30 June 2008

Disagreement, Anyone?

Saturday evening Jenna and I went to a Unite for Change party in our neighborhood. Our hostess, Linda, opened her home at 36th and Wolff to about 30 assorted friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I learned of the event by entering our zip code at my.barackobama.com, an official website of the Obama campaign. For those who haven't been there, the concept appears effective, if a little creepy (my Barack Obama?). Log in and learn about events being hosted in your neighborhood, from house parties to voter registration drives to parades and speeches. If you don't see an event in your area, you can sign up to host one, on your terms, at your pleasure.

Saturday being the 28th of June and the so called "Unite for Change" day across the nation, Jenna and I were curious to go see what the hype amounted to. Our hostess provided soft drinks, beer, and wine, and the guests brought snacks. Food items ranged from chips and salsa to capresse salad appetizers to sun-dried tomato and pesto spread on whole grain crackers. A couple of the Obama Fellows were in attendance to co-host and facilitate the event. According to Obama's website on Sunday, some 25,000 people attended over 4,000 Unite for Change events nationwide.

We showed up at Linda's house, filled out our name tags and the appropriate forms to get on all the mailing lists (it's all about the lists, these campaigns), and introduced ourselves to the hostess, the handful of guests already present, and the food and drink table.

While we mingled and made chit-chat ("What do you do?" "How long have you been for Obama?" "Are you volunteering for the campaign?" "Can you get me on the floor at the Convention?"), more guests arrived, and soon the house was crowded with 30-some guests. We engaged the Fellows in conversation, both young men, one a recent graduate from Washington D.C. by way of West Virginia, the other an Indiana boy from firm, Republican steel magnate roots, exploring the great wide wilderness of Colorado and pursuing an education in economics and public policy at the University of Denver.

Eventually the Fellows cut the coffee talk short to show a video about the grassroots nature of the campaign and the philosophy behind Unite for Change and the various, volunteer-hosted events taking place across the country. The video is available on the Obama site, halfway down the screen on the right hand side of the Unite for Change page. No telling if it will still be there as you read this.

If there's one really good point that stood out from the whole video, it came early on when the candidate, in a casual, man-on-the-street type of talk with the camera, pointed out that the American people, if they are organized, can have a great impact on the way Washington works. But the people aren't organized right now. In their stead, big, corporate lobbying outfits, which are fastidiously well organized, set the tone for how business gets done in D.C. The rest of the video emphasized the importance of hosting more house parties and getting organized. There followed a catalog of personal testimonials and heart touching, "Ever since my son was born my heart has been ripped open to the way politics and the world work and I just need to be involved for my child's sake" type stuff. Of course it's good, but it's calculated to be good.

After the video, one of the Fellows told how he came to drink the Kool-Aid. Afterward, he invited us all to go around, introduce ourselves, and tell our version of why or how we came to the Unite for Change event that day. Though you may detect a jot of cynicism in my tone, I'll say that some of the stories were really exciting. For Democrats under 40 (and perhaps for broader demographics, as well) this is arguably the most exciting political season on record. What I found most stimulating in the collective narrative, however, came from those over 40, and more specifically the baby boomers, well represented at the event, who invariably testified that they haven't been this excited, nor this hopeful for our country, since 1968.

The personal accounts devolved into a lovefest, of course, but that's alright. It's a starting point. The question was finally raised as to how we turn this interest and this agreement into action, and also how we reach out to people who aren't infatuated with Obama, and encourage them to vote Democratic this year.

Two important points came from the discussion, I think. The first is to approach a potential voter with empathy. "What are the issues you care about most? What makes you worry? What is your greatest hope for the future?" Let the undecided voter talk and think, and then ask "Which candidate do you think cares more about those same things, and which will work harder to help realize them in our country?" It may be that the undecided voter picks the other guy in the course of answering the question, but that's okay. Seeds will be planted.

The other key point, for me, is that canvassing door to door is great, but how much better would it be to speak with undecided voters on their own terms? Instead of surprising a person at a bad time, how do we reach out and invite the undecided voters to come talk when they are ready? This, most definitely, is the conversation I want to encourage. As I sign up to volunteer for campaigns this season, door-to-door canvassing is definitely something I am willing to do. More exciting, however, is the party Jenna and I want to host in the coming weeks (once we move into our house and unpack, that is) with the specific goal of attracting undecided voters to our living room to talk about their questions, concerns, and hopes, and perhaps to talk about both candidates, even, and the positions that matter to American voters.

Here's the thing: If there's one lesson the last two presidential elections should have taught Democratic voters, is that it's no longer enough to simply show up and vote. We don't get to take it for granted that the right candidate, the one who combines thoughtfulness and leadership, is the one who will next inhabit the Oval Office. For this election year to turn out as America desperately needs, we've all got to get out and go work for it. Register some voters, talk to some people with whom we may not see eye to eye, and keep thinking forward about what comes next.

We'll send an invite for our party when the time is right, and everyone will be welcome. You'll understand, though, that you may not be the person we most want to talk to. This campaign season, the single most important work we do might actually be to get to know those with whom we initially disagree.