For about a week before election night, I canvassed for “For our Future,” going door-to-door to different voters around Gainesville FL essentially to ensure people voted for Hillary Clinton. (This was a paid position, for the record.) I spent a lot of time in east Gainesville, i.e. the lower-income predominantly black neighborhoods, and found optimism behind most doors: People had already made a plan to vote, they were voting for Hillary, they knew how high the stakes were in this election. My job was not that hard. I convinced a number of people to get out there who were reluctant, and clarified some important points (a lot of people didn’t quite know where to go, and some even thought the deadline for voting had been extended PAST election day… yikes). I felt a sense of urgency, but not panic; I was fairly convinced that Florida would go blue. I could tell that the minority voters were taking this very seriously, and I truly believed that this election would come down to a minority voter turnout.
I think for me, one of the most crushing parts of this election has been thinking back to those conversations, especially with the black folks – the old, young, healthy, sick, wealthy, poor – and how I declared with complete conviction that THEY had the power to prevent Trump from becoming President, that the outcome was in their hands. “If you go out and vote,” I said, “and your family and neighbors and friends go out and vote, you can all prevent this dangerous man from becoming president. Your vote really counts here.” “Is he actually racist?” some of them would ask me. “Yes, he is,” I’d confirm with regret. Or, when I told them I would drive them to the polls if they didn’t have a ride, they said, “Does it really matter that much?”
Of course it mattered that much. But apparently the rural white vote still overpowered their ballots, and I regret my approach in these conversations, and I feel sick to my stomach when I think of these Gainesville residents – especially the elderly – who might feel powerless to what’s happening now. What does this election tell them? Did they believe they’d stop him?
A huge part of me wonders if “For our Future” had focused on talking to registered voters in rural areas – even registered Republicans – we’d be facing the same President-elect today. Canvassing in non-urban areas would’ve been costly, and difficult, and probably dangerous and perhaps for naught. But I wonder. Because clearly the rural Floridians had the power here. What would’ve happened if those people – predominantly white, perhaps educated and wealthier, perhaps not – had even seen a glimpse of progressive, informed, rational discourse on this election, even a glimpse? I wonder. Maybe it would’ve swayed.
I’d like to share a story that has really stuck with me, of a woman I drove to the polls on election day around 5:00. I had offered my (shamefully messy) car to voters sans transportation as I canvassed all day, but only found one taker – a very sweet, young-ish white woman at a homeless shelter who hopped in with gratitude. As I drove to her polling location (a church which, by the way, is EXTREMELY FAR for the mostly-black precinct, why can’t they make these polling places more central again…?!) we got to talking about her difficult life. She recently was fired from McDonald’s after trying to switch around her schedule; her boyfriend committed suicide a couple months ago; and she works for a school lunch program for $9.05/hour, struggling to make enough to support herself here in Gainesville (hence having to stay at a homeless shelter that has issues hosting her for the time she needs).
As we near the church, she asks me who I voted for. “Hillary Clinton…?” I say, with the expectation she was on the same page as me.
She laughed awkwardly. “Uh oh.”
“You’re not voting for Trump, are you?” I asked, horrified.
“Yeah, I am.”
The air seemed to escape my car. I couldn’t believe what I had done: I was giving a Trump voter a ride to the polls.
I had no choice but to keep going at that point; we were almost there, and to turn around would rob her of her right as a citizen of this country. But my heart and mind raced furiously. “As a woman, and as a homeless woman, PLEASE reconsider voting for this man,” I practically begged. “He is not looking out for you, he’s not going to install any programs that will help you, he is only running for President to further himself, he has no respect for women, he’s completely unfit to run our country” (etc etc)
“But I don’t think he even really has a chance anyway,” she said, seemingly unaffected by my ranting.
“No, he does have a chance, and we’re in such a critical and close county, your vote really counts,” I pleaded. “Seriously, you have the right to your own opinion of course, but a small part of me would cry if I knew I took a Trump voter to the polls.”
She just kind of laughed and shrugged, and we arrived, and she hopped out and I spent a tense sweaty twenty minutes trying to console my shattered ego, telling myself everyone who wants to vote should have the chance to vote and this is a democracy after all, though maybe I should have bribed her just a little bit, like $10, that wouldn’t have hurt anyone right?!
She got back in the car. “Ok, I didn’t vote for Trump,” she said, smiling. “You persuaded me.”
I’m not telling this to toot my horn as a persuader, people. I’m writing this to demonstrate that people are malleable, so much more malleable than we give credit for. Sometimes it just takes a shared space and sense of trust – and exposure to another side of reality – to change our minds. (There is a great episode on This American Life about this.) As we drove back into town, she told me that had only ever been exposed to Trump supporters – she helped her parents and her boyfriend (while he was alive) put Trump signs in their yard, and had always been surrounded by Republican ideals. I give this girl a lot of credit for being open to me and my ideas. We are vulnerable when we are open to others; it requires us to loosen our grip on our identity, and genuinely respect someone who has an “outside” mindset or worldview. It’s hard to be open and accepting, and it’s certainly not always in our nature. But I feel like in some ways, it’s what makes us human.
I regret some of the conversations I had with the black folks in Gainesville, because I don’t want them to think that racism and hatred prevailed over tolerance in this election. I think a desire for change prevailed. And I think a LOT of people don’t take their vote seriously, and just said well what the heck, why not? This is all joke anyway. I recognize that the girl who I met on Election Day was an extreme case; most people are not so lenient. But to label Trump voters as racist and sexist and homophobic etc is to label and limit them into a certain category, a certain box, that is not always fair or true.
And no matter what kind of belief system they hold, they will never listen if we come at them with anger. They will never listen if we shout at them, label them, diminish them as uneducated or unintelligent. They will never listen if they feel threatened or afraid. We must engage in these conversations with respect and create trust, lest we want this country to splinter into different unions (which I know some people are not all that opposed to). It’s the only way we will EVER stop this terrible reign of white supremacy.
We are facing a crisis of isolation. Forums that generally provide connections are failing us; the Internet polarizes and extreme-ifies us, our public spaces are designed to isolate us, our school system segregates us as kids. In spite of a “more connected world,” we are more isolated from each other than ever. I feel as if it’s my responsibility as a privileged white person to test my patience, to test my boundaries and sense of safety and talk to people who I disagree with. This is not about being accepting or passive to what’s happening. This is about heading into the next four years with as much maturity and intention as I can muster. It’s about letting the unstable anger heal in the ways that it can – through exercise and nature and playing music and time – and using what’s left (because there’s a lot) to put the work into this backwards, scary, upsetting world we face.
I hope you’re with me, and as always, thanks for reading.