Listening Across the Divide: Lessons Learned Engaging Undecided Voters
Leading up to the 2020 election, with so much at stake, most people in my life have wondered aloud how anyone could be an undecided voter after the last few years. The question reveals a lack of imagined possibility as well as a lack of connection that terrifies me.
I am a straight, white, cis-gendered woman invested in anti-racism who lives in a liberal bubble. Twin fears grip me as I consider what lies ahead.
The first fear is the potential for a continuing slide toward anti-democratic authoritarianism that rides a wave of emboldened, overt racism. The second is the increasing polarization of public sentiment. The far-right call people like myself SJW’s, social justice warriors, and I am unashamed of that status.
I feel anchored to the side of racial justice, and much to my surprise, it compelled me to invest in electoral politics this year like never before. My previous focus on enticing liberal-leaning white people to join anti-racism shifted to combating the far-right’s amplification of white supremacy. I moved from readily deriding U.S. institutions, such as the Dept. of Justice and FBI, which have a history of working against racial justice, to pleading for us to protect their core functions as upholders of the rule of law. I also developed a sense of desperation about the need to reach white people who are still “movable,” convinced that we need them to join a deeply humanizing form of anti-racism.
Wanting to do all I could to make a difference, and understanding that it is the role of white people like myself to influence the broader white community, for the two months prior to the election, each Saturday for a couple of hours, I made phone calls to Wisconsin voters as part of Crooked Media’s Adopt-A-State program. Although the official agenda was to turn out the vote for Democrats, the Biden/Harris ticket specifically, my underlying agenda also included hearing the concerns of people living outside my bubble.
As an introvert with a fair amount of social anxiety to begin with, stepping outside my comfort zone to call strangers was significantly anxiety provoking. It was also revealing. Four extended conversations helped me recognize the need to stop making assumptions about people and to listen. These calls connected me to people’s complexities, concerns, and contradictions. Collectively, they provide insight into the bridges we need to create, regardless of the outcome of the election.
Undecided #1 — Fear and Outrage
With audible frustration, Jennifer began with, “I just don’t know. I’m so disappointed with the Democrats.” I heard the sounds of a busy household in the background. I quickly learned that Jennifer’s husband supports Trump, and while Jennifer has been a life-long Democrat, she did not know that she could vote for any Democrat this year.
After asking what issues were most on her mind, she said she believes that Black lives do matter, and yet she was upset that Biden didn’t come out against “the looting and burning” quickly enough. She was equally mad at local and state Democrats who, she said, were not standing up for the police.
Jennifer lives 20 minutes outside of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Although Jennifer said she does not like Trump, she feels like she needs to push back against “BLM organizers who say horrible things.”
For context, about a week after this conversation, I listened to an “On the Media” podcast episode on a Black reporter, Daniel Thompson, who quit his job at a Wisconsin newspaper in protest because the paper amplified a story about an unaffiliated protester who took over the stage at a BLM rally without invitation and used inflammatory, violent rhetoric.
It struck me that this story might be what Jennifer had in mind because what she recounted did not sound like anything I have ever heard from anyone representing a BLM group anywhere.
Jennifer talked for about 7 minutes straight. Amidst some concerns I understood, she also used language one might call conspiracy theory adjacent. She is afraid of a socialist takeover if Democrats win the election. She believes a vote for Biden is really a vote for Kamala Harris, and that Harris would really be the one to make decisions. Lamenting how poorly we teach history in this country, she mentioned how slavery happened throughout the world, not only in the U.S. I could not help but wonder to what extent misinformation and racialized tropes have shaped Jennifer’s hyped-up fears and overall perspective.
Within the more than 30-minute conversation that followed her opening salvo, I offered both counter-narratives and, admittedly, moments of collusion. For as much as I inserted correctives about BLM, the movement to defund the police, and Kamala Harris on one hand, I also sought connection in ways that left me realizing, in retrospect, that I missed moments to stand more solidly on anti-racist ground. For example, expressing shared concern about the “looting” and property destruction meant I failed to uplift Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oft-quoted insight that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
In the end, I was able to draw out an agreement that something needs to change in order to stop far-right extremist groups from recruiting white kids and prompting them to take actions that heighten tensions, hurt people, and ruin their lives. She agreed that Trump, even with his law and order rhetoric, is incapable of correcting that.
We ended the call with her thanking me for the conversation, for hearing her, for being someone who could listen, and she said I had given her a lot to consider.
My takeaway: The statement, “I believe Black lives matter, but…” is the new “I’m not racist, but…” This is significant because Jennifer is exactly the type of person we need to pull toward the racial justice movement. Jennifer believes her heart is in the right place, yet is one of the millions of white Americans who does not understand systemic racism and is skeptical that it exists.
I am continually distressed by our country’s failure to tell the whole truth about our racial history and how it leaves people like Jennifer vulnerable to the white grievance narratives offered by far-right media platforms. Given her husband’s support of Trump, Fox News is likely the background noise in her home.
This conversation left me fearful, praying I planted seeds strong enough to withstand the right-wing onslaught of falsehoods. It also prompted me to reach out to people in my network, encouraging them to volunteer to make these kinds of calls. People like Jennifer could easily swing the election.
Undecided #2 — Between Two Sons
Linda’s voice conveyed a deep sense of confusion and exasperation from the start. “I just don’t know what to do!” she said.
Linda was not angry with the Democrats, as was Jennifer. Linda was disappointed. She felt that this election was asking her to choose between her two children. Linda is the mother of two adult sons. One is a teacher, the other a police officer.
With a GOP-controlled state legislature, Wisconsin became a right-to-work state and teachers lost their unions and, thus, the protections they had long enjoyed. This made Linda want to dig in her heels and vote with the Democrats as a way to support her son.
Complicating things for Linda, though, was that she believes being a Democrat today means being “anti-police.” She felt pressure to vote GOP because she wants to support her second son, who recently became a police officer.
Linda and I talked for more than 40 minutes and we found points of connection.
As my father is a retired police officer, we talked about what it means to have a family member in law enforcement, the desire to have them judged as individuals and not immediately characterized as a bad person because of their job. She fears a “rush to judgment” if her son ever has to make a life-or-death decision and it looks bad on camera.
As we talked, I increasingly weaved in personal stories and ideas to shift us away from a purely individual perspective toward one that highlighted the structural racism responsible for creating and sustaining the pattern of excessive force used against Black people. By the end, Linda seemed willing to consider how changing institutional structures could actually benefit and protect her police officer son.
Another theme involved me asking Linda if it was actually true that a vote for Biden/Harris would be a vote against the police. While accurate that many activists call for abolishing or defunding the police, the Biden/Harris campaign is nowhere near adopting either position. By the time we got to this part of the conversation, I had revealed that I live in California and shared how activists in my home state long perceived Harris as too cozy with law enforcement, hardly anti-police. We talked about how maybe — just maybe — Harris, due to her background, was perfectly poised to build a bridge between law enforcement and racial justice activists. I invited Linda to imagine hopeful possibilities, while keeping in mind what another four years of Trump’s divisive rhetoric would bring.
My takeaway: Talking with Linda reminded me of that old adage, “all politics is personal.” Throughout our conversation, Linda remained focused on what would be best for her two sons. My hope is that our conversation helped her imagine that a vote for Biden could support them both.
Undecided #3 — Tuned Out
Before we got to the politics, Kathy and I connected over a shared family name and a couple of quick jokes. The conversation was warm even before Kathy revealed her status as an undecided voter.
Kathy does not pay attention to politics. Too busy. Working all the time. Hates politics. Thinks it is all a waste of time. Politicians all lie anyway. It does not make any difference.
I pressed. “Even now, no difference?” Kathy is a nurse. It turns out that she disapproves of how Trump is handling the pandemic. She thinks he should wear a damn mask. Yet, she heard he has done good things. “Didn’t he do a bunch of things to protect us?”
She also said she heard he had done well fighting for us by standing up to other countries. She thinks the economy has been good.
Deciding to lean into Wisconsin’s rising numbers of Covid-19 cases, I asked how things were going at the hospital where she works. Kathy’s extended answer revealed an analysis of race and class that I understand well. Her worldview, and the interpretations it generates, parallel those I held when I taught elementary school in the 1990’s, before I became racially aware.
She cares about people and wants governmental programs that work. She is also dismayed at instances where people do not “make good decisions” and take personal responsibility. Having practiced a bit on Jennifer and Linda, I was better prepared to introduce more of my current worldview. I did far less colluding, and far more perspective sharing with educational components.
By the end of the conversation, Kathy said she would look up Biden’s platform. She had not known much about him, except she heard somewhere that he was old and “kind of creepy.” My theory is that some news stories from last fall’s primary season had broken through and she had not paid attention since.
Before ending the call, we both expressed our appreciation. She said she never talks to telemarketers, so the fact that she stayed on the phone so long was significant. She told me I should be proud of myself, saying I had done my job well. I hoped that meant she would vote for Biden, but I did not ask.
My takeaway: Kathy is a perfect example of how someone can live a life paying virtually no attention to politics. She decided years ago that it was not worth the time and has tuned it out ever since. The pandemic is the only reason Kathy knew anything substantive about Trump. This would have seemed impossible to me if not for this conversation, given how the actions of the current administration has turned me into a political junkie.
Undecided #4 — Contradictions
Jeremy admitted he was struggling. “I don’t know if I can vote against my values,” he began. Jeremy is a socially conservative life-long Republican. Jeremy follows politics and dislikes Trump immensely. Although he does not appear to keep up with every awful decision made by the current administration, he stays fairly well informed.
Abortion is the issue that concerns him most. He initially seemed to fit the category of a “single-issue voter.” Recognizing how hard it would be for someone to hold their nose and vote against their life-long belief system, Jeremy seemed to exemplify the argument that despising Trump does not necessarily translate into a vote for a Democrat.
Speaking with Jeremy was fascinating. He described additional concerns using language reflective of his focus on his churches’ values. In addition to his desire to end abortion rights, he spoke of being “okay” with gay people “making their own choice,” but disliked them turning it into a “spectacle” to “wield their power.” I could not help but imagine that messaging from the right about a perceived assault on religious liberties influences him.
Our 35-minute conversation allowed me the opportunity to tell him that the gay people I know hardly feel powerful and I explained expressions of LGBTQ pride as a reaction against long-standing treatment of them as second-class citizens. A bit later in the conversation Jeremy lamented that he wished Biden had not become the Democrats’ nominee, expressing that he might have been able to consider voting for a couple of the other candidates.
Expressing surprise and reminding him that all the Democratic nominees were pro-choice, I asked him to say more. He told me he thought Pete Buttigieg said some good things.
Jeremy also works for a company focused on environmental science. Concerns about climate denial and the disparagement of science complicates his political position. Having told him that I live in California, he asked me about the wildfires that had been raging in my state the previous month. I lamented about a president who treats an entire state’s citizens as his enemy and threatens to refuse authorization of federal aid.
Some of the topics covered in my conversation with Jeremy had become familiar terrain in these phone calls. We found agreement on shared concerns over the increased polarization within the country, the rise of extremism, and Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
By the end of the conversation, I practically pleaded with Jeremy to help us protect our country’s fundamental institutions with a vote against Trump. I suggested that we could collectively continue wrestling and arguing over the various policy issues we both care about once we salvage core democratic principles.
Recognizing the conundrum Jeremy believes himself to be in, I suggested that he consider the last four years of judicial appointments as “a win” for his anti-abortion side. While heartbreaking to me, I found myself hoping the Democrats’ inability to stop the newest Supreme Court confirmation could allow Jeremy to refocus and vote on other issues I believe he agrees are important, like protecting the environment, helping us move toward an economy with green jobs, and saving our democracy.
Jeremy’s voice brightened after hearing my suggestion, and although he told me that he was not ready to commit to voting for Biden, he did say I gave him a new way to think about things. Maybe I provided him with a viable rationalization to vote differently than expected.
My takeaway: Jeremy and I may have very different values. Yet, I can understand feeling pulled between competing priorities, where either decision feels like a betrayal of one’s core beliefs in some way. As with the other undecided voters, I am dismayed that Trump’s racism, sexism, and xenophobia are not deal-breakers, resulting in an easy break from the GOP. And, in listening deeply to their individual concerns, I understand that each of these voters is complex and nuanced, filled with contradictions, just like me.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, the country will face steep and continuing polarization. After all, the last four years are largely the continuation of eight years of backlash following the election of the nation’s first Black President.
Although we may vote Trump out of office, and we may be able to curtail some of the misinformation driving conspiracy theories and extremism through a continued push for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to limit their spread, broken relationships will remain. People have moved farther apart from one another.
Reducing our extreme polarization while increasing our dedication to racial justice will require significant collective transformation. It necessitates that many, many, more of us stretch beyond our comfort zones and standard conclusions and relate to people in all of their nuance and complexity. We will need to repair the damage done when people who are not yet allies or solidarity partners hear language about “Karens” and feel pushed away.
Over the last month, several friends and neighbors have thanked me for making calls to Wisconsin and told me I was doing “the Lord’s work.” To the degree that this sentiment intends to remove us from obligation, I disagree. The antidote to our polarization is connection, and this is all of our work.
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