This summer, enveloped in a campaign cycle largely defined by cynicism and triviality, I re-learned to love politics.
In fact, interning at the national headquarters of President Obama’s re-election campaign for the past few months was the most amazing opportunity I didn’t think I wanted.
As the Republican primaries passed and the general election race ramped up, I found myself increasingly disillusioned by today’s politics. No one was talking seriously about the issues; all that mattered was delivering the right sound bite. The policy wonk I like to think myself to be, I had generally seen politics as a necessary evil, and the lack of genuine policy discussion in Washington and on the campaign trail turned me off.
Still, I could not pass up the opportunity to work for a storied campaign organization to elect a president I still believed was the right choice for this nation. I dove headfirst into my position in the research department, hoping to come away with a deeper understanding of the president’s policies without getting swept up in the political frenzy I bemoaned.
Instead, I completed my internship more hopeful for the future than I was in 2008 and more engaged in politics than ever. And despite how much more I understand and appreciate about our president after my time at the campaign, I don’t attribute this transformation to him directly. My renewed faith in our imperfect democracy came from my former colleagues, the hundreds of underpaid, overworked, inspired and inspiring people whose desire to effect change extends far beyond November 6th.
Every campaign staffer I listened to, from Jim Messina and David Axelrod to a recent college graduate turning down job offers to work seven days a week in the middle of Iowa for the next three months, had a story more invigorating than the last. I was struck by how many unique causes, passions, and experiences had brought these disparate personalities together.
These folks were not the bunch of hardline, talking point-toting operatives we like to imagine run our political system. These were people like me, discontented with the status quo yet conscious of the need to change it from within. They didn’t all agree with the president one hundred percent of the time. But this election isn’t really about him.
The palpable energy that surrounded me every day, a collective passion born of individual ambition, reminded me of what politics ought to be about: the people.
After all, the campaign was built on a model of community organizing that was novel in 2008 for political campaigns and remains a signature mark of the organization. It’s about getting people engaged with politics by getting them engaged with their neighbors. It’s about building the social capital upon which any vibrant democracy must rest.
I witnessed this summer the power of a small group of people bound together by common ideals. We need that attitude, not just in campaigns, but in our communities and cities, now more than ever. If more Americans—Republican, Democrat, and everything in between—got involved, we could really start to change the stakes for politicians hamstrung by the media and their richest, most extreme constituents. And we could start to trust each other, our politics, and our government once again.
As a wise man on the campaign recently told me, “We get the leaders we demand.” It’s an empowering message, and it gives me new hope and new cause for the future.