been a small-scale Democratic activist ever since warmonger-in-waiting George W. Bush stole the 2000 election from the imperfect Al Gore. My biggest year was 2004, when together with my wife, daughter, and other confederates I spent a week canvassing and phonebanking in Ohio, where two women my wife Carola had befriended in 1978 as Susan Devo and Bobbie Devo had become major cogs in John Kerry's Akron operation. In 2008 I bunked two weekends with friends in Arlington to door-knock for Obama in Alexandria. In 2012 I bussed with my union to Philly nabes scarred by overleveraged ghost houses and then to rust-belt Bethlehem. In 2016 I put in a long union Saturday in Allentown plus a few dozen hours phonebanking in HRC's UFT HQ. I've also phonebanked some in nonpresidential years.

Endowed with a generous heart and phenomenal memory, Carola still fondly remembers encounters we shared door-knocking in Akron and elsewhere--canvassers often work in pairs. Although glimpsing how other people live is always educational and enlightening conversations do definitely arise even in the course of phone work replete with hangups and no answers, I've never thought canvassing was much fun: as a person who cares about politics, the canvasser inevitably intrudes on people who care less. But such cavils are fatally hypersensitive in a moment when any American who's read this far probably agrees that our hopes for even incremental justice will be scotched for decades if not forever should Trump take a wrecking ball to the republic for another four years. I don't get how any such reader would consider sitting on his or her hands till November 3 in a year when November 4 could be a nightmare. Lives are at stake, starting with our own.

I don't want to overdo the hand-sitting charges. Most of us still have plenty to do as the pandemic continues--staying healthy, earning a living, overseeing the young and the infirm. I myself write every day as I recover from two surgeries that still limit my mobility as I prepare for an October 1 shoulder replacement. But in a crisis that taught us what "social distancing" means, many also feel we have time to fill if not kill--never before have binge-watching advisories passed as acts of kindness and mutuality. And so I've spent several weeks haphazardly trying to figure out what I can do to defeat Trump both before and after I'm laid up. My researches have been unsystematic and except in one case untested. But it's time to put these preliminary delvings in some kind of order.

I should be clear about two things. First, while it's essential to be politically knowledgeable, election work is more about informing than persuading. You might well find yourself explaining your Bidenism to an undecided voter. But a lot of the work involves telling registered or intermittent or lapsed Democrats where and when they can exercise their franchise and, this year far more than ever, sparking them to do so at their earliest possible convenience. Second, the pandemic has radically curtailed door-knocking, although not phonebanking and not necessarily literature drops--some hardy souls are still leaving printed info at every statistically propitious door.

Having mentioned statistics, I'll start with a dismaying one. I began my research by sending out a letter pumping some 40 politically aware friends for electoral tips. Yet though my mailing list sorted two-to-one male-female, every one of my scant five respondees was a woman. These included one corraled from a tai chi acquaintance of Carola, whose women's group will discuss the options this month. True, one of my repondees is married to union stalwart Tom Smucker, who's busier at this work than anyone I know, and when I prodded Tom Carson on the phone he got so fired up he posted a Facebook query and got quite a few quick responses, well over half from women as well. Having identified feminist as a writer for half a century, I trust you too are OK with not just Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and AOC but, to cite two less prominent heroines, MJ Hegar and Sara Gideon, not to mention the thousands of female activists who flipped the House in 2018. Nonetheless, judging by the questions I get for Xgau Sez, I assume that most of this newsletter's readers are male, just like most of the Xgau fans who dubbed themselves the Witnesses back in the good old days. So let me level with ya, fellas. I'm urging you to break a gender stereotype.

What follows is a brief, inexpert breakdown--rough second or third-hand descriptions attached to what tips I can gather about how to proceed. Publication will probably generate other possibilities--there are a lot of concerned citizens with their own angles on how to confront a world-historical political crisis, and health permitting I'll try to keep up with them. But for clarity's sake I'll begin with the only one I've put a hand to as of yet, which has shown up a lot in my research: Reclaim Our Vote, which aims to boost turnout by counteracting the voter-suppression tactic in which Republican Secretaries of State peremptorily expunge "inactive" voters from the rolls.

For that personal touch, Reclaim Our Vote generates hand-written postcards that reproduce an election board-approved text to focus on the South--Carola and I wrote voters in the swing states of Georgia and North Carolina--to which are affixed labels clearly providing crucial additional info. I admired the subtlety and economy of this stratagem. If my 40 cards in a few hours helped spark half a dozen Biden voters I'll take it. You never really know, of course--could be more, or less. All you can be sure of is that you tried.

Reclaim the Vote's postcard phase will soon be replaced by a phonebanking effort, so get on it soon--meaning right now--if it appeals. You might also ask your friends as I did mine to find out if there's any electoral work they'd recommend. Or you can pick among these.

To me the most useful looked to be an outfit called Swing Left, which serves as a hub for GOTV (crucial acronym that translates Get Out the Vote) drives in 12 swing states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin. Its website is considerably more focused and navigable than those of other progressive powerhouses I've looked at: Daily Kos, MoveOn, even Indivisible.

I was also impressed, however, by another conglomerate of sorts called simply Mobilize where you can find so many links to practical electoral activism that you'd feel like a cad if you didn't try at least one, and you'd be right.

And then there are more specialized operations, beginning with two more letter-writing efforts, which may wind down as October nears but remain of use now.

  1. Vote Forward provides form letters encouraging already registered voters to cast their ballot ASAP. You add a hand-written personal note as well as envelopes and stamps. Vote Forward also urges volunteers to "send heartfelt handwritten letters to unregistered and low-propensity voters encouraging them to participate in our democracy."

  2. Postcards to Voters also targets registered Dems with scripted, hand-written post cards urging/reminding them to vote.

  3. Finally, I believe Trump is such a priority that long-term considerations must be put aside--which does not mean senatorial races, where many deserve support and my personal favorites are longshot Lindsey Graham foe Jaime Harrison and sitting Democrat Gary Peters fighting off a DeVos-financed flunky in crucial swing Michigan. Nonetheless, if you're a hardcore progressive Dem concerned about the party's weakness in state legislatures where penny-ante reactionaries do their bit for "Christian" education, male supremacist sexuality, the-end-is-near environmental devastation, and that old favorite the rich getting richer, you might glance at SisterDistrict.com. Lots of focused action there.

And no, I'm not quite done.

First there is the little matter of money, like the bucks I've sent Harrison and Peters. I've donated very modestly since 2006 (I liked Jon Tester, as I still do, but not all the subsequent emails from Montana). But I've never given this much before--I'm over a grand including Warren seed money, and some of those bucks I got from you, so thanks and maybe you can chip in to a personal fave or your own.

Second, whether you'd ever feel comfortable about door-knocking or not, there's another site where your physical presence can make a difference: polling places on Election Day. As progressives argue the relative utility of mail-in ballots and in-person voting, it seems incontrovertible to me that we don't win without both. And as everyone already knows, November 3 is going to be an enormous mess at best, replete with long lines, mislaid records, voting machine failure, arbitrary challenges to people of color, cops of greatly varying ethical standards, and muscleheads enthralled by open carry. Moreover, many veteran poll workers are aged Social Security recipients with every reason to be more nervous about Covid than most of you. At 78, I'm in that category myself, but I swear that if it wasn't for my three surgeries I'd consider it. This election is going to be hard, and it's going to need all the smart, stubborn, fair-minded help it can get. Maybe for some reason you just don't want to electioneer. But chances are you could do this. Here's a link to a federal guide to get you started.

And It Don't Stop, September 14, 2020