Another day, another city. This time, I travelled with John Ennis down to Cincinnati on the border between Ohio and Kentucky for a Video the Vote training session. Underneath a clear blue sky, we passed signs advertising redemption and the mutilated carcasses of dead animals in equal measure – along with sprawling retail parks and, as we headed south, beautiful rolling forested hills.
Cicinnati is shaping up well, albeit from a small nucleus of volunteers. In a city with millions in its metro area, eleven people turned up at the Media Bridges studio (an adjunct to a plush internet cafe and video editing shop) to hear Ennis’ spiel. Judging by the response, Video the Vote will do well here, with a media-savvy crowd which brimmed with technical queries. But it will, perhaps, do too little. We’ll have to see on election day.
One of the problems with Video the Vote has been a lack of manpower – or a defective outreach strategy to recruit video makers. As Ennis told me, his initial intention had been to recruit videographers in various communities, rather than reaching out to activist circles working on peace or the environment, for example. It turns out that media mavericks have not been forthcoming, or not enough. It has been activists who have supplied their labor for free, while professional film makers have often sought payment.
Still, after barely an election cycle in existence, VTV is a mere infant venture. It now has over 3,000 volunteers though, many of them first time venturers into video activism and if it brings traditional acitivists into contact with different forms of messaging and interacting with citizens this is certainly a good thing.
What we saw in Cincinnati was a crowd marked only by its diversity, however. There were a couple of volunteers with the Obama campaign who shipped out early to attend another meeting. There was a team of film makers who had shot an interview with Obama earlier in the year for an entertainment channel. There was a woman who had travelled to the Edinburgh Festival this year with the play “Anna the Slut and the (almost) Chosen On” the first review of which I can find describes it as a “tongue-in-cheek interpretation of an ancient Sumerian legend sees a geek and a jock encounter a sex goddess in a bar.”
The majority of those attending will be filming in central Cincinnati, but for Michael Christy, his challenge is slightly different. Coming from Butler County, some twenty miles outside the city, he will be patrolling a district of his own, not knowing what to expect as a first time volunteer.
Despite John Ennis’ reassurance that what VTV is doing is “not surveillance, just basic citizen oversight” Christy wasn’t sure what to wear at the polls to get the best response. Framing your own image in situations like that isn’t easy. Should he wear a suit and tie? It’s not so easy to decide when you aren’t sure of the aggression you might encounter.
Christy seemed to me to be representative of a key component of VTV’s constituency. Middle aged, independent minded, he described himself to me as a “liberal-conservative Christian Buddhist” who was basically rooting for Obama, but not a Democrat. Worried by a possible depression, he was already seeing Obama as potentially delivering “our New Deal” and saw the Illinois Senator building up to be the next Kennedy. Happy to see some areas of the economy socialized, he was very clear that the McCain campaign’s focus on criticising Obama’s call to “spread the wealth around” was pure “fearmongering.” Seeing McCain’s team as immature, Christy had already decided that Obama represented a more likely end to the political culture of “mudslinging.”
Comfortable with some “socialization” – but a small business owner (his new firm is called Yardzilla and he’s been kept afloat by maintaining properties for realtors handling foreclosed homes) Christy belies media stereotypes. We all do. Or at least we try to do, when we liberate ourselves from the tyranny of mass propaganda, and reconnect with society and the world at large.
Obama’s campaign taps into this very real discontent with partisan politics, and it does it very well indeed. Everywhere you go in Ohio you encounter passionate people working dedicatedly to ensure his election, and not because of his specific policies. Obama is riding the crest of a wave of optimism, born from deep pessimism and disgust. McCain is drowning in the trough of that wave, utterly failing to connect with the desire of voters to build something better.
I don’t support many of Obama’s policies, but I do support optimism. People are being reintroduced to politics – be it in campaign meetings, efforts like Video the Vote or even chatting in massive early voting queues (smashing all expectations up to now). There’s no other way to achieve the “maturity” that Christy wants, and America so badly needs.