By Rabbi Bill Plevan
The woman I was speaking to, let’s call her Shirley, seemed a little confused to me. Yes, she regularly voted for Democrats. No, she didn’t vote for Donald Trump. But would she vote for Max Rose, the Democratic candidate for Congress in her district? She didn’t think so. I wasn’t sure how all this information fit together, and usually I would find this incredibly frustrating, even infuriating. I am a progressive Democrat, a rabbi, and the descendent of Jews who fled antisemitism in Eastern Europe to come to America. I want more than anything to stop Donald Trump from enacting his racist agenda. I also follow politics closely enough to know that a having a Democratic Congress would be a significant check on his power. How could Shirley not understand?
But people are complicated, and if I didn’t know it already, my recent training emphasized that my frustration with her confusion or ignorance was not going to get her to vote for the Democrat. Every person has a story to tell that reflects their unique human experience. The best way to get voters to change their vote is to engage them in conversation, to get them to tell their story. And that’s what I was going to do.
I took several trips to Staten Island in the spring and summer on 2018 to canvas with Changing the Conversation Together (CTC). CTC is pioneering a method of political canvassing called “Deep Canvassing.” In Deep Canvassing, we engage voters in longer conversational exchanges that involve sharing and eliciting personal stories. That summer we focused our efforts on New York-11, an historically Republican district composed of all of Staten Island, a Republican stronghold, and parts of Brooklyn that are more Democratic.
In my visits to Staten Island, I had conversations with people I would not have normally spoken to about politics and the future of the country. Most of them were Trump supporters who fit the typical demographic profile: white, older, more conservative voters. Some of them didn’t want to speak to me. Most were polite and spoke their minds about their support of the President. Towards the beginning of each conversation I shared that I had voted for Clinton in 2016, but that didn’t provoke much reaction. Sometimes I heard comments that were tinged with racial animus or xenophobia. Some of those comments came from people who had immigrated to the United States, which shocked me even though I knew such voters existed. I did not succeed in changing these people’s minds, but I didn’t expect to.
At the same time, I learned a lot from being able to speak to such people, to hear them with patience and humility. Part of me wished I could spend more time with them, to see if I could find a way to open their hearts. Deep Canvassing requires developing the habit of hearing views you oppose, even despise, and accepting that there is a limit to what you can do in that moment about it. I learned through my own experience and that of my fellow canvassers that some folks just won’t change in time for the next election. And yet, having the patience to speak with people this way is the only way we will be able to reach any of them.
I also met some regular Republican voters who didn’t seem particularly enthused with Trump. One of the most common responses I heard when I asked what people would say to the President was that he should get off Twitter. The comment about Twitter was indicative of what we hoped to hear as we went door to door. Our goal was to get voters into conversations about the upcoming midterm elections and to see that voting for the Democrat was a vote to hold Trump in check. Trump was not technically on the ballot, but we wanted to put his name there in the minds of these voters. The Democratic challenger, Max Rose, was a relatively unknown moderate, the incumbent Republican, Dan Donovan, was viewed as somewhat independent of Trump.
It’s hard to know what exactly Shirley was thinking that day. Maybe she didn’t think the difference between the two options mattered that much, even if she opposed Trump. She didn’t know much about the moderate Democrat and wasn’t sure he was really against Trump himself. I’ll admit I was baffled: why would she even consider the Republican candidate? But my training in Deep Canvassing taught me that the key to creating a shift in her thinking was that I was not trying to convince her. I was talking to her, and I let her talk to me. I let her story take her to a place she hadn’t thought of before. I let her make the decision.
Deep Canvassing requires a lot of patience. For people like me, progressives and the descendent of Jewish immigrants to the United States, speaking with Trump supporters required setting aside my justified moral outrage. The Trump era requires moral outrage, certainly, and I have had opportunities to express it at many protests over the past several years, two of which led to my arrest as part of a civil disobedience action. As much as I want to show respect to people who disagree with me on political issues, at some point a person has to draw a line and show some moral outrage.
But this political moment also calls for careful and strategic thought about how to actually win. Deep Canvassing’s promise is not primarily the value of speaking to people with different views in a respectful way, though that is one of its great virtues. The promise of Deep Canvassing is that it works. It works because by sharing our own stories with voters, we try to open them up to sharing their own stories about people they love and care about, and how that matters when they vote. We won’t change everyone’s mind but this is the best approach to changing enough votes to win elections, especially closely contested ones in key Congressional districts and battleground states.
When I served as a rabbi of a congregation, I came to understand that the best sermons have a conversational quality to them. In some of these sermons, I found myself sharing a personal story. By telling a story about something meaningful to me, I showed that I was open to hearing about something that mattered personally to them. In Deep Canvassing, we try to create this dynamic in a conversation, sometimes 10 to 15 minutes long. After asking how a person voted before and is likely to vote, the canvasser shares a personal story of their own, followed by an invitation to the voter to share their own story. If they respond, you might get them to open up about something personal and how it impacts the way they vote. One of our strategies is to talk about people we love and talk about voting as a gift to the people we love. That day with Shirley, I told her about my great-grandmother, who emigrated from Poland as a teenager and arrived here with almost nothing to escape an uncertain fate had she stayed. When I think about my responsibility as a voter, I think about her and the gift she gave to me by coming here, and I want to give that gift to others. Telling this story showed Shirley that I was there to relate to her in a personal way, in a human way. I wasn’t going to lecture or rebuke her; I was going to talk with her.
What I remember most about that conversation was trying to sort out who would be the best person to oppose Trump. I don’t think I said anything particularly clever, we just talked it through a bit, and I built a rapport with her. I didn’t come on too strong. I didn’t sound condescending. I gave her ample space to speak and think out loud. As she talked, she arrived at a commitment to vote for the Democrat. That commitment flowed from a conversation, and more importantly from what she said herself, not what I told her. I made sure she knew where her voting location was and made sure she could get there.
Max Rose won the election by a margin that surprised most experts, and he was the first Democrat to win Staten Island in over a generation. That margin of victory came from better turnout among Democrats, from Republicans who dislike Trump, and from voters like Shirley, who are difficult to categorize. All the more reason to engage them in a conversation.
Note: This first appeared in Medium at https://medium.com/@benthomases/ctctogether-outrage-or-empathy-in-the-age-of-trump-f9d68219c99c