My dispiriting, infuriating- and illuminating- day as a political telemarketer

November 10, 2019

The long read: What I learned about politics while phone-banking for the Democrats

I got into political fundraising in the autumn of 2007 because I had become sick of yelling at the TV, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who failed to set their fund where their mouth was, ideologically speaking. I started with plenty of door-to-door canvassing; the transition to working the phones entailed I was at least glad to be indoors during my workday. And for a brief, glistening moment back when Barack Obama was still only a candidate, mass telemarketing was not only a style of raising fund- it also doubled as the most compelling means of showing an enlightened reformist spirit in the money-drenched agoras of public life. Caller and donor alike were are working together the vision of a better life. We were becoming the alteration we believed in.

Of course, we were kidding ourselves- especially those of us on the auto-dial end of the conversation. Whatever else it may achieve, political telemarketing has little to do with political reform. The media will obsessively report how much loot a particular candidate hoards in their campaign war chest, but whoever’s in command of spending that lucre will face an electorate that most likely has already made up its intellect about what it wishings, what it doesn’t want and what it thinks it deserves. Fundraising helps to win campaigns, sure, but it works best only when there are people around who still need to be persuaded.

Some basic delusions about the political fundraiser’s plenty need to be cleared away. Even though I have done both, political telemarketing( AKA phone-banking) should be separated from telemarketing proper. For one thing, you are likely to stimulate more money doing regular telemarketing than political fundraising. Second, telemarketing is a job like any other, but political fundraising demands a certain idealistic self-sacrifice. Political fundraising is not the same as selling timeshares or vacuum cleaners, although the amount of grit and grime exacted by both vocations may indeed be comparable.

The way that hourly pay and bonuses were structured in the company I signed up with in 2012, which had several large bellow centres around the US, is probably typical. I was hired at $8.50( PS6. 50) an hour, which was then 50 cents above the Massachusetts minimum wage. But your hourly rate would fluctuate based on how much you raised compared with your fellow worker. And it would fluctuate wildly alongside the broader lucks of the campaign you were shilling for.

On a good night, if you were at the top of the heap, you might earn about $15 an hour. But if your contributions fell off( through no fault of your own) and others did better, you could drop back down to $ 10 an hour, or even back to minimum wage. Of course, the amount of money I raised in a typical day was vastly disproportional to what I took home. On an average day, I’d bellow roughly 30 to 40 people an hour, abrupt hang-ups included. I would expect to cajole maybe three or four into giving, at levels varying from $35 or less( we were told to refer to it as” our most grassroots pledge “) up to a few hundred bucks or more.

I might raise anywhere between $500 and $600 a shifting and bring home approximately 12% of that. Whenever a campaign ended, we would be encouragingly told that one out of every eight dollars raised for a particular campaign came from us. I’m no maths whizz, but that is definitely a grander route of putting it than saying that the entire company accounted for 12.5% of the money a campaigned raised.


There is a common misconception that political phone-banking is done solely by college children stimulating beer fund in off-hours. That can be true, but by and large it is far more Dickensian than that. Burnouts and has-beens rub shoulders with screwups and also-rans. Freaks and geeks swap change for the candy machine. Ivy Leaguers debate the finer points of athletics trivia with high-school dropouts. Recovering addicts, aspiring rappers, novelists, actors and hustlers of all kinds are coming in to talk, all day long. While the process of selecting the optimal names and numbers to target has grown more sophisticated, the script itself hasn’t changed much. Once the switching starts, everybody’s in always-be-closing mode: talking smooth, talking back and talking litter to the donors, to the management and to each other.

Nearly everyone smokes- imagine the emotional needs of orally fixated working people who have just been screamed at for several hours- and the smoking violates are a combination of reality TV-style grousing and plotting, group therapy session and recess. More than a few people around you have done time- and some of them happen to be very competent and talented managers. You are with them all day long, pretty much every day and it is only natural that you become a part of each other’s lives and narratives. It’s the kind of job where you don’t know whether working there stimulates you crazy or whether you have to be crazy to work there in the first place. Make no mistake, the majority of callers are struggling to survive on little more than the kindness of strangers.

Obama
Obama campaign employees at a phone bank in Nevada in January 2008. Photograph: Ethan Miller/ Getty Images

In the roster of occupations that it is still socially acceptable to look down on, political fundraising is about as low on the social hierarchy as it gets. It’s not every day that you find yourself in a position where people feel that it’s OK to stop you, mid-sentence, and interrogate you about how old you are and why you are still doing this, and primly tell you to simply get a better job. Would you say that to someone working at Walmart or handing you coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts? I have heard otherwise considerate-seeming people brag about how they told off some poor schmuck who the hell is the nerve to call them during hoops season or whatever, and then describe in curiously vivid detail how they chewed them out, without considering that it was entirely possible that the schmuck was me.

