Since mid-September I have been door-knocking and phone-banking for Hillary Clinton. And since the spring I’ve been talking to lots of random people about the danger of a Trump presidency. And last week, energized by Hillary’s takedown of Trump in their first debate, I stepped up my efforts to speak to undecided and Trump leaning voters. While I make no claim to be an expert, I did think it might be of some value to share some of my experience, as the campaign moves into the home stretch and undecided voters make up their minds as to which candidate they will vote for.
* First, I do no filtering as to who I will talk to, although I lean toward engaging white people – and especially white men – on the theory that they are more likely to be undecided or Trump leaning. If they turn out to be Hillary supporters – and plenty are – I’m, of course, happy to hear that and urge them to talk up her candidacy among their family, friends, and coworkers. Most people won’t become volunteers. Too much stuff going on in their lives.
If, on the other hand, I encounter a hard-core Trump supporter, sunk deep in a swamp of racist, sexist, Islamophobic, nativist, and homophobic claptrap, I usually move on pretty quickly. Last week while I was canvassing, I spoke to a woman on her doorstep who was quick to let me know that she was “an extreme right-wing conservative.” Hearing that, I said goodbye and went to the next home. Dislodging her in few minutes from that mindset would take a miracle worker and I don’t fall into that category. But most people aren’t as hard wired as that. Their thinking is complicated, contradictory, and fluid. If racism, sexism, and other anti-democratic ideologies inhabit their head and shape their voting preferences, they coexist in an uneasy tension with democratic ideologies, desires, and experiences that influence their candidate selection as well. And many – and nearly everyone I have talked to, including more than a few Trump supporters – have some trepidation over electing someone to the most powerful position in the world who is so reckless, so erratic, and so mean spirited and demeaning toward people of color, women, immigrants, LBGTQ, disabled, and others who fall out of his favor.
In other words, if my experience has broader application, it is that many voters who are still undecided, can be persuaded to support Hillary, especially on the strength of her performance and Trump’s flame out in the recent debate and his crude and wild behavior since then.
* I also find that abstract appeals to economic interests (and I would add unity too) usually meet with little success. Most people don’t think or live in the world of abstractions. Their world and how they understand what’s good for them and the people close to them is concrete and practical. That’s not to say that economic issues don’t enter the conversation. They do, but I try to do it concretely. I contrast Hillary’s positions with Trump’s pro-business tax policies and empty proposals on trade. I also take issue with his claim that he is top notch businessman, advocate for the “little guy,” and patriot. Patriots, I say, pay taxes and don’t stiff workers and small business people, while successful business people provide a living wage to their workers and don’t go through multiple bankruptcies. And as for being an advocate for working people, Trump, I say, embraces Trickle Down Economics, which I remind whoever I’m talking to didn’t work the first time. And if tried again will only once again further fatten the already fat pockets of the 1 per cent, while raining down more hardship on the rest of us.
* As compelling as these issues are, I’m as likely to begin with Trump’s politics of hate and exclusion. But not by hectoring people. That only brings the conversation to a quick end. Most of us don’t like to be told how to think, much less vote. It is the rare person who doesn’t reserve that space for themselves. What brings far better results is when I tell a personal story that lifts up the values of fairness, inclusion, equality, and kindness that I learned from my working class parents and contrast that with Trump’s diametrically different values and politics. Or, I talk about the kind of world that I want my two granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, to grow up in. I say that I’m in the last innings of my life, but my grand children are in the first innings of theirs and I want them to enjoy a full and long life in a country that finally makes good on its promise of equality, justice, and peace. But I worry a Trump presidency could very easily foreclose that possibility. This may sound hokey, but it does establish in most instances a connection to people on the other end of the conversation who have similar worries, and thus gives them another way to think about the presidential race without me attempting to tell them how to think and vote. If personal stories aren’t your thing, you might consider stories from the sports world or the Bible or whatever to explain how you feel and why you support Hillary.
* I’m not always successful, but I try to use words and phrases familiar to ordinary people. The language of the left seldom meets that standard. Words and phrases such as neoliberalism, empire, white skin privilege, fascism, and mass struggle ( and I could easily go on) can sound like gibberish to lots of people, and, frankly, a turn-off. I constantly remind myself that the purpose of the discussion with undecided voters isn’t to demonstrate my brilliance, but to convince them a vote for Hillary is in their interest.
* In the same vein, I stay away from “gotcha moments.” In fact, I bend over backwards (without being patronizing) to allow people to gracefully retreat from a point of view that they have come to realize is wrong. People, it seems to me, who desire radical change – let alone to persuade undecided voters to cast their ballot for Hillary – have to possess a generosity of spirit if they hope to win the confidence of millions and become change agents. Martin Luther King embodied that spirit a half century ago. And it gave him a leg up in his efforts to create a just and gentle world.
* It’s probably no surprise, but I find one-on-one conversations the best venue to chat.
* Finally, I’m aware of the limits of any conversation. I don’t enter them expecting a sea change in someone’s thinking. But what I do hope is that someone who is undecided, or even leaning toward Trump, will think again and decide to vote for Hillary and other Democrats down the ticket. If the same and much more is happening across the country (and from what I can gather that is the case), it will contribute mightily to making Hillary Clinton the next and first woman president of our county. And that, in turn, will put the broad and diverse coalition that elects her on higher ground going forward.