Armchair activists

by | May 23, 2013 | Democrats, Features, NC Politics | 11 comments

I keep hearing about the ‘activist’ Democrats in the news and their efforts to remake the North Carolina Democratic Party in their own image, and it simply infuriates me.  Not their efforts themselves (disastrous though they may have been) but the fact that they’re portraying themselves as activists.  I’ve met a lot of these so called activists in my roles as an organizer or campaign manager and there’s one thing they all have in common.  They’ve all told me that they’ll do anything they can to help, except make phone calls or knock doors.  To an operative that means, “I’ll do whatever I can, as long as it doesn’t involve any actual work.”  When I hear about these ‘Activist’ Democrats, I’m reminded of that line from The Princess Bride ”This word, you keep using it, I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

You know what a real activist Democrat is?  It’s the 76 year old volunteer who wanted to spend 8 hours knocking doors with me because my interns didn’t show up.  It’s the woman who after a full day of work spent two or three hours a day, every day, making phone calls on behalf of a candidate she believed in.  Or the one who would rather keep calling voters than seeing a Gubernatorial candidate’s stump speech, even when given the opportunity to take a break.

That’s why the ‘activists’ make me angry. Their use of the term denigrates the hard work of people who’d rather get the job done than feather their own caps.  I remember seeing one prominent ‘activist’ Democrat spend 20 minutes at a committee meeting yelling at three young Obama organizers over not having received a token $50 payment for office space, because that’s really going to help get Democrats elected.  I saw another go over my head to call a US Senate candidate’s scheduler to try to get her to show up to her democratic ladies luncheon in October of campaign season, just  so she could show off to her friends.

So will the real activists please stand up?  Oh wait, they’re all too busy working.


  1. Chris Telesca

    I see myself as an activist. I do work that others won’t do, or do for free that others won’t do unless they get paid. I knock on doors, I work the polls, I ran a shop where we bundled signs and slate cards, and coordinated poll greeters. I go to Board of Elections meetings and try to keep us from getting screwed on voting machines, machine maintenance, and on reductions in the number/hours/days for early voting.

    I may not have as much money to give to the Party or the candidates, and I am infuriated at the folks who devalue our donation of time and favor instead donations of money. Usually the people who devalue time are doing this for the money.

    Why don’t you think that people need to be knocking on doors at this time of the year?

    Do you not feel that grassroots Democrats need to be out at this time of year to be getting to know their neighbors in the precinct, to rebuild the network of grassroots volunteers that they will need during the fall campaign season? Don’t you think that in even years we need to also recruit folks to help with the May primary election?

    This is the mistake that is made by folks who only think that the Democratic Party exists to elect Democrats to public office. OK – once they are elected, what do they do?

    If they have a majority, they should be working to turn our Party platform into public policy. Too often they are not doing that. Ever wonder why we still don’t have a ban on executions, or no collective bargaining, or do something with the hog lagoons? It’s because we elected a Democratic majority and then didn’t hold them accountable.

    Lobbyists hold our elected public officials accountable for honoring agreements to do what the donations were intended to do. Why shouldn’t the voters do that? Why shouldn’t Democratic activists do that?

  2. James Protzman

    Thanks to all for the insights. Didn’t mean to start a storm, but the perspectives are valuable and interesting.

    My personal view is that the kind of activism discussed here is way more valuable than the kind of activism I do (blogging, writing checks, social media). I’ve done plenty of calling and some canvassing over the years, but I must confess it gives me high anxiety. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an extreme introvert … and would happily be a hermit if I could get away with it. The Intertubes have been a life-saver for me, connecting me with hundreds of people I’d never know otherwise.

    It will be interesting to see how I fare when I get arrested on June 3. I hope many PoliticsNC readers will come and join the protest.

    Happy Memorial Day!

  3. Carter

    I seem to find the armchair activists most easily by looking at Facebook! If you’ve never been to a party meeting or helped at all with a campaign, but your name is the first to Facebook a complaint, you are an armchair activist, who probably uses the “no time” excuse… And are the bane of most activists existence.

  4. Mark

    While it’s true that there aren’t as many door knocking and phone calling for candidates opportunities in some areas (though I would encourage people to get involved with their municipal races if they have them), the “door knocking” I would like to see is recruitment. That means getting good democrats to run for office up and down the ballot, that means finding a core of neighbors and friends in your neighborhood/precinct that are willing to make calls and knock on doors come election time so that we can contact every single voter and make sure we have coverage with e-day materials at every voting location in NC, and it means finding people that will make contributions to your local democratic party and candidates so we have the resources to compete.

