Block Party: Election Canvassing in Suburbia

Photo courtesy of Paul Weaver

House-to-house canvassing is the epitome of routinized labor: you knock on the doors the campaign’s algorithms determine you should knock on; campaign officials ask you to follow a “script” they have tested in polls and focus groups. Efficiency is paramount. You avoid having long conversations; the more contacts you make, the more votes you have a chance to win. Still, it can be a surprisingly enlightening experience. At least during the 2012 campaign, it was for me.

Last fall, I spent several days, armed with a clipboard and a stack of glossy leaflets, walking around suburban neighborhoods located 2,700 miles apart. In Prince William County, Virginia, half-an-hour’s drive from Washington, DC (except during rush hour), I volunteered on weekends to get the vote out for Barack Obama. Then I traveled to Sacramento Country, California, where I canvassed for Ami Bera, a progressive Indian American Democrat running for Congress against the conservative GOP incumbent, Dan Lungren, a powerful committee chairman. Paternal pride and affection inspired the trip out west; my son had a job as Bera’s field director.

The neighborhoods I walked through were remarkably alike—both demographically and politically. They were swing districts, with roughly equal numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans. The people in both places appeared to be comfortably middle class: most lived in detached, single-family homes of recent construction, drove well-maintained cars or pickup trucks, and had their choice of both downscale and upscale chain stores and restaurants.

Millions of Americans may inhabit places nearly as segregated, unofficially of course, as half a century ago. But the residents of these booming suburbs have torn up that old pattern—without intending to do so.

Most strikingly, both areas were models of racial and ethnic diversity. Millions of Americans may inhabit places nearly as segregated, unofficially of course, as half a century ago. But the residents of these booming suburbs have torn up that old pattern—without intending to do so. On nearly every block, I saw blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians, immigrants and native-born Americans raking leaves on their adjacent front laws and fixing cars in their neighboring garages, as their children kicked soccer balls and shot hoops, usually together. If I ignored the stark contrast between the dry hills and high sky of central California and the tree-lined riverbanks of northern Virginia, I could have imagined I had not really flown across the continent at all.

The political divisions looked much the same in both places too. As the exit polls would soon reveal about the nation at large, white men in these suburbs tended to favor Romney and the GOP; white women split their votes; and nearly everyone else backed Obama and the Democrats running for Congress. After the first hour or so of canvassing, I could almost always predict an individual’s preference as soon as he or she came to the door, or even earlier, if the last name was something like Sanchez, Washington, or Wong. So I was shocked to meet one young black woman in Virginia who admitted she was voting for Romney and an Indian American grandmother near Sacramento who said she had no time for politics and didn’t care who won.

Democrats did seem to have an edge in partisan fervor. Several black women joked that they would disown any family member who did not vote; the idea that a relative might be a Republican didn’t even occur to them. A Latino man who was renovating his house asked, “Does anyone like that rich guy?” An elderly Filipino immigrant reminded me that it was a Republican president who had colonized the Philippines back in 1898 and suggested that Romney might want to invade the country all over again.

Most Republicans just waved me off, perhaps not wanting to waste their time. In Virginia, a white man who looked around forty did stop his car to demand that I get out of his neighborhood. “Soliciting,” he snapped erroneously, “is illegal here.” Later, I learned he was unemployed and was volunteering for the Romney campaign, while living, rent-free, in the basement of a house owned by his ex-wife. She planned to vote for Obama.

As it happened, the election results in these two suburbs matched the passion gap. Obama defeated Romney in both counties by exactly the same percentage: 57-41. Ami Bera won his race too, albeit by a much narrower margin. Perhaps, I like to think, he would have lost without the hundreds of canvassers—of all ages, races, and from a variety of nations—whom my son trained to knock on close to 270,000 doors across the congressional district.
But the value of the door-to-door experience goes beyond whatever contribution it made to defeating candidates whose deeply reactionary policies would make every problem we face much, much worse. The communities I canvassed were fairly new; judging by the number of businesses and houses sprouting up in them, they will continue to grow. If ideological contention increasingly occurs within neighborhoods whose ethnic diversity does not in itself breed hostility, it might enable progressives who live in such places (and their external allies) to engage in and win arguments that otherwise would not occur.

If ideological contention increasingly occurs within neighborhoods whose ethnic diversity does not in itself breed hostility, it might enable progressives who live in such places (and their external allies) to engage in and win arguments that otherwise would not occur.

A neighbor who takes his political cues from Rush Limbaugh should find it more difficult to brand his left-wing neighbor a stooge for socialist tyranny. A union activist who lives nearby should be able to speak up for public school teachers who defend tenure and resist the dominion of standard testing. An Arab American who lives on the block could challenge stereotypes that lead many citizens to view any Muslim—at home or abroad—as a potential terrorist. A very patient progressive who lives down the street might even be able to persuade that angry, jobless, now former Romney volunteer to abandon his unnatural support for billionaires who fear an increase in their taxes the way a vampire dreads the noonday sun.

Over time, these multiracial, middle-class suburbs might become the new strongholds of a more liberal, more principled Democratic Party. Good neighbors can, after all, talk over good fences.

Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.