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Knock Every Door stresses crucial role of listening in politics

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
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On a lovely Sunday afternoon last weekend, I led a group of five to Squirrel Hill to knock on doors and listen to the thoughts of complete strangers about the election. We took with us scripts with suggested questions about the candidates and parties, but most of the time the people we talked to just wanted to freely vent their feelings. Our job was simply to listen, not to argue or push an agenda. I held the event in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon College Democrats and a new national organization called Knock Every Door, which trains volunteers across the country to host similar canvasses locally. The information we and other canvassers collected will eventually go to the Democratic Party and the media in a report to help make the party stronger and more attentive for future elections.

Knock Every Door was created in the wake of the 2016 election by former Bernie Sanders staffers and other progressives. The idea behind the organization is that by listening to people of diverse ideological beliefs about what they need from their government and what motivates them to vote, we can create a unified, progressive, grassroots movement to dismantle "Trumpism."

2016 saw unprecedented numbers of registered Democrats not showing up to the polls or, worse, voting for Trump. If progressives are to take back the country, we'll need to build a revolution that addresses both social and economic issues and can get everyone back on the same page.

This sort of canvassing with the primary purpose of listening rather than talking is called deep canvassing, and a recent political science study out of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley found that it works: the best way to change voters' minds is to have respectful conversations with them and really listen. When a canvasser approaches a voter with the intent of listening and understanding, the voter will be more open to listening to and considering the canvasser's views in return.

When I went out myself, I found that people were surprisingly grateful to just have someone listen non-judgmentally to their random thoughts. Since Squirrel Hill is a fairly liberal area, three out of the four people I had full conversations with were Hillary Clinton voters. Their feelings ranged from a disbelief in Trump's power or desire to actually accomplish the things he campaigned on to a deep fear that the rich will get richer and everyone else will suffer. All had been primarily content with President Obama and were frustrated with the leadership of the Democratic Party. The Clinton voters were most concerned with civil rights and how Trump will harm the Americans who already struggle the most to help themselves, such as undocumented immigrants and working mothers.

The one Trump voter I heard from mentioned her distrust of politicians of both parties and her belief that they make money at the expense of voters. She also believed that the Obama administration was anti-Semitic in their dealings with Israel and, as a descendant of a Holocaust survivor herself, had a deep distaste for anyone getting between the Jews and their homeland. Back in 2008, she supported Clinton, but changed her mind after the Benghazi scandal and wished that Clinton had at least apologized. She thinks that Trump will provide more jobs for Americans who want to work, and that the only people who will suffer from a Trump presidency are people who are lazy or violent or otherwise wildly break the rules of civilized society. I was surprised to find that she didn't vote for Trump because of his racism but in spite of it, and, in fact, that she believed Clinton to be the more racist candidate.

From my liberal Democratic background, this woman's opinions sounded to me like they were based in falsehoods, but we did have one thing in common: we both voted for the candidate we believed would make people's lives better. My vote was about bettering the lives of marginalized people and protecting public resources. Her vote was about rewarding hard workers.

This sort of conversation, where a progressive and a conservative respectfully listen to each other's differing opinions, has become largely unheard of. Progressives and conservatives have come to exist in such separate spaces that we have all but ceased to see the humanity in each other. From feminists to the alt-right people on both sides are regularly called Nazis — that is, equated with pure evil — whether they are or not. We have lost sight of the difference between people who intend to harm others and people who unintentionally cause harm. Even though the effect of the two groups' actions may be the same, it's an important distinction to make, because the former are truly bad people through-and-through, while the latter want others to be happy and healthy and would be open to changing their actions if they were appropriately approached and educated on the consequences of said actions. Progressives ought to enable the personal growth of such people as much as possible.

Some Trump supporters are deserving of the title of "Nazi", but I believe that most were severely conned into believing that Trump would make people's lives better. If we paint all conservatives as pure evil, they will go running back to ego-pumping candidates like Trump and become even more set in their beliefs. If we give them a space to express their needs and then explain our needs to them, we can work together to meet everyone's needs. The conversations that come out of Knock Every Door canvasses begin this important work.

Listening to strangers with harmful opinions may not be for everyone, but if you have the time and the emotional energy to do so, I would recommend attending or organizing a deep canvass, because listening should be at the foreground of progressive change.