I’m scared. I’m scared for our democracy, for our ability to live together in community across lines of race, class and religion. I’m scared for my grandchildren and for the planet. The country is contorted and polarized, with the flames of hate fanned by leaders at the highest level. But I saw a path forward recently in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I spent a hot, humid evening knocking on doors with Working America. (By the way, when I do this, I only give my first name and am rarely recognized.)
Steve, in his 40s, had a bad day at work but was willing to speak with me. He said there’s no politician who will fight for him. He doesn’t trust any of them. That’s why he doesn’t pay attention to any news. He voted for the Green Party last time as a protest, but he also doesn’t like immigrants getting public benefits. We learned all of this because, like with every Working America conversation, we started the conversation by asking Steve what mattered to him, what was on his mind. At the end of our questions, Steve said, “Can I ask you something? Why do you do this?” He wanted to keep talking.
Edith is in her 50s. She likes what Trump has done but doesn’t like the way he talks sometimes. She thinks cutting government red tape is important and she’s concerned about outside interference in our election. As we were leaving, she told us, and maybe herself, “I don’t talk to anyone. Why did I just talk to you?”
Last year in San Diego, Sharon said she was 100% for Trump, but when I told her Trump’s health-care bill would allow her son’s insurance company to stop covering him because he has a serious preexisting condition, she seemed to stop breathing for a moment. “I had no idea,” she gasped. “I can’t let that happen.”
It’s voters like these we need to talk with – those who are dispirited and confused like Steve; ambivalent like Edith; and uninformed like Sharon. A respectful conversation that started with their concerns and opinions hooked each of them, so when Working America goes back, the door is open to information from a new trusted messenger, which can encourage them to take action on issues they care about and vote with that new information in mind.
Authentic engagement works – it’s a no-brainer. For years now, the researchers measuring the most effective way to win votes have told us that face-to-face contact has the biggest impact. The results in 2018 show us there’s an important swingable segment of the electorate that will pull the lever for Democrats if we can reach them. And the science says voters are even more attentive to a canvasser conversation if they’re a member of the organization that’s delivering the message.
I’ve seen the power of face-to-face contact since I became an activist five decades ago. In Modesto, California, I met some of the 800 volunteers who knocked on doors for more than a year before the 2018 election, and in Scranton I met the professional organizers, many of whom are working-class people of color. They talk with people year-round, reaching out to those hungry for information and a connection.
As tangled as things seem right now, the way we get out of this mess is straightforward. We outsmart the Facebook algorithms and digital foreign meddling by holding face-to-face conversations. I’ve seen it. The process builds trust, and it sends a message: You matter enough that I’m here on your doorstep.
Fear can be so powerful, but what overcomes fear is connection. We don’t need to choose between Democratic base voters and swing voters. All working people, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, faith, or sexual orientation or gender identity, need a stake and a say in our society – and they all need to hear that they’re part of “We the People.” Talking with them, not at them, is the best way to do it. Working America and other organizations are helping volunteers spend time in working-class communities around the country to have those conversations.
I’ve learned over my long life as an activist that people can change. That process starts with trust, best done through person-to-person organizing. People such as Steve are looking for someone to help them sort things out and to dare to care again. We can start the process of healing and winning back our country one conversation at a time.
Jane Fonda is an actress and activist.