On a scorching day in July 2019, sweating and shaking with nerves, I knocked on the door of an immaculate house in Staten Island, New York. A sweet-faced young woman opened it, eyeing me curiously. I took a deep breath and launched into my script.
“If you had two minutes to tell President Trump about the job he’s doing, what would you say?” I asked. She had voted for Trump, she told me, but didn’t like the callous way he treated people. On a scale from zero to ten—where zero meant she would definitely vote Republican and ten meant definitely Democrat—she put herself at a three.
“When I vote,” I said, “it’s a political act, but it’s also personal, a gift to someone I love.” I told a story about a teenager I had mentored in a writing program. I loved her for her brilliance and talent, and also for her willingness to resolve the initial conflicts between us. “I’m curious,” I went on. “Does this make you think of someone you love?” She wouldn’t discuss a particular person but said she wanted her gay friends to be free to live as they chose. When I pointed out that she and I shared a value of caring about others—a value that the president’s behavior rarely displays—she moved from a 3 to a 5.
This exchange was my first experience of “deep canvassing,” a method of voter outreach that aims to bypass political speech by connecting with people emotionally and engaging with their sense of ethics. It’s based on the principle that facts and opinions don’t change people’s minds, values do.
I’d finally found a form of political action that matched my own convictions. For the past twenty years, I’ve practiced vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Since the 1960s, I have also participated in political action—marches against the Vietnam War, demonstrations toward a more sustainable climate future, and protests against the war in Iraq. But by the time of the Iraq War, I’d become uncomfortable with angry chanting and strident rhetoric demonizing political enemies, which felt at odds with the shift in thinking about dealing with conflict brought about by my Buddhist practice. I’m absolutely anti-Trump, but I don’t want to hate Trump voters. I want to understand them. And it was now clear to me that not only did anger feel wrong, it was also an ineffective strategy in a country so divided.
While texting for Democratic candidates before the 2018 midterms, I had an exchange with a woman in Michigan that made me wish I could dialogue with Trump supporters and learn how they thought. So when I heard about deep canvassing in spring 2019, I jumped at it. Once I began knocking on doors and talking to voters, I began to realize how similar it was to some of the mental training I was doing in meditation.
Developed in 2008 by Dave Fleischer, director of the Leadership Lab of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, to advocate for marriage equality, the technique has since been used to address prejudice toward immigrants and transgender people. A 2020 study of three canvassing operations targeting this issue concluded that the “nonjudgmental exchange of narratives durably reduced exclusionary attitudes for at least four months.” In other words, approaching people in an open, nonjudgmental way and telling a story can shift their attitudes more effectively than arguing a particular position.
“Everyone likes to think of himself or herself as a good person,” cognitive linguist George Lakoff wrote after the 2016 election. “Your moral system is a major part of your identity—who you most deeply are. Voting against your moral identity would be a rejection of self.”
Deep canvassing requires that the canvasser show up at someone’s door with empathy and real curiosity. I learned how to tell the voter a story about someone I love that reveals my own vulnerability, and ask the voter if this makes them think about someone in their life. My expression of vulnerability usually helps the voter feel safe sharing a personal story. Some refuse, but others describe a loving parent, an autistic child, or a devoted friend. I then compare the compassion or kindness that their stories always express to the president’s track record of divisive, selfish behavior. My hope as a deep canvasser is for them to begin to see that voting for Trump means voting against their own values. As Jordyn Sun, a field organizer and canvasser for the Leadership Lab, put it, “The person’s mind is changed not by the canvasser’s story but by their own, which makes them reconsider the implications of the values they say they believe in.”
In many ways, deep canvassing resembles Insight Dialogue, a form of interpersonal meditation that emphasizes deep listening “to open ourselves up as fully as we can to the worldview of someone else,” Gary Singer, who teaches this practice, explained in an interview with Tricycle. “When we meet each other on common ground, we can begin to thaw and listen more deeply.”
Oren Jay Sofer, an Insight Meditation teacher who explored meditation’s relationship with communication in his book Say What You Mean (and in a Tricycle Dharma Talk), agrees. Deep canvassers’ ability “to connect at the level of feelings, needs, or values, not getting into an argument about ideas or views,” is “a skill of shifting your attention from the content of what someone says to the deeper meaning in their heart,” he told Tricycle.
It’s also significant, Sofer said, that “the connection [in deep canvassing] is happening across stories. We’re polarized by our fixation on ideologies and views. Talking about people we love, why something matters to us, circumvents some of that fixation in the heart, leaving space to develop a connection based on what we have in common.”
In 2017 community organizer Adam Barbanel-Fried created Changing the Conversation Together (CTC), the Brooklyn-based organization I work with, to apply deep canvassing to the 2018 congressional race in conservative Staten Island. Over 300 canvassers had 1,900 conversations with voters there, helping flip the district to a Democrat. CTC’s post-election survey showed that canvassed voters “were 14 percent more likely to vote and 20 percent more likely to vote Democratic than their non-canvassed neighbors.” Since last November, I’ve been deep canvassing with CTC in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, targeting swing and infrequent voters. (During the initial coronavirus lockdown we switched to the phone; now some have returned to door-knocking, with strict safety precautions.)
It’s no exaggeration to say that approaching Trump supporters as I approach the thoughts and feelings that arise in my practice—with empathy and curiosity—completely changed my mindstate. Listening intently to how people think and what motivates them opened my heart to their points of view. It was like working with a difficult person in metta practice (in which you direct lovingkindness toward a series of people, including someone you find hard to deal with)—only instead of doing it as a visualization, I did it live.
Throughout my time as a deep canvasser, I’ve found myself calling on skills I had begun to develop in meditation: non-judgment, compassion, empathy, and especially deep listening—since making the case to vote Democratic depends on reflecting back the values that voters themselves express. When a welder with custody of his small daughter described how he worked constantly, but could barely pay rent and child care, I listened quietly and attentively, sympathizing with his resentment.
Whatever the outcome of November’s election, our country will remain dangerously polarized. But deep canvassing makes it possible to see someone you disagree with as not the enemy. My fellow canvasser Ellen Chapnick, retired Dean for Social Justice Initiatives at Columbia Law School, spoke to a Doylestown, Pennsylvania, man who intended to vote for Trump because he believed the Democrats would take his guns away. Nothing she said moved him. But as she turned to leave, the man asked Ellen if she would take a moment to speak to his seven-year-old-daughter. “We don’t have women like you in our lives, who are informed, have opinions, and stand up for what they believe in,” he explained. “I don’t agree with you on most of it, but I want my daughter to know she can grow up to be like that.” Chapnick had a “lovely conversation” with the girl, she told me. “I was incredibly moved.”
Deep canvassing should continue past the election, Chapnick believes, since it enables “people who wouldn’t ordinarily talk to each other to reach across unbridgeable chasms.” I agree: talking to those we disagree with may not be easy, but we’d do well to pay attention to what we have in common.
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