McCain Campaign Exploits the Race of Their Hired Help

by cv harquail on October 28, 2008

african americans inauthentic suppport for mccain The McCain Campaign has hired Obama supporters to work as as "paid volunteers ."  As reported by Tom Baldwin in the UK Times, and picked up by The Huffington Post and the Daily Kos, the McCain Campaign is paying temp workers $10 an hour to go door to door handing out absentee ballot requests. Although the hired volunteers work for the McCain Campaign and wear McCain-Palin campaign stickers, some of them actually support Barak Obama .

Paid volunteers are inauthentic.

Paid volunteers fake the expected relationship between the organization and the volunteer who represents the organization. Especially when they are working for an ideological organization, like a political campaign, paid volunteers need to act like and be perceived by others as supporters of the organization and its beliefs, even if they are not. The burden to them of "wearing the brand" of the ideological organization can weigh heavy on volunteers, asking them to be inauthentic to themselves.

As one woman on The Huffington Post concluded:

It’s a sad commentary on our country when people need work so much they will speak against their own ideologies just to collect $10 per hour!

Even more of a concern is that some of these paid volunteers are not only Obama supporters but also African-Americans. This is a concern because the (apparent) race-ethnicity of the "paid volunteer" campaign workers is interpreted by the potential voter who answers the door to infer that these particular African Americans have chosen McCain over Obama. The appearance of a supposedly volunteer campaign worker who is African-American contradicts the voter’s expectation that African Americans support Obama. (And over 84% of African-Americans support Obama, as of 10/21/08.)

The perception that these African Americans have repudiated Obama to volunteer instead for McCain adds extra power to the campaign workers’ perceived endorsement of McCain.

Paid Volunteers look like they support the cause even if they don’t.

When a campaign representative appears at a citizen’s door, the citizen usually assumes that the person herself/himself supports the cause they are there to advocate.  The volunteer is perceived to be someone who believes in the candidate so much that the volunteer will work for the candidate for free. The perception that paid campaign staff are volunteers adds additional power and weight to their inferred endorsement of McCain.

There is a long tradition of campaign workers being volunteers. Although campaigns do hire and pay some workers, it is understood, as one McCain organizer explained, that "paid staff don’t work. "  However, because it’s been hard for the McCain campaign to get enough volunteers, they have been hiring "paid volunteers". Paying for volunteers tactic not only gets the campaign more feet on the street, but also these paid volunteers make it look like support for McCain is more widespread than it actually is. The McCain campaign benefits from the additional staffing and also from the perceptions of broader support than what is real.

"Who You Are" is part of the implied endorsement

The campaign workers’ outward appearance is used as part of the persuasion process, even if the appearance is irrelevant (e.g., if the canvasser is pretty) or inferred (e.g., a uniformed Veteran campaigning against Obama). By using African-American temps who are not McCain supporters , the McCain campaign is playing on citizens’ assumptions about the race-ethnicity and cultural values of the campaign’s African-American hired help. In this way, the McCain campaign benefits from "who these paid volunteers are," particularly their race-ethnicity, to communicate a message that African-Americans support McCain and his policies — even where this is not true.

african americans for mccain inauthentic Two Messages for the Price of One

By hiring African-Americans as paid volunteers, the McCain campaign is getting a two messages for the price of one. The perception that these African-Americans  implicitly endorse McCain comes along with the perception that these African-Americans repudiate Barak Obama.

There are of course African-Americans who do support McCain.  These African-American supporters are authentically committed to McCain and his policies because they truly believe that McCain will represent their best interests, personally and perhaps even in terms of their cultural group.  But, adding ‘fake’ African-American supporters allows others to concluded that McCain has more minority support than he actually does, conveying a doubly inauthentic message.

It hurts to wear the brand that contradicts your beliefs.

Some of the paid volunteers described their discomfort with being McCain Campaign employees:

"This is embarrassing. We’re doing this because we have to live. At least none of our friends can see us."

Asking Obama supporters to override their own beliefs to sell the competition sets up contradictions for these employees.  The employees have to appear as though they believe in a candidate that they in fact don’t support, which can be emotionally and philosophically burdensome. But the burden is even worse when the employees are actually Obama supporters. Then, the employees are actively working against their values, beliefs and best interests.  The employees not only have to endure the self-contradictory behavior of looking "like the brand" by presenting beliefs that are not their own, but also they must manage the reality that they are hurting themselves.

Asking African-American Obama supporters to override their beliefs adds an extra sting.

These employees must cope not only with pretending to support McCain and being assumed to repudiate Obama, they must also cope when others assume that they are betraying their social identity group.  Of course, no African-American automatically supports Obama just because they are both Black. Rather, most African-Americans support Obama because they believe that Obama uniquely understands the position of their group within US culture and history, in part (but not only) because he identifies as Black. For an African-American citizen to reject Obama as a candidate can be seen as them rejecting the idea that being Black matters, either to the citizen or to the candidate.

What must it be like to know that you working against your own candidate and against what you perceive as your best interests, just because you desperately need the money?  Isn’t this just another kind of exploitation?

How could the McCain Campaign be more Authentic?

Should the McCain campaign hire only white workers who actually support McCain?

No one who needs a job should be pushed aside because their beliefs don’t match those of the organization, or because members of their social identity group don’t match the organization’s expected target demographic. The job market is too small, and grocery bills are too high, for this to be the best option.

However, perhaps the McCain campaign could put these temporary workers in different jobs, where the work they do has nothing to do with the assumptions anyone would make from their appearance or about their beliefs. Better to give these workers hourly jobs where there is no assumption that the job holder endorses the candidate…. jobs like coordinating canvassing routes, organizing mailings, and data entry. After all, these jobs all pay the same, and none is a stepping stone to a career.

For jobs with citizen contact, the campaign should strive to hire employees who are genuine, authentic McCain supporters, if at all possible. Better to pay people to promote what they believe in than to pay them to lie.

john-mccain-costume inauthentic leadership

Alternatively, the McCain campaign could give each hired hand a name tag that reads:

I am a paid employee of the McCain campaign.
No personal endorsement of McCain should be inferred.

That would be the most authentic, least misleading, and least exploitative option. Do you have other ideas?

(If you enjoyed this post, please consider Digging it. I’d love for more people to read it. Thanks. )

For an interesting contrast with the Obama Campaign, check out my earlier post: Obama’s Website Made Me Cry .

For more information: There is a video by Sam Mayfield , a reporter from UpTake and the Center for Media & Democracy , available on YouTube.  She interviews a McCain campaign official who explains that "paid staff don’t work" (at 0:50). He argues that the job of these paid employees is to retrieve absentee ballot requests, and as such "It’s functional in nature" he explains. "It’s not about persuasion." Yet the employees all wear McCain-Palin campaign stickers on their shirts, putting the lie to the claim that the employees’ aren’t expected to appear to endorse the candidates.

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