Daily BR!NK is getting political! Today, meet the President of the Harvard College Democrats, Jason Berkenfeld; a senior with a firm commitment to democracy, social justice, and equal opportunity that allows him to brave all the surprises of campaign work… from shotguns to grandmothers in bras. Berkenfeld has been motivating his fellow students to travel to New Hampshire and work for Democratic candidates in some of the nation’s closest races. With the election this Tuesday, Berkenfeld speaks honestly about his hopes for Obama, his frustrations and challenges as an organizer, and why he believes it is important to vote Democrat tomorrow.
How did you become interested in politics?
I remember watching the election in 2000, wondering who was going to win, waking up the next morning and learning that well, we’re not going to know for a while. I learned that politics can be exciting even when you’re not winning the election. But I think what really got me involved was getting to see Barack Obama back in 2007, back when he was still a long-shot, still running behind Hillary Clinton. I got to meet him and I just went weak in the knees.
Okay, so, here’s a bit of a tough question. Are you disappointed in him at all? He ran on the promise that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, would not be polarizing, and that he had this unique ability to unite the country and connect with people. Do you feel that he’s failed at that?
That’s a great question. I think the problem was that expectations were set too high for Obama. People were expecting him to come in and fix everything immediately. But you can’t change the entire political landscape in two years! Obama was really a blank slate on to which everyone projected their hopes, and so there’s this disappointment that he didn’t immediately resolve everyone’s particular issue.
Working with young Democrats, do you perceive this “enthusiasm gap” that the media has been talking about?
It’s been rough. In 2008 we had this great coalition of different campus groups, like QSA and the environmental groups, but last semester the enthusiasm was initially low. But we’ve really been invigorated by the energy and passion of the freshmen this year, and the students who have come back realizing that they need to continue fighting for the change we achieved in 2008.
Tells us about what the Harvard Democrats have been doing for the election.
Harvard Dems are first and foremost a campaign organization. In 2008 we knocked on 30,000 doors in New Hampshire, and so far we’ve knocked on 5,000 this year. We’ve done work to reelect Deval Patrick as Governor of Massachusetts, but we’re been more focused on the Senate; students who aren’t from Massachusetts are more interested in who controls Congress.
What is talking to New Hampshire voters like?
New Hampshire is a fascinating state. I don’t know anywhere else like it. People are so in tune with politics because it’s the first primary state, and it’s just so interesting to talk to voters there. People have been much more undecided this year than in 2008. In 2008 it was either, “Oh, I love Obama!” or, “Go away, I’m for McCain.” This year you have life-long Democrats who are not sure if they’re going to vote Democrat this time, and Republicans who are unsure who they’ll vote for. And that’s a real opportunity for us, because you can actually help them reach the decision.
So what do you say to voters to convince them to vote Democrat?
The change that this country so desperately needs is at risk with a Republican congress. Obama has made progress, but it’s going to take time. And no matter your opinion of Obama, a Democratic majority is the most important thing. At the end of the day, Republicans don’t have a solution. They tear down Obama’s plans, but if you ask them, “Well, what would you do?,” they’re silent; they offer no alternative. That’s why this election is not going to be as much of a massacre for Democrats as people think it’s going to be. Because people want to vote for something. And in 2008, Obama represented that. He represented hope and change.
But it seems that the Republicans have been able to whip up a lot of excitement and attention just running against Obama. What would you say to the criticism that “hope and change” are too vague and have allowed Republicans to distract voters from substantive issues?
That’s a great question. Think about the complexity of issues Obama tackled. The health care reform bill was revolutionary and it did a lot of good for a lot of people. But these issues are complex and nuanced and Obama has had a hard time articulating the nuance. The Republicans have really shot themselves in the foot. They’ve allowed a small extreme faction to take control of a moderate party and failed to capitalize on an opportunity to have substantive discussion. I mean, Democrats should never have had a chance to win in places like Kentucky, should never have been able to win this year in Delaware. [Nevada Senator and Democratic Majority Leader] Harry Reid was a dead man walking until the Republicans elected a Tea Party candidate to oppose him.
Do you have any funny stories from talking to voters in New Hampshire?
Oh man, so many. In 2008, in a trailer park outside of Manchester, someone answer the door with a shotgun. Last week I was canvassing and a grandmother answered the door in her bra!
Wow, what did you do?!
I just tried to get her information as quickly as possible. She said it “wasn’t a good time.” I was like, yeah, I can see that! Another time one freshman knocked on the door and a five-year-old answered, so the student asked to talk to his father. The father said they were voting Republican and the five-year-old added, “Yeah! We’re voting Republican poo-poo on you!” We actually started a photo blog where people can post funny things they see while canvassing, interesting mailboxes, things like that.
I wonder what message you have for young people and students like you, to convince them to get involved in politics?
Just reminding people of 2008. That’s what gets me out of bed, that’s what gets me to New Hampshire: thinking about the change I fought for. I think about the world as it is, and the world as it should be, and the unacceptable disparity between the two. In an academic setting especially, there’s a tendency to sit and talk about issues, but we also have to walk the walk. I always like to say that democracy is not something we have, it’s something we do.
What do the Harvard Democrats do when it’s not an election year?
We work towards strengthening the progressive community on campus. We’re working on making Harvard Dems a home for progressive-minded students through hosting social events, discussions, conversation. We want people to realize that students have a vested interest in the issues we care about. Last spring we created Demcorp to really focus on service to the community. For me, being a Democrat has always been about social justice and equal opportunity. With Demcorp, we go into Boston and work in homeless shelters, we participated in a program called Cradles to Crayons to provide homeless children with supplies, and we’re working to make Massachusetts homes more energy-efficient. Community service is really in line with the progressive ideals of social justice and equal opportunity, and again, it’s about doing democracy, instead of just having it.
The election is tomorrow! Will you be up in New Hampshire working? Are you going to have a big election night party?
We will be in New Hampshire all weekend getting out the vote. We have over 80 members coming from Saturday through Tuesday, and then we’ll come back to Harvard to catch the election results. We’re going to put together some sort of results party to celebrate all the hard work we did, win or lose.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
Well, voting Democrat on Tuesday is the most important thing. But we do struggle with finances. We don’t get money from the administration, so we are always looking for donations. And then also just progressive support!