An Antidote to Cynicism

Tomorrow’s election will, I hope, bring an end to one of the nastiest, most mendacious campaign seasons I’ve ever lived through. The influx of millions of dollars from SuperPacs, self-serving interest groups kept anonymous and accountable to no one, some of them even organized as tax-free non-profits, threatens to undermine our democracy.  I’ve been muting their ads on TV, but unless I look away, I still see how slow-motion video distorts the face of Rick Nolan, a candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s eighth district, to make him look monstrous. It’s a sorry substitute for civil discussion of political disagreements.

Yet there is a way to counter the cynicism that wells up within when frustration and anger and fear of worse to come become hard to bear:  It’s called door-knocking. I was introduced to door-knocking at age 7, when I went out with my dad to encourage fellow working-class citizens in the southwest part of Albert Lea, MN to vote DFL. (DFL stands for Democratic Farmer-Labor party, the Minnesota affiliate of the national Democratic party. The name represents the 1944 merger of the state Democratic party with the Farmer-Labor party, a progressive populist party that held the governorship and Senate and Congressional seats throughout the 1930s. Proposals to drop the FL arise from time to time, but the historically-minded among us do our best to retain the memory.) I immediately warmed to door-knocking, despite being an introvert. It helped, of course, to have a gregarious door-knocking partner like my dad, who could engage anyone in conversation about anything. I listened to lots of over-the-threshold talk about the relative merits of particular candidates, both “ours” and “theirs.” It was a generally pleasant way to pass the time, although I never seem to forget the woman who peered through the screen door at the Hubert Humphrey leaflet I held up and snarled, “I’d shoot him if I saw him.”  It turned out to be an idle threat. She had plenty of chances to follow through, at local parades and at political rallies in city parks.

I’m still door-knocking all these decades later. Sometimes I have to peptalk my introverted self out onto the sidewalks, but I always come away both exhilarated and exhausted. I’ve walked through middle-class city and suburban neighborhoods where the lawn-signs tell you which houses to approach for a get-out-the-vote drive and which to pass by. I’ve door-knocked neighborhoods with doorbells hanging from frayed wires and voters housed in gerrymandered apartments with no accessible doors to knock on. I’ve been both welcomed and met warily, in every neighborhood.

This year I’ve been able to get out only once, this last weekend.  My sister, who is sometimes my door-knocking partner, is sidelined by illness this year, and I have not yet persuaded my daughters that disrupting a stranger’s day can be a good time, so I went to the DFL headquarters alone and got assigned a partner, a woman named Julie who, thankfully, speaks a little Spanish. There hasn’t been much call for Swedish since the 1920s, probably. Our assignment looked quick–just one block on one side of the street. But the street was lined with apartment buildings, with an average of three floors and eight apartments per floor. One building was firmly locked, with no doorbell, and no one responded to our loud hammering, but we were welcomed into the others and allowed to go from door to door. Nearly everyone we found at home was an immigrant, either East African or Latino.  Immigrant voters make a day of door-knocking a joy.  At a duplex tucked in among the apartment buildings, five little kids came running down the stairs and invited us up to talk to their parents. Their mothers, two Somali sisters, came out of the kitchen where they were obviously cooking a meal, and invited us in to the living room. Yes, they were registered to vote, and yes, they knew the location of their polling place. Like many of the other immigrants we encountered, they were eager to vote and thrilled to be voting. They do not take their right to vote lightly. They even thanked us for taking the time to knock on their door. An East African man in one of the apartments asked about a friend in St. Paul who works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. With only one hour at the end of the day to get back to her neighborhood polling place, how could she vote? I told him that by law employers have to allow time for their employees to vote. “She’ll be in line at 7:00 a.m. then,” he said. “She’ll just be late to work, because she’s not going to miss voting!”

I’m glad to find that as jaded as I might get, new Americans will remind me of what matters, of what’s really at stake, and I’ll recover the excitement and pleasure I felt trailing my dad from conversation to conversation, knowing someday I’d be a voter, too.

2 comments to An Antidote to Cynicism

  • gunnar berg

    Lorna was door-knocking yesterday. She had a man who claimed Obama was a Moslem who was born in Kenya and he “would go nose-to-nose with anyone who disagreed with that”.

  • Cheri

    Where can I find this man’s nose?

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