This past weekend, I took my five year old son Malcolm with me to go canvassing for Obama. It would be disingenuous to claim that I brought him only to give him a lesson in civics. I brought him partly as a human shield, partly as a security blanket, and partly to ease the social awkwardness. It takes guts to walk up to a stranger’s house and knock on the door, not knowing who will answer, or what they might say. Our area of New Hampshire is a genuine swing district, and we have a wide range of political opinion, socioeconomic status, and receptiveness to strangers with clipboards on the front steps. We encountered undecided voters, voters who were firmly for Romney, and voters who were firmly for Obama. And there is no predicting which when making that long walk up the driveway.
We are Yankee folk here–diffident, independent and wary. Every time someone came to the door at our knock (and plenty of people clearly hid under the couch when we approached) I could see the same suspicious regard in their faces. Having been on the other side of the door when canvassers come by, I know I probably had the same expression on my own. After all, who knocks on a stranger’s door but salesmen, religious groups and political canvassers? This is the dreaded trifecta that makes people feel the instinct to run to the bathroom and run the shower until the people just go away.
When we were done with our three hour shift knocking on doors, I had the familiar feeling that it’s never as bad as one anticipates. Everyone we spoke with was at least civil. No one let loose a stream of expletives or threatened bodily harm, so I feel the day was a success overall. And though I was glad of the reassuring company of my son, I did genuinely want him to see that we don’t just sit around in the echo chamber of like-minded liberals making snide and witty remarks about the opposition. We go out and talk with people, and listen to them.
For all the talk of the founding fathers, and the great America that supposedly once was, and that we have supposedly lost, one of the things the founders would surely lament is the nearly complete loss of political debate between neighbors, face to face. As the election draws near, I often overhear, “I hate talking about politics.” I understand that sentiment when the only discourse anyone hears is between shrill and self-righteous t.v. personalities, or between Facebook friends of friends sniping at each other and never speaking in person. It’s much harder to deride someone’s opinion when speaking to them on either side of the front threshold. So whether you’re the supplicant with the clipboard, or the person peering warily around the door, try to overcome your instinct to run away. I know you feel it, just like I do. But if we’re to overcome the polarization that we all agree is poisoning the political debate, we must really talk to each other, and we must at least try to understand each other. If we don’t, we turn over all responsibility for our own government, and if we do that, then we are surely lost.