  5. Matt

    James, Kara, thank you for your comments. James, I wasn’t suggesting that door knockers are the only real activists, I was using that as an example from my own experience. I think Kara hit it on the head, its about sacrifice. You sacrifice financially,others sacrifice their time, and paid political professionals are for the most part underpaid and overworked, so we sacrifice a bit of both. The armchair activists I’m talking about are the ones that sacrifice the least amount possible, but are perfectly happy to sit by and tell the rest of us how they’d do it better.

    As for your concerns about the party James, I think the discussion this seems to be generating is a good start. The guy who berated you for “just writing checks” he didn’t see all the sweat equity that allowed you to write the check in the first place because he clearly doesn’t think that way. Maybe next time, try to see his side and get him to try and see yours. We all need to acknowledge and respect one another’s sacrifices rather than sitting in our own camps complaining to one another if we want to move forward.

    I clearly made you think and that was the point, maybe now that so many people are thinking about it, we can start talking about it, and that, I think is the first step in healing the rifts within the party.

  6. Kara

    James- If you are a donor that’s a personal sacrifice towards your beliefs. Armchair activist don’t give time or treasure. In fact they often belittle the importance of donors like yourself who fund the real voter contact operations that win elections. Their only contribution is talking and being seen online or at meetings and functions. They are the dysfunction you see on display within NCDP right now.

    • Betsy Muse

      Thank you, Kara. Beautifully said. We have a bunch of ‘activists’ here in Union County. They do nothing but obstruct the real work others are doing. If they aren’t going to get credit for a project, they won’t contribute to its success.

      • Nancy G. Rorie

        Just catching up after last weekend. Betsy and Kara are so right! And I’ll add, “being seen standing in the back of the room like they are one or two notches above the rest of us.”

    • Chris Telesca

      Hey Kara: if I am a volunteer who knocks on doors or makes telephone calls, that is a personal sacrifice of my TIME towards my beliefs. I also ran for party office at various levels, and each of those levels requires a sacrifice of TIME towards my beliefs.

      Some of the offices that I hold allow me to participate in meetings where I get to debate and contribute to not only our party platform but also our party policies. Those meetings I participate in are also a sacrifice of TIME towards my beliefs.

      I get tired of seeing folks belittle the sacrifice of TIME I spend knocking on doors and making phone calls as somehow not giving me more of a say in how the party functions. As an officer of the Party, I have more of a right to take part in party meetings to decide on party platform and policies than someone who just writes a check and does nothing else. Granted the doers and the check writers are all important parts of the equation, but honest with yourself: What sort of a party would we have if we had a party of checkwriters only who could pay for the phone banking and the handouts if there were no volunteers to make the calls or hand out the flyers? We’d be in the same boat if we only had volunteers and no check-writers.

      But if we are going to run an organization, parliamentary procedure gives the edge to the people who show up to the meetings and are eligible to vote – that usually means officers of the organization. And very few people get to be officers just because they write checks – most win office by doing something.

      I’ve been a precinct Chair since 2003. I’ve knocked on doors, made phone calls, worked the polls not for any one particular candidate but for the entire Democratic Party slate of candidates. For my work, I expect those Democrats I help get elected to work to turn the Party platform into public policy – not just pay lip service and do all their work for the big money donors instead.

      Because what is the purpose of electing Democrats to office if they are not willing to turn our platform into public policy? This is a question that I have asked many so-called political professionals, and none of them are able to answer the question. Why are we working hard to elect Democrats to office if those Democrats aren’t willing to turn our platform into public policy?

  7. James Protzman

    Not sure what to think of this.

    Someone recently gave me holy hell because I couldn’t get to Moral Monday last week, claimed moral superiority because he was a door knocker and i was a check writer and a blogger. Pissed me off.

    It takes a village, right? Different roles for different people?

    More to the point, what is a activist supposed to do right now? Who’s knocking on doors and where? What are they saying or asking for?

    I’m making visits around the state to talk to people about their concerns. Am I an activist by your definition, or not?

    The maddening thing to me right now is the dysfunction in the party. I’ve been trying to understand it, but keep coming up short. The whole deal doesn’t make sense, and that’s usually because (1) someone is lying or (2) someone is keeping secrets. It’s hard to know what to do.

    I wrote a big check to the NCDP Legal Fund, which I hope will be used to support litigation. But the truth is … right now I don’t have much confidence in the whole operation. I have in spite of that, hoping that simply contributing will help push things towards some kind of resolution. That might be a very expensive lesson in wishful thinking.

    I love that you’re writing often and boldly. Feel free to cross post at BlueNC, home of armchair activists from all across the state.

    Just kidding.


    • Thomas Mills

      Thanks, James. I will certainly cross-post at BlueNC and I hope you will keep coming by. Matt Phillippi actually wrote this post. I accidentally posted it under my name and didn’t catch it until now. I have apologized profusely. Matt is long-time field guy so I’ll let him stick up for himself on this one. Again, thanks for stopping by.

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