It is often said that you can take a person’s measure by see how she treats her social inferiors. Working within a winner-takes-all economy, everyone donning a headset knows this dysfunctional dynamic as a daily fact of life. Pretty much everybody in retail or customer service has narratives about callous, entitled and tantrum-prone customers who are not, in fact, always right. But believe me when I tell you that callers have them beat on that particular score.

Callers not only have to take the perpetual abuse- we were often ordered to keep pitching to the same persons, thus incurring increasingly greater donor wrath in the process. And if all went( more or less) to script, we then had to make sure we got whatever we could wheedle out of the now royally pissed donor on a credit card. The expectation of ultra-deferential interest in a would-be donor’s state of mind and the ever-present threat of abuse( not to mention angry hang-ups, or members of the public who repeatedly inform you to hang up on them, which you are forbidden to do) are so fundamentally at odds as to be virtually contradictory. It’s a wonder that anybody manages to raise any money at all in the whole mad profession, let alone eke out a living.

Of course, management knows all this perfectly well. Gig economy undertakings like this- designed to be temporary, ad hoc, offering little in the way of advancement, security, overtime pay or health insurance- make up about 10% of the US labour force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some places stimulate you sign a contract informing you that you are an ” at will ” employee- meaning that you could be fired at any time, for any reason, at management’s sole discretion. Working at a job like this felt like a glimpse of the future; the glitter gears of neoliberalism are grinding us further toward a working situation endlessly more precarious than the sturdy, family-supporting undertakings of yesteryear. I have find plenty of people abruptly booted off the change because their numbers weren’t up to snuff, because they weren’t great talkers that day, or they were reeling from a couple hours of bad luck, or were dealing with a family or health emergency, which was not at all rare, especially given how contravene everyone was.

At the end of the working day, for all the uplifting rhetoric in the scripts about fighting the good fight against the fat cats and the bully Republicans, the motives of our own directors were scarcely any less avaricious. The call centres need to maintain an average of money-raised-per-person-called, under the terms of their contracts with client campaigns. The race-to-the-bottom logic of most campaign bargains also means that, in order to be competitive, companies tend to undersell the competition. That means, among other things, they receive the least promising donor listings and call and recall them mercilessly. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t exactly boost morale to be greeted by an endless string of indignant, agonised, horror-movie-outtake variations on” How did you get this number ?” all the livelong day.


It’s understandable that all the relentless calling piss people off, but contrary to what funding recipients of these calls assume , none of it is the caller’s fault. The machine that dials the numbers has no grasp of just how many times it has called the same person for the same campaign, and hence it is unable to know when it is financially or emotionally reasonable to stop. As far as the dialling software is concerned, an unanswered phone presents the ideal marketings possibility- and always will.

For the all-too-human caller prodded forward by the demands of the dialling list, however, get hung up on a few days in a row doesn’t simply result in a headache. It starts to set the rent and food money in jeopardy. The company where I ran was continually promoting a mixed message: on the one hand, make as many calls as possible.( Higher contact numbers are better for the company .) But on the other hand, create more money.( That improves the average of money-raised-per-call .) I have attended any number of mandatory pep talk and the essential takeaway never alters: we are here to make a difference, push for change and beat the GOP, but the prime directive is always to get that money! The fate of those who fall short is left unsaid, but it is all too plain in the daily life of the office.

Another widespread delusion is that bellow centres are an organ or an appendage of the Democratic party proper, or of any of the liberal-left advocacy groups that a centre might have as clients. Not so. Think of them as independent subcontractors. Sure, there are plenty of hardcore leftwing types who gravitate to these jobs, and many have called for years while brooding over thick texts explicating the big-picture case for revolutionary social alteration. But even for these true disciples, the passion for political change promptly pales before the nightly need to meet your quota. And this is where the capricious nature of the all-powerful donor base sheds some queasy light on the current malaise of the left.

One of the unexpected side effects of a career as a do-gooding headset jockey is that it will probably attain you really, genuinely hate liberals. To be clear, I am talking about a specific type of liberal: the complacent, self-satisfied, bien pensant type who thinks that voting in presidential campaigns( and rarely any other time) and posting stuff on Facebook is activism, and that watching, say, YouTube videos of so-and-so ” demolish ” somebody else is proof of fearless contrarianism. I am talking about the left-leaning version of the milquetoast average American who likes to have opinions about politics but doesn’t really like to think about politics that much. The dame who said to me once:” You know the phrase’ act locally, guess globally ‘? Yeah, we do a lot of that …” in a tone of serene omniscience- that’s who I’m talking about.

I came into the job considering myself an egalitarian kind, but prolonged exposure to the righteous outbursts and petulant caprices of the engaged citizenry will curdle the blood of even the staunchest populist. Once you have logged enough calls, you can just tell when someone takes a deep breath and is about to launch into a tirade. The one thing that most people can agree on is that no matter what is happening, it sucks. But God help you when there’s a particular initiative afoot in Congress: be it gun control, healthcare, getting troops out of Iraq or a garden-variety culture-war dustup, a disturbingly high number of the people I talked to needed their 15 minutes of therapy through indignation.

Sometimes it was as though they had been waiting on hold for a talk-radio show, to have their moment of valor, champing at the bit to say how enlightened and outraged they were about whatever the issue of the day happened to be. Having an opinion of different kinds, the more conspicuous the most wonderful, makes some people feel important. It is like they finally have their chance to achieve self-expression through outrage. And when your workday is largely made up auditing such compulsive monologuing, you can’t help but wonder whether late capitalism has left them with anything else.

Barack
Barack Obama making campaign bellows in 2012. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/ AP

Over the course of a night’s work, you would hear dozens of people say slight differences on the same phrase, or make a virtually identical argument about the same topic. When your change was finally done, you would go home and wearily turn on the news or click through some blogs and discover which pundit had supplied the hot take du jour. And then days later, something else would come up and the circuit of sophistry would replenish itself anew.

There were, however, some reliable leitmotifs in the bellows. Everybody only loved Obama, and they were quite proud of having voted for him, as if that in itself proved something about their leftist credentials. Voting is very nice, and no doubt nearly as effective a style to feel like you are advancing the common good as speechifying on a telemarketing call, but what really matters is organizing the vote in many complex and geographically huge states. It is tedious, painstaking, necessary work that culminates in the drama of election night, but it was in the service of simply this elusive majoritarian alliance on the left that I had signed up for the telemarketing game in the first place.

Still, this particular vision of politics was remote from the prime concerns of most of the people I called; they were too busy gnashing their teeth over the pundit-scripted version of national politics to bother with the mundanities of field work or groups together a durable network of activists and funders. In some ways, this was zombie thinking at its formalist zenith- never underestimate the tendency of the middle class’s need to be a herd of independent minds.

Over time, the whole endeavour started to feel hopeless. As much cash as I had happily created for him during his first run for the presidency, after a while I couldn’t shake the feeling that Obama’s centrist, hopey-changey agenda was faltering precisely because of its vast, vague but very electable scope. You only can’t be all things to all people, even if the people themselves expect you to be. Few know this fallacy better than the harried factotum hunched over a phone.

The more money people gave, the worse the bellyaching got. I noticed a few leading callers who, asked for their secret, shrugged and said they just recurred whatever the donor said back to them in a tone of total validation. The infinitely more disheartening fluctuation on this customer-empowerment refrain was the oft-cited injunction ” don’t talk about the issues !” When all else failed, you could always merely trash the Republicans. That usually worked fine as a start, but the hazy nebula of Democratic policy still hung in the air like a big bubble about to pop.


To some extent, the gap between expectation and performance is simply the route of the political world; you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. As frustrated as I was with the Obama administration in power, I didn’t blame Obama as much as I did the people who had jumped on his bandwagon when it was the brightest, shiniest one in town, and then spent the next eight years complaining that the hope and alteration they had ordered wasn’t being delivered fast enough. I wanted urgently for the party to give me something to work with, but no matter how many Jimmy Stewart speeches I dedicate, and I certainly gave my share, I guess it simply felt safer or more comfy for most people to be against something rather than for something.

People like to think of themselves as politically engaged without ever bothering to truck with the messy business of politics itself. People want “politics”( sentiment, notions, invective) without politics( organisation, compromise, subtlety ). Someone else, that ever-elusive ” they ” is supposed to solve the country’s problems and do it in a way that will satisfy everyone without cause offense, demanding sacrifices, or increasing taxes. My time fundraising has stimulated me cynical about the pronouncements of pollsters and the general assumptions about the drift of the political breezes. People will say they agree with or believe in any number of things on paper, but in daily life it’s a whole different tale. People most enjoy supporting nominees and issues when they don’t have to be personally responsible for them.

I thank my lucky stars that I get out when I did, in the summer before the apocalypse. If I had been working the phones during the final months of the 2016 general elections, I would probably be scrawling all of this on the walls of my padded cell. Still, cranky as I am, I find that I can’t fully regret the time I’ve spend participating in some small way in the manic political life of my country. I had plenty of thought-provoking, sometimes moving and hilarious conversations with some very interesting people. I had plenty of time to read and write and consider the ideas I assimilated in light of their real-world application. It is one thing to theorise about politics, but it’s another to do it while constantly taking the anxious heartbeat of the people.

After so many evenings facing the painful narcissism of the middle-class liberal, I find that I am more interested in radical critiques than ever before. I have logged enough long hours supporting Democratic causes to feel something more than merely sentimental attachment to the Democrats and their motley agenda. It was on their behalf, after all, that I expended so many years creating truckloads of cash and enduring a veritable tsunami of aggrieved complaints. But now I also know quite well how far they need to go to represent a person like me.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the current issue of the Baffler

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