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.