Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Talk to me!

All I'm asking for is a political discussion. I should wear a shirt that says this as I knock on Seattlites' doors, inviting people to contribute to the Democratic National Committee. It's the truth. But I don't think too many people would believe those words, even if I did wear them.

I've now been on the Democrats' grassroots campaign trail for two weeks. Some nights, I run into excited people who can't wait to see change happen in the country and believe the Democrats are capable of bringing it about. They donate money, and I end the night feeling useful, like I've helped the country move towards a better education system, more responsible energy choices, and an end to the war in Iraq. Other nights are pretty discouraging, and tonight was one of those nights. I knocked on 86 doors, talked to 49 people, and made a measly $15 for the cause. Ouch.

Don't get me wrong, I never expected anyone to be psyched to see a stranger at their doorstep asking for money. But I did hope to find a higher percentage of people willing to talk to me about the cause. My past few nights out, my attempts to make conversation at the door keep coming to a halt at the sound of various types of no. There's the guilty, hiding behind a nervous smile no. The absolutely clueless about the importance of the cause no. The conspiracy theorist, "the corruption is beyond help" no. And the busy, sometimes legitimately but more often not, no.

Admittedly, I'm probably the tenth thing asking for "a few minutes of (their) time." I understand. These external cries for attention can get overwhelming, so a no is not offensive. But there is one type of response that has left me particular unsettled--the offended no. Some people seem to think that politics is personal, like a religion, and should not be discussed openly with strangers.

"Don't push it," one guy said to me tonight. "We're Democrats here. Strong Democrats," he said, raising his hands up in a "nothing fishy going on here" sort of way before shutting the door.

Worse was last week, when one woman said to me, behind a screen door and from the top of the carpeted stairs inside, "My vote is my private business."

That same day, a few doors down, I asked another woman if she was a supporter of the Democratic party. Before shutting the door in my face, she answered, shortly and not so sweetly, "That's private."

Woah. Since when did politics become such a closed, personal matter? Since when did the idea of admitting which politician you support become like admitting to a crime? With the looks I've been getting--dismay, fear, anger--you would think I was asking people if they'd ever killed someone.

It should not be this difficult to discuss politics with strangers. I understand that politics is one of those things you "aren't supposed to talk about," but that rule should be limited to happy occasions like weddings and parties. In the day to day goings on of life, we need to be checking in with each other about how our nation's system is working for all of us. We can't afford to stay silent on these issues, to stop the free exchange of ideas before it starts. Is this why we can't seem to improve our struggling educational system? Because we're too afraid to talk about how? Is this why we, as a nation, did not realize that Bush had gotten us into a war for different reasons than he'd originally said? I'm going to venture a yes on both these questions. And it's got to stop.

If what we want is change, we're all going to have to start talking to each other about how. Ideas are not to be feared, they are to be shared, Seattle.