Philadelphia - Of all the shenanigans that Americans have endured during this presidential campaign, the news last Friday that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server was among the least malicious and yet, somehow, also among the most deflating. Because nothing was actually learned, we were left to stew in speculation about a muddy issue we thought was behind us. It carried the stench of this entire election – scandal over substance – that has seeped into our national skin like nicotine after an all-nighter and is sure to linger.
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After that revelation, and for the first time this season, I wanted to unsubscribe from this election. And yet, on Sunday morning, I forced myself onto a Pennsylvania-bound bus, part of a Get Out the Vote effort organized by Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a New York-based progressive political advocacy group. A month ago, I had enthusiastically committed to the two-day canvassing trip but now sat gloomily as we rolled into swing-state territory, listening to the “Hamilton” album in a desperate attempt to find faith in American politics.
Following a brief orientation, after which I felt not an iota more prepared to discuss politics with strangers, I was provided a script, a voter registration map, and a handful of fliers. On the short ride to my assigned neighborhood, I thought about the compulsion to do something in this election that had brought me here, and also how deeply uncomfortable I felt now that I was actually doing it. It felt intrusive and unpleasant, and perhaps even pointless.
Then, suddenly, my canvasing buddy and I were dropped off on an empty street corner in West Philadelphia. Four hours stretched ahead, and dozens of doors ominously awaited.
Robert, a tall man in his early 20s with a wide smile and thick dreadlocks, opened the first one. I introduced myself and asked about his intent to vote. He was pro-Clinton, as our data said he should be. We were on Clinton turf and the primary goal was to make sure her most likely supporters had a plan to get to the polls. Our secondary goal: Senate awareness. Robert, like many of his neighbors, hadn’t heard of Katie McGinty, the Democratic challenger with a razor-thin lead over the Republican incumbent. Robert seemed to appreciate the information, thanked us for stopping by, and shook my hand. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as intrusive or unpleasant as I had imagined.
We knocked on over 50 doors that afternoon, each one distinctly decorated with the personal stamp of potted plants, funky address numbers or Halloween paraphernalia. A soft-spoken man with an autistic son shared with us his frustration that education wasn’t being discussed. A woman in a leopard print dress patiently heard us out while keeping an eye on the stove and a young child. A few people called us into their living rooms to chat from the couch. A man who hadn’t initially answered his door (which bore a “Hillary for Prison” sticker) found us across the street and calmly but passionately explained why he wouldn’t be voting for either candidate.
The spike of adrenaline that comes with stepping up to a stranger’s home never ceased. But after about an hour, I realized I was enjoying myself. The despair brought on by Friday’s news had dispersed, mostly I imagine because one-on-one conversations had replaced my usual one-sided diet of consuming endless analysis and enraged rants. Instead of engaging with this election through Facebook, I was engaging through face-to-face interactions. The difference in tone was startling. True, we weren’t exactly at a Trump rally, but even in targeted, so-called “friendly” territory, the graciousness with which people listened and shared – even those who disagreed with us – was remarkably refreshing.
Online activism has positively enabled certain forms of civic engagement, but it has also proved detrimental by offering a false sense of participation. In many ways, it mirrors online dating: Twitter has eroded political discourse just as Tinder has eroded romance. Swiping right is not meaningful action, nor is a tweet or Facebook post. Plus, the explosion of options and opinions we wade through often frightens us into retreating to the familiar rather than confront our own assumptions and biases. Paradoxically, it narrows rather than expands our perspective.
But when you show up and make eye contact, demographics quickly become individuals in Eagles t-shirts, or with a face full of freckles, or sporting neck tattoos. Some of the “white working class,” who we’ve been told have buoyed Trump’s rise, actually can’t stand his hateful speech and empty promises. Some African-Americans, who we’re told are all-in for Clinton, aren’t so interested. We may be theoretically aware of this diversity, but social media makes it easy to ignore because we’ve become so busy expressing ourselves that we’ve forgotten how to listen. Facing a stranger on her porch, you start to relearn.
Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @MyTwoLeftFeet.