On primary Election Day in North Carolina, I canvassed for Bernie Sanders. I had early voted. Sensing he had little chance against Hillary Clinton, I still wanted to see his campaign operation. Call it an experiment in democracy.
My previous canvassing experience was in 1970, post-Kent State. I actually carried a clipboard with a petition to “end the war” to a few houses. It didn’t take long to learn shoe-leather democracy is a slog. This gig, I carried a cell phone. The campaign used an app called MiniVAN to list contacts, guide questions, record responses. Real time data were sent to headquarters by hitting refresh.
Cool as this was, old feelings resurfaced. New ones emerged. Knocking on doors, greeted by barking dogs or absolute silence, put me in northeast Durham’s mixed industrial-residential zone tucked below I-85 near U.S. 70. I learned some things there I didn’t expect to learn:
▪ Political house calls are harder than medical house calls. As a pediatrician, I made house calls in the early ’80s. I discontinued the practice when my office became too busy. Mostly fearless visiting strangers’ homes then, I didn’t expect now to feel odd knocking on doors, waiting to ask some scripted questions. To my surprise, I found myself tongue-tied whenever a door opened. Look them in the eye. State your purpose. Ignore the pit bull nuzzling at the opening. The fact is: A medical house call is an invitation to address a need in someone’s home; a political house call is an unsolicited request that someone open a home and trust a political self to a stranger.
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▪ It is hard but necessary to suspend judgment. As I arrived at one site, an apartment complex, a yellow school bus emptied middle school kids onto the entrance drive. Hauling backpacks, talking and laughing, black and brown kids dispersed to apartments. The other white person around was the apartment supervisor doing repairs. He glanced at me sidelong more than once. I noticed kids didn’t head inside but waited on their front porches.
A girl and guy about 13 or 14 started asking me questions as I approached them. “What are you doing?” Canvassing for Bernie Sanders, I explained, showing them campaign materials. The pediatrician in me noticed the girl’s unrepaired lazy eye. Diagnosis and early intervention spares a child from amblyopia and limits the natural embarrassment of other kids asking which eye is “the good one.” Universal cradle-to-grave health care would catch and fix this, I mused, but banished the thought.
“That’s what he looks like!?” the girl exclaimed. “I heard his name, but I never seen his picture before! Who is he?” He’s seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, I said. Today is primary day, the last day people can vote for someone to be a nominee in November. I asked them to remind their parents to vote and to consider Sanders.
“I never met anyone like you!” the girl said with elation, though I wasn’t sure what she meant. Speaking up, the guy with her said, “Donald Trump, he’s against Mexicans, isn’t he? Is he against black people, too?” I said he had said some not-very-nice things about a lot of people, trying to leave it at that. But the teenagers didn’t want me to go. “We got a lot of Mexicans here. I can’t like him if he doesn’t like Mexicans,” the boy said. I couldn’t disagree, but I couldn’t say more, either. Agreeing and arguing are not what canvassing is about.
▪ It’s hard to vote if you can’t get time off. Canvassing done, I tallied my success: 33 attempts, eight contacts: 24 percent. That includes the two teens too young to vote and someone not on my list but living in a contact’s household. Six people had moved. By far, the largest number was for Not Home: 23, 70 percent. Anyone not home got a Sanders’ doorknob hanger. Wow, I thought, who is home between 1 and 4 p.m.? People have jobs. That’s good. Next I cheered myself with: Good thing there’s early voting. But then I remembered the same problem applies, except on Saturdays. Optimism slid toward pessimism: another structural impediment to fully participatory democracy.
▪ To live under the Golden Rule is the real American Dream. Looking back on canvassing, it wasn’t Sanders that propelled me; it was principles inculcated by my parents from an early age. Every human being deserves to be treated with dignity, no matter how weak or small, sad or broken, successful or sick. Every American deserves a chance to succeed, but sometimes Americans need to help and to be helped by other Americans, too. Every citizen has a right to vote, and none should be prevented from doing so. Upon reflection, I realize canvassing was my way to honor my long-dead parents’ principles.
I remain haunted by the cross-eyed girl who said, “I’ve never met anyone like you!” What on earth did she mean? What effect could her meeting “anyone like” me have that could exceed the effect meeting “someone like” her should have on any of us? I don’t believe I can say.
Vincent J. Kopp, M.D., is emeritus professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.