Type
Essay
Category
Politics

But then, face to face

Let’s start with what it feels like to knock on a stranger’s door. The best way is to knock quickly, without thinking too much about it. Then come the sweating palms and pounding heart, hoping someone will answer the door, yet also hoping they won’t.

If they do answer, you have, maybe, a five-minute conversation ahead of you. Less, if the person on the other side has anything to do with it. So much of doorknocking is about pulling people into a conversation they don’t really want to have. The rope between you and the other person starts off slack, and your job is to tug them towards you, even as they try to pull away. At training sessions for new campaigners, we tell people to ignore their instinct for politeness. Keep pulling on that rope, even as the other person attempts to close the door in your face. The irritating thing is that this really works: many of my longest, most fruitful conversations have been with people who answered the door saying they didn’t have time to chat.

Over the past three years, I have been heavily involved in Greens campaigns in Brisbane’s inner south. During campaign periods – the six to eight months before an election – I work at my day job during the week and doorknock two or three times every weekend. I have never been paid to work on a campaign and yet I have had hundreds of political conversations with strangers, many of them somewhat reluctant.

On paper, that part sounds like a nightmare. Certainly, every time I walk up to the first door of the day, clipboard in the crook of my arm, the nightmarish possibilities are amplified in my brain. I expect – and sometimes receive – refusal at best, hostility at worst. But more common is polite acceptance, often genuine interest, sometimes even gratefulness for my presence. Many of the people I speak to have never had someone knock on their door to ask what they care about. Some of them, you can tell, have been waiting for someone to ask. Standing at the door, I absorb all of it: anger, fear, nostalgia, frustration. Some conversations last half an hour or more, sprawling far beyond the boundaries of the canvassing script on my clipboard. All of my fellow campaigners and I have been invited in for tea, chilled water, cigarettes on the back deck. We have all sat in living rooms listening to the stories of elderly people, many of whom are clearly lonely. We have all had insights into the daily frustrations and dramas of strangers’ lives. Doorknocking can be oddly intimate.

It would be easier to let these encounters stay purely relational. In fact, as a new doorknocker, your instinct is to do just that. You are afraid to push people into the realm of politics. But your job is, fundamentally, to make people’s everyday frustrations political: to give their anger a purpose, a narrative. Most of the people we speak to are already halfway there: they feel let down by both major parties and understand that ‘politics as usual’ is no longer viable. I don’t think this counts as a particularly groundbreaking observation by now.

What surprises me is how, having at least partially severed the ties of party loyalty, people often express views wildly contrary to their traditional voting behaviour. Such conversations usually begin with the person telling me, with an air of slight embarrassment, that I won’t like what they have to say, at which point my ears inevitably prick up. What follows is usually an admission of voting for the LNP or, more commonly, a right-wing minor party. But when probed about the context and reasoning of their vote, the person will often stray far from the script with which the media characterises such voters.

One man in a middle-class area tells me that he usually votes for Hanson or Palmer. We keep talking and eventually get onto the subject of public transport, which is drastically inadequate in his suburb. I float the idea – reflected in a Greens policy – that public transport fares in Queensland should be reduced to $1.

‘No,’ he says vehemently. ‘It should be free! This is a resource that belongs to all of us.’

He scans the flyer I gave him. ‘Free uni and TAFE?’

I nod.

‘Good!’ he says. ‘This is the sort of thing our taxes should be paying for. We all pay for it, so we should all own it!’

I don’t know if I would believe this story if I hadn’t been there, and if I hadn’t lived through so many others just like it. The Greens are often demonised by those on the centre-left for ‘stealing’ votes from Labor. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that any party is entitled to particular votes, many of the Labor voters I speak to at the door are relatively unlikely to shift to the Greens. In the recent federal campaign in Griffith – the site of the largest lower-house Greens swing in the country – the Greens took far more votes from right-wing minor parties than from Labor. This wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has spent significant time doorknocking. Many Labor voters are deeply disenchanted with their party, some even agreeing that the Greens better represent their views, yet shifting their vote is much more difficult than shifting the vote of, say, a One Nation voter.

The Greens’ traditional approach to winning over ‘progressive’ Labor voters – for example, by focusing on the emotionally charged moral touchstones of refugees and Adani – has now proven to be misguided, as the party failed to take (or hold) tantalisingly winnable Labor seats like Wills, Macnamara, and Cooper (formerly Batman).

Presenting oneself as the superior moral force might look good on paper, but this strategy quickly reveals itself to be limited when you are face-to-face with a potential swing voter. Many people I meet doorknocking cite, say, the offshore detention of refugees as their main political concern. They nod along with all the points I make, often agreeing that the Greens have the best position on the issue, and yet they won’t commit to voting Greens. One can only conclude that people are unlikely to vote for a party out of guilt, even if they agree with its stance.

I have to confess that conversations with loyal Labor voters are often infuriating. How, I wonder, can someone who professes to care deeply about refugees and climate change vote for the party that has re-opened Manus and Nauru, and announced a plan to frack the Beetaloo Basin?  But perhaps ‘care’ is the wrong lens through which to look, trading as it does in abstractions. Perhaps the concept of ‘interests’ – although also complex and nuanced – is more useful.

I find this approach works with those who traditionally vote for a right-wing party: talking seriously about the things that touch their lives is far more effective than invoking concepts (for example, ‘cruelty’ or ‘justice’) or moralising. I begin noticing that the racism often attributed to these voters usually shows itself in just these terms: it is relatively rare to hear spontaneous racial hatred expressed against refugees or migrants, but people often speak angrily about ‘Chinese property developers’ who are ruining neighbourhoods with high-rises.

This kind of ugly knee-jerk racism is built into the foundations of a settler-colonial country like Australia. Learning to have conversations with people who espouse such views is difficult, in that it involves pushing back against their worldview. But, as Simon Copland writes in relation to right-wing nationalist celebrities Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, it’s important to recognise the alienation that can drive these attitudes.

The reality is that the fears many people have about our world are real: the future does look uncertain, many people are really struggling, and most people feel atomised … While the answer [Molyneux and Southern] provide is racist, that does not mean that the fears themselves inherently are.

To have any hope of changing people’s minds, we have to take this fear and anger seriously. But it is equally crucial to take the next step of reframing the problem. And this is only possible if we (re)identify a common enemy.

Thus I find myself talking about mining companies and property developers who pay little to no tax and who don’t care about the lives of the people they extract profits from. I talk about careerist politicians who accept donations from those same corporations, who move in a Canberra bubble and who have no experience of living on a low wage or welfare, of struggling to make mortgage repayments. You and I have more in common with a refugee, I say, than with any of those people.

This sounds cheesy, and in