The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Civic Exercise

I’ve spent much of the last few days making, or attempting to make, political phone calls. For your future reference and edification, I’d like to report on what the process has been like–I posted something similar a few weeks ago, but I’ve learned some things since then that I’d like to pass on.

First of all, I have to admit that nobody I’ve encountered through this process has said anything about climate change. My primary reason for volunteering for the Democrats this year–and my reason for writing about it here–has been the simple fact that only the Democrats offer a realistic prospect for climate sanity at this point. I’ve written before about how much I wish that weren’t so, nothing against the Democrats, we just need more of a diversity on the issue. But we have what we have, and we must use it.

Sometimes making progress depends on letting go of the larger vision for a while and chugging through the grim practicalities of the current moment.

Because we need a Democrat in the White House right now, and because we likewise need a Democratic majority in the Senate and at least a climate-sane majority in the House, I’ve been making GOTV calls for both Mrs. Clinton and for a series of Congressional candidates mostly in swing states.

GOTV stands for get out the vote. That means getting people who already agree with your candidate to actually go vote. GOTV becomes the primary focus of most campaigns in the final days leading up to any election and its efforts can include everything from asking people if they plan to vote (apparently studies show that once someone says “I will vote,” they are more likely to actually do so), to making sure voters know where their polling place is, to actually offering rides to the polls and other logistical support. The number of people who want a candidate to win is typically larger, sometimes much larger, than the number who actually show up at the polls. In this particular election, GOTV is especially important because Donald Trump is hugely unpopular. In a very real way, Hilary Clinton’s most serious opponent is not the Republican nominee but her own shadow, the momentum against voting that she must overcome.

By the time you read this, the election will likely already be over. Even now, a majority of votes have probably already been cast and we are just waiting to hear the report. I’m not trying to influence your vote now, but rather to make some helpful suggestions for next time–if there is a next time. I freely admit to not being sure on that point at the moment.


I have now made phone calls for three different organizations and attempted to make them for at least one more. I have made hundreds, possibly over a thousand, calls. The majority of those calls were to wrong numbers or disconnected numbers. Another large group were people who weren’t home. A small number involved recipients who did not want to be called, and a few of those were very rude to me. Most were friendly. Very few actually seemed open to the content of my call. I’m not sure how much of a difference I really made, but I would have felt remise had I not tried. I believe I got better at it as I went along.

Suggestions for Volunteers Making Political Calls

  1. Expect the organization you’re working with to make things unnecessarily difficult. Depending on whom you are working with, you may find it hard to get instructions, hard to understand your instructions, or simply impossible to find a human being to answer questions. The instructions you do get could be impossible to carry out, require resources you don’t have, or just sound like a bad idea. Start trying to volunteer early in the campaign in order to give yourself time to get through all this. If one organization doesn’t work for you, try another. And keep your cool. Getting frustrated and quitting helps nobody.
  2. Expect yourself to get tired. Making phone calls to strangers frightens me. Bothering people frightens me. Being treated as though I were personally responsible for every single unsolicited call ever stresses me out. I’m pretty brave, but being stressed and frightened is tiring. I doubt I’m alone. The fact of the matter is I can’t make as many phone calls at a time as I thought I could. Until you learn your limits, keep your commitments small.
  3. Once you get going, the going will get easier. Seriously. Make a couple of phone calls and it will get easier.
  4. Feel free to depart from the script. I’m no expert, but I can’t help but think that a phonescript that would alienate or insult me if I received it would also turn away other voters. Use your judgment, and make changes if you need to. If you’re uncomfortable with your script, you’ll probably also make the recipient uncomfortable. One of the changes I made, for example, was to ask the recipient if this was a good time to talk before launching into my script. If the recipient sounded tired or irritable, I’d give them an abbreviated version. All that being said, remember the scriptwriters know more about this stuff than you do. When in doubt, follow instructions. And never get apologetic for the call. If you believe you shouldn’t be making the call to begin with, don’t make it.

Suggestions For People Receiving Political Calls

  1. If you don’t want to talk, say so quickly and politely.
  2. If you want to be removed from the list, say so directly: “Please take me off your list.”
  3. Give the caller a chance to treat you well: don’t hang up or be rude or flippant unless the caller gets aggressive first.
  4. Recognize that the caller has no control over whether or not you are on their list.
  5. Recognize that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of organizations that have your number. If you’ve already told 83 of them to stop calling, don’t take your frustration out on the 84th
  6. Don’t assume you know what the call is about: if you don’t want to talk at all, excuse yourself politely but firmly and hang up, but remember political calls aren’t always campaign adds. They might just be trying to ask if you know where your polling place is.

And finally…

Would organizations please coordinate so the poor folks in swing states don’t get 83 GOTV calls in one weekend? Please!

This is it. This election is the big one. We have a chance if the results go one way, but hope may require a serious miracle otherwise.

There is a passage in Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy novel, The Farthest Shore, which I don’t have memorized, but in it one character speaks to another (who is sleeping) and says something like:

Now we stand on the balance-point, and if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…but only for a little while. No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. Still, I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, under the rune-symbol we brought for you before ever you were born.

We stand at the balance-point, and if the electorate falls tonight, then so does Hilary Clinton and so does the planet. But even then, we should not despair. No darkness lasts forever, and even in the dark, there are stars. Still, I should like to see her crowned in Havenor–sworn in in Washington, under the sign of democracy that was created before any of us were born.