It occurred to me recently that despite the number of times I’ve heard variations on the phrase “this election is the most important of your generation” it has never come across as condescending or cliché. I can only conclude that its truth frees it from such burdens; certainly all the signs point that way. Barack Obama’s “fierce urgency of now” has gripped me as thoroughly as it has every other liberal progressive and in so doing has created in me a terribly interesting monster.
I know – intellectually yes, but also in my gut – that to be successful we have to mobilize and organize and network on a scale never yet seen. I want to do my part. I need to know that I’m involved. I will help put Obama in the White House.
But I hate door knocking. I hate phone banking. I hate voter registration. I dread talking to perfect strangers with the goal of persuading them that my point of view is better. I dread these things and in doing them I’ve learned something incredible.
My first door-knocking experience was tough because the community was so supportive. At first I couldn’t engage people on anything; we already agreed. The goal early on, however, was to bring in more volunteers and active support. It wasn’t until I started talking about my own experiences volunteering that I could excite them about doing the same.
As I entered less and less supportive neighborhoods the game changed. In my experience people were either conservative partisans or cynically undecided but always ready to argue. Again, I got nowhere trying to convince someone who knew that small government is best that we have a moral obligation to provide healthcare for everyone. We were just talking past each other.
As before, as soon as I started talking about myself, engaging them on personal level, things changed. “I want to elect Obama because he would help pay for my college if I volunteer in the community,” I would say, or “I want to end the war in Iraq because I want that money to help invest in the renewable energy sector, which is somewhere I want to work as an adult.”
With this subtle shift I was – at first unwittingly – able to communicate a lot. By showing them something real and personal, I invited them to do the same. Gaining this personal knowledge gave me the ability to find a common point of departure. I was able to say things like, “Wow, it’s great to hear that public education is so important to you and your family. This is why I think Obama is the stronger candidate on that issue.”
This ability dramatically changed my attitude. I realized that it wasn’t about persuasion or superior knowledge or even debating ability. It was simply connecting with people. As I went from door to door I felt empowered and excited, as if in each house was another friend waiting to be made.
My new attitude must have worked. Toward the end of one of my shifts I was walking down the street when I saw youngish teenager approaching me. He slowed, made eye contact and said, “You must be an Obama volunteer, right?” I smiled, pleased that he had guessed (I wasn’t wearing any paraphernalia) and asked how he was doing. “Great!” he replied. “But I’m too young to vote. Where can I sign up to volunteer?”