"This is kind of like a homecoming for me," Black Thought mused at the start of his set with the Roots. "I graduated from the high school right across the street there, just like my father before me." At Robert Fulton elementary school in Germantown, Philadelphia, the crowd loved every minute of it.
Philadelphians, already roaring for their hometown musician, were fired up by the time President Obama took the stage to make a heated delivery of his midterm stump speech. The rally was a resounding success, but it’s going to take more than a presidential appearance if Democrats want to hold on to Pennsylvania’s open senate seat.
Across the political spectrum, the idea that Washington is out of touch with real Americans is repeated to the point that it has become simply another piece of mind numbing, meaningless campaign rhetoric. I have always been an apologist for the elitist rebuttal that "real Americans" do not understand the nuance and complexity of governance and, for that reason, America is a representative republic and not a direct democracy. When I signed up for a DC College Democrats campaign trip to Pennsylvania, my rationale was even less substantive: we need to increase voter turnout in low-income urban areas, I thought, so that the Democratic candidate will be elected in order to maintain a majority in the Senate.
The lead up to campaigning did little to challenge my assumptions. The campaign literature featured a door hanger with a picture of three African-American professionals frowning at a photo of Republican senate candidate Pat Toomey, who seemed to have gained a John Boehner orange tinge somewhere in the photoshopping process. Outside the bus window stood a crowd that looked different from the people in the campaign literature. A predominately black crowd in traditional Islamic dress gathered around a sign that read "Revolutionary Workers Party." We had work to do.
En route to our assigned neighborhood, my canvassing partner Sam and I practiced the painstakingly crafted script. I knocked on the first door in a seemingly endless line of dilapidated row houses that compose most of North Philadelphia. There was no answer. I turned to see a pair of hijab-clad schoolgirls peering curiously from their adjoining porch at the confused Chinese boy who had wandered into their neighborhood. Figuring no one was home, I slipped a flyer under the door and was turning to leave when the door creaked open and a man in a stained XXL Phillies T-shirt emerged, frowning at me with suspicious annoyance. I looked down at my information sheet.
"Uh, Marvin?" I asked hopefully. He grunted something that I assumed to be a yes. I launched into my pitch: "Hi, my name is Mike and I’m a volunteer for the Sestak for senate campaign." I paused, waiting for a response before adding, "He’s the Democrat."
Marvin’s face shifted instantly into a bright smile, "Well why didn’t you say so? You know the folks in this neighborhood are behind you 100 percent." He continued to talk animatedly, putting a rough, pudgy hand on my shoulder. "You know, I’ve lived here for sixty-eight years and the first time I ever voted was in ’08." There were two other names on my list at this address.
"What about Maurice and Latoya? Can we count on their votes too?" I asked, excited to find so much enthusiasm on my first try. Marvin looked away and his smile faded.
"Well, you see Maurice, he’s a good boy really, but he’s… um, he’s incarcerated right now," Marvin sighed and shook his head, "and Latoya, that’s my wife, well she can’t make it to the polls unless there’s someone that can find her a wheelchair to get there."
At Georgetown, I usually complain that political discourse lacks substance because it consists entirely of rhetoric and contains no real political theory. Canvassing the neighborhoods of Philadelphia gave me an unexpected opportunity to climb down from the ivory tower and see the real impact of government policy for myself. For most college students, which party takes power means a difference of a few hundred dollars in financial aid or taxes for our parents. In North Philly and neighborhoods like it across the country, government policy on healthcare or unemployment benefits can mean the difference between life and death.
One hundred and twenty student volunteers from DC knocked on nearly 10,000 doors across Philadelphia. Every voter had a unique story, but shared a unifying theme. "I don’t vote," one woman told me with cynical indifference, "all them politicians is corrupt."
"What about Obama?" I asked. Her eyes suddenly sparkled with electricity.
"He’s different," she sighed dreamily. At every house I visited, the narrative was the same. Healthcare and financial reform have not delivered an instant cure for America’s problems, but after generations of poverty, violence and resulting political disengagement, people finally feel that their voices matter. In other words, the American people have found hope.
The president’s speech in Philadelphia was one of his angriest yet. Clearly he is frustrated with the disenchantment in his white liberal base and unyielding resistance on the right, but the most work needs to be done among first-time voters, particularly in neighborhoods like Germantown, Philadelphia. While "hope" and "change" are just pieces of rhetoric for cynics like me, they mean everything to Marvin and his neighbors who had never even bothered to vote until two years ago. It was truly rewarding to spend the weekend with those "real Americans" who I had previously derided as ignorant. I got to see that politics is not just my favorite sport to play inside the Beltway but rather something concrete that has the potential to change lives.