Why Palin Volunteers Should Quit, Whether She's Running or Not

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Advocacy groups are just more reliable than politicians, and less likely to prove a total waste of time

sarah full in iowa.jpg

If Sarah Palin has already decided against running for president, is it callous of her to tacitly encourage the dozens of volunteers working to burnish her image? That's the "delicate question" posed by Scott Conroy after meeting some of them on a visit to Iowa. In a long dispatch from the Hawkeye State, he mentions Peter Singleton, considered by many to be the former Alaska governor's leading operative, despite the fact that he isn't officially affiliated with her, and Michelle McCormick, a 28-year-old Texas woman whose story makes me both hope and despair for the United States.

For McCormick, it all began with a letter:

An unassuming 28-year-old north Texan who works in the oil and gas industry, McCormick had experienced a family crisis similar to the one that had befallen Palin's family when the former Alaska governor's daughter Bristol became pregnant in 2008. McCormick wanted to let Palin know that how the vice presidential candidate handled the situation while in the national spotlight helped guide McCormick through her own family difficulties.

McCormick didn't harbor much hope that she would get a response, but about three weeks later she received a personal reply from Palin. Six months later, McCormick now spends every weekend (and an increasing number of weekdays) in the nation's first voting state of Iowa attending GOP Central Committee meetings, collecting names of activists in counties across the state, and doing other volunteer organizing in advance of a Palin presidential campaign that she considers inevitable. "If she was willing to take the time to respond to somebody who is a nobody in Texas, that just shows me what kind of heart she has," McCormick told RCP. "She's a very high-profile individual, and she's got a lot of people making demands on her, and I thought this is someone I really want to help get into the White House."

It always inspires hope to read about Americans who put forth great effort in attempts to improve the country we share. Were more citizens as proactive and civic-minded as McCormick it would be a better place. But I despair that every four years, so many people with an earnest desire to do good waste their energy on politicians who don't deserve it (which is to say, almost all of them). There are two or three people I know personally, all of them non-politicians, for whom I'd campaign if they ran for office. Despite playing closer attention to politics than most, however, I'd never get so excited about a stranger as to volunteer for months on their behalf.

Who can reliably tell if they're as they seem?

Career political operatives routinely misjudge the characters of the people for whom they work. So do voters, if their fickleness is any indication. And we're all wrong so often, even on the biggest questions. Many of you thought, circa 2000, that George W. Bush would eschew nation building when possible, and on inauguration day you didn't expect Barack Obama to wage unlawful wars of choice. It's no use trying to become a better predictor of future behavior either. You're no match for the political process. Those who succeed in it are some of the most adroit people in America at giving you the mistaken impression that their public persona is authentic.

But it isn't. Highly paid professionals are kept on staff to help craft their image. It is then filtered through the media. They're also routinely corrupted by power, so even if you could see a candidate's true self, it's likely to change anyway once he or she spends awhile in office, and in ways more governed by unpredictable events than anything. Finally, intensity of political feeling and rational decision-making aren't generally complementary qualities in any of us. But it's a fact that we tend to volunteer for or against only the politicians about whom we feel most strongly.

The best counterargument I can think of is that we must muddle through anyway -- that representative democracy is the least bad system available to us; that it can only function with some minimum supply of civic-minded volunteers to staff campaigns; and that their disappearance would merely increase the sway of moneyed donors, incumbents, and personally wealthy challengers, three classes of actors who already unduly influence the system.

But I can't help but think that we'd be better off if all of our civic-minded people instead spent their time volunteering elsewhere, on efforts more likely to effect the change they want to see, and less likely to elevate corrupt narcissists to positions of power. So many endeavors meet that two-pronged test!

If you're pro-gun, volunteer for the NRA rather than trying to figure out the best candidate on that issue. Civil liberties? Better to have donated 80 hours of your life to the ACLU or Cato or the Institute for Justice than the campaign of any modern president. Advocacy groups are just more reliable than politicians, and hours spent working on behalf of an organization, or starting a new one, aren't totally wasted as is the case if the individual you back loses, or wins and isn't what you expected. More broadly, spending weekends talking to voters in Iowa just can't be the best use of your do-gooder time in a world where there are understaffed shelters for battered women, failing soup kitchens, centers for wounded vets that need help -- the list goes on, and seldom does helping to elect a politician seem like the best option.

Despite all this, lots of people volunteer every four years on behalf of presidential candidates, often times despite the fact that their particular candidate is very unlikely to win. Do they know something that the rest of us don't? If you've volunteered for a politician in the past and felt it was worthwhile even after they lost, or once they won and completed a single term in office, email me your story.

Tales of misspent volunteer time are welcome too.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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