Door Knocking: A Love Story
Why face-to-face conversations strengthen our democracy
By Nora Howe, NYC Program Associate
One long driveway away, my next house waited. The Iowa sun beating down, I was getting ready to knock my 90th (or was it 91st?) door of the day, and still had 30 more to go. My shoes were uncomfortable, my clipboard a tangle of papers, and my water bottle long empty. But even tired and, honestly, a little frazzled, I felt the familiar sense of anticipation. Each step of the driveway built my insight into, and curiosity about, the person I was about to meet. In this case, I could tell they were Hawkeyes fans (University of Iowa, not Iowa State), had children or grandchildren (tricycle by the garage), and cared about the state of their lawn. Opening the screen door, I gave a firm knock.
Whenever an election cycle is upon us, I ready myself for the deluge of negative commentary about political campaigns. The tone? Nasty. The candidates? Fake. The phone calls? Insufferable. Even when people are energized about winning campaigns, the process itself is described as unseemly, competitive, and shortsighted. While I agree that our system is as a whole imperfect, these characterizations miss the true essence of campaigning.
At their core, campaigns are deeply democratic and personal enterprises, built on the idea that face-to-face conversations matter. The rope lines, the stands at state fairs and block parties, the door knocking, the baby kissing — these are one-person-at-a-time endeavors, opportunities to look someone in the eye and dive into a conversation about the questions that keep all of us up at night: What are your core values? Your worries? Your hopes? While campaigns have numerous benefits for democracy writ large, I think the most important may be the way they foster meaningful dialogue.
Some would say I’m biased. I got hooked on politics as a high school student organizing for former President Obama’s 2008 campaign in my home state of New York. I liked the work so much that I spent most of college doing political organizing on my campus outside of Philadelphia. After graduation, I moved to Marshalltown, Iowa to work on the 2014 midterm elections.
But it’s not the adrenaline rush or the competition or the salesmanship that hooked me. What hooked me was that rare chance for face-to-face connection and dialogue about our deepest concerns with people I never would have otherwise met.
And these conversations don’t just feel nice. Face-to-face conversations increase voter turnout, for one, with canvassing consistently being ranked the most effective means of voter mobilization. Having face-to-face conversations with those who have different views also makes us more empathetic, better problem-solvers, and I’d argue, better policy makers. It’s harder to see someone’s opinion as black-and-white once you’ve sat with them on their patio,and much harder to craft public policy that processes their experiences and story as one-dimensional.
If I hadn’t walked up that driveway in Marshalltown, I would never have spoken with a woman in her 50s, caring full time for grandchildren after losing her daughter to addiction. I would never have been invited in for Sunday dinner with a family and tried, in embarrassingly bad Spanish, to explain checks and balances. I would have never sat down with the owner of a small farm and heard about the burden of keeping up with federal regulations. And I would not have developed my commitment to engaging in political work and policy development that puts these stories center-stage.
In a country that is increasingly partisan, segregated, and digital, we need these conversations, and with them, a willingness to dive in, hopeful for that spot of connection rather than eager to expose a division. Despite what you’ve heard, and might even believe, we could all use a little more campaigning in our lives.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.