An election campaign is like a marathon and, like marathon runners, grassroots activists need good nutrition before and during the race to sustain their energy. We thus offer the Activist Diet Plan. (More)
Hitting the Wall, Part I: Evil Geniuses and other Activist Diet Plan No-Nos
This week Morning Feature discusses the stress of election campaigning and how activists can better manage “hitting the wall.” Today we see the importance of your news diet, before and during the race. Tomorrow we’ll look at training, exercise, and ensuring you keep the “active” in “activist.” Saturday we’ll conclude with teamwork and the energy benefits of group activism.
Fatigue and the Myth of Will Power
I feel sorry for Will Power. Poor Will often gets blamed for things that aren’t his fault, and the fatigue felt by marathon runners, cyclists, other endurance athletes should rank high on that list. Sportscasters offer trite bromides like “It’s gut check time” or “It comes down to who wants it most,” as if courage and determination – guts – were the only difference between exhaustion and excellence.
Ironically, those last few miles of an endurance race are about guts, but the sportscasters often mistake physiology for mere metaphor. “Hitting the wall” is a physical phenomenon where the liver and muscles run out of stored glycogen. Worse, athletes usually get a rush of dopamine – the body’s “feel good” chemical signal – at the start of a race. But the brain’s dopamine receptors get less sensitive after prolonged exposure to high dopamine levels, similar to the way the retina gets less sensitive in bright light.
As it happens, the glycogen depletion and reduced dopamine sensitivity often happen after about the same period of vigorous exercise, and the athlete experiences both physical and mental exhaustion at the same time. That combination feels like, well, running into a brick wall. Every part of the body seems to scream “Stop!”
To avoid “hitting the wall,” and to get through it, athletes need good nutrition before and during a race. Their pre-race meals feature complex carbohydrates that will release energy over time. During the race itself, the days of “don’t eat or drink while you exercise” or “drink water only” are long gone. Today’s athletes gulp down energy drinks, power bars, and fruit gels all along the course to sustain their energy.
Sensible nutrition, not Will Power, carries athletes to the finish line.
The Activist Diet Plan
That’s not a precise metaphor for political activism, which happens over weeks and months rather than hours. Energy drinks and light snacks like granola bars are very helpful while door-to-door canvassing, and bottled water or other non-alcoholic drinks are essential while phone banking, but The Activist Diet Plan is more about what you should feed your mind … and what you shouldn’t.
Of course you need a nutritious news diet, before and during a campaign. That is, you need to understand the issues well enough to discuss them with Fred and other voters you talk with. Voters rarely ask about the latest twitch in the polls, or the latest absurd statement by a pundit or campaign surrogate. They more often ask about candidates’ character, the parties’ positions on major issues, and about local issues that national ‘news junkies’ too often overlook. In other words, voters tend to ask questions that you should be able to answer if you read BPI Campus and our national and international news feeds, a local newspaper, and your state and local Democratic Party and candidates’ websites.
You should also be familiar with your state and county election rules. At the very least, you should know where to send voters who need help with name or address changes, damaged absentee ballots, changes in polling places, what if any ID they will need, and other practical matters.
Evil Geniuses and other Political Junk Food
And, like an athlete, you need to avoid the wrong food during a race. Breathless, anguished laments about Evil Geniuses rigging elections will not help you reach the finish line. The Department of Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, and state and local Democratic Parties have lots of lawyers who have been successfully challenging and are still on the lookout for voter suppression and other forms of election fraud. No system is perfect, but history shows the best response for activists is to ensure the election is not “close enough to steal.” Rather than getting all a’Twitter over Tagg Romney and Ohio’s voting machines … spend your time making GOTV calls.
Then there are polls, prediction models, and prediction markets. Yes, I check Nate Silver’s 538 blog at the New York Times every day … mostly to remind myself that – despite all the bluster and brouhaha in the news and social media – not much has really changed. This won’t be a landslide presidential election, and winning or losing will come down to turnout in key states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and elsewhere. Again, your best hope to get us over the finish line is to spend less time reading polls and more time on GOTV work.
Finally there are pundits, in the newspapers, online, and cable news channels, all of whom earn their living by attracting and keeping your attention for advertisers. They tend to make a Very Big Deal out of every polling twitch, negative ad, and campaign misstep, but few even try to report on fundamentals like voter registration and GOTV campaigns. They may be interesting as entertainment – in much the same way a sugar-powdered doughnut tastes good – and they’re just about that useful as news nutrition.
We’re down to the last miles of this marathon campaign, and “hitting the wall” is a real risk for each of us. A healthy news diet is one way to avoid that. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the importance of exercise and keeping the “active” in your “activism.”