Talking Politics with Strangers

13 mins read
Training with Changing the Conversation Together

By Amy Fox with Changing the Conversation Together (CTC)

One day, not long after the election of Donald Trump, I sat in my Brooklyn apartment in my pajamas, attempting to make phone calls to Senators, to voice my objections to the latest unqualified Cabinet nominee. I say attempting, because these phone calls were difficult for me. They made me anxious, my voice wavered, and I couldn’t figure out whether to be overly polite or overly angry. A friend asked me why I was so nervous, what I thought the staffer at on the other end was going to do, and I said they might laugh at me after I hung up the phone.

Cut to another day, nearly two years after the 2016 election, as I stood outside a row of houses in a Staten Island neighborhood. I studied my phone, consulting a remarkably helpful app that told me that the next three houses were entirely occupied by Republicans. These people had “R” marked next to them in the helpful app, and I was about to knock on their doors and ask them if they would tell me how they felt about the job Trump was doing as president.

I can’t entirely explain why the same person who struggled with those phone calls was able to walk up those paths by myself, past small well-manicured lawns and pumpkins on porches, to engage in conversations with total strangers. I had not radically transformed my personality or become less shy in those intervening months. I had just a few things up my sleeve — a drive to “Do Something” for the 2018 election, about 3 hours of training under my belt, and a clipboard with a script. Perhaps most importantly, I had a burning curiosity about the people behind those doors.

These were not going to be perfunctory conversations. Somewhat by accident I had ended up out here with an organization called Changing the Conversation Together, which practices something called “deep canvassing.” This was not the quick “get out the vote” encounter where you encourage a fellow Democrat to find their polling place or leave a glossy flyer at their door. The CTC website describes deep canvassing as “a method to elicit emotionally significant experiences and encourage reflection,” and explains that “a deep canvasser strives to get the voter to consider political alternatives.” For the 2018 election, CTC had decided to work in support of the campaign to elect Democrat Max Rose to the United States House of Representatives. On Staten Island, the focus was on asking people to consider supporting a Democrat as a way to provide checks and balances on Trump’s power.

I myself had only heard of deep canvassing that morning, when I found my way from the Staten Island Ferry to the small synagogue, where CTC was conducting a training for new volunteers. But when I had taken my place in a folding chair in front of the whiteboard where organizer Adam Barbanel-Friel was leading the training, I was immediately inspired by how he was describing this work.

Barbanel-Friel explained that one of the key differences between activism on the right and the left is that the right knows how to appeal to people’s emotions, while the left primarily focuses on logic. The left tends to believe that if they can just articulate policy effectively enough, they will win arguments, and elections. (In the face of recent events, I’ve heard this compared to playing chess against a pigeon who keeps shitting all over the chessboard.)

Deep canvassing takes a different approach, in which you use storytelling and listening in order to connect with someone on a more personal level, in an attempt to understand why they vote the way they do and share why your own political views matter to you. According to CTC, this work is uniquely effective. Their research estimates that CTC volunteers will persuade one out of ten swing voters to choose the Democratic candidate.

Personally, I was thrilled to hear this. I’ve never been particularly good at arguing policy. I can read complex articles articulating every nuance of a political position, but when asked to debate it, I find I can’t retain the information. My entire life I’ve been surrounded by well-educated lawyer-types who seem to have all the rhetoric and facts they need at their fingertips, and next to them I’ve felt ill equipped to fight for a political cause. But I’m a writer and a teacher, and storytelling and listening are definitely the skills in my wheelhouse. Hearing that these skills could be the key to effective canvassing was exciting to me.

Which brings me back to that doorstep. I was nervous, heart racing a bit, feeling overheated in my winter coat. But I had, as I mentioned earlier, a uniquely motivating force — curiosity.

As writer of TV, films and plays, most of my projects begin with curiosity about human beings. Why would a person behave in a certain way — what does it tell me about their world, their character, their background. Can I put myself in their shoes? Can I look at things through their eyes? How far does my empathy extend?

To me, deep canvassing taps into that curiosity. You look an individual human being in the eyes and ask them questions. You tell a story from your life and ask them to do the same. You don’t lecture them or argue with them. And in the process, you refuse to reduce them to your enemy. Believe me, I have sat in my apartment many times, cursing Republicans and Trump voters for what they’re doing to the country. But underneath that righteous anger lies something else — my curiosity. Who are you? Why are you behaving this way? What matters to you? Is there any way you and I can have a conversation about this?

These questions may sound naive. But the people I met in Staten Island that day reminded me they are still worth asking. None of those people fit in a neat little box. If I met a diehard Trump supporter who only wanted to spout Fox News, I was instructed to politely move on to the next house. But the deep canvassing script is designed to identify someone who may be the slightest bit open to conversation. Who is a person who voted for Obama twice and then Trump? Who is a person who calls himself a socialist and turns from supporting Bernie to voting for Trump. How does a Mexican guy who describes himself as a loyal union construction worker end up voting against his own interests?

These are all people I talked to. The socialist invited me into his living room where I petted his four Siberian cats while he told me in halting English that everyone should have access to health care and education. The union guy told me he didn’t really have time to follow politics but he would go back and talk to some of his buddies who had been encouraging him to vote Democratic. The Obama-turned-Trump voter was a Fox news-watcher and retired New York City cop who was walking his dog when he stopped to talk to me. Less than 24 hours earlier, a man had killed eleven people at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The retired cop told me about the number of times he had stood armed watch outside New York synagogues after a threat. He told me he was going to spend the rest of the day with a friend who was hurting, a Rabbi at a local Brooklyn temple.

Deep canvassing is designed to uncover cognitive dissonance. I voted for Trump but… I don’t like the way he talks. I don’t like his meanness. I don’t think he should tweet so much. Yes, actually my mother is an immigrant. Yes somebody I love has been a victim of hatred or bigotry. Yes, I am scared of sending my kid to school every day. But I still think…

The deep canvasser listens. They don’t convince, they don’t point out contradiction or hypocrisy. They ask questions that encourage the person to talk about people they love, and the importance of compassion in their lives. They wait to see if possibly, just possibly, the person hears something in their own words that begins the process of change . The person hesitates, wonders, creates a little space to question their own beliefs. The deep canvasser asks follow up questions to keep the person talking and affirms the person’s story by connecting it to their own. By the end of this process a voter who was undecided or leaning Republican, may be ready to commit to voting for the Democrat.

I spoke to about 12 people on my first day of canvassing. Several of those people said that after our conversation they would consider voting for Max Rose. I returned to Staten Island several times before the November 8 election. Some days were more inspiring than others. Many people don’t want to talk to strangers. Many people are not home. Many people won’t answer the door. But some do. Some do.

On November 6, 2018, Max Rose won election to the United States House of Representatives, turning the district blue for the first time since 2008.

As the country prepares for the 2020 presidential election, CTC has already begun deep canvassing in swing states. I’m looking forward to getting back out there to knock on doors. I’m curious who I will get to talk to, and what stories they will tell, what connections we will forge.

Oddly enough, I still have a lot of trouble picking up the phone to call my representatives. Go figure; people are full of contradictions.

Originally posted on Medium. Re-posted with permission.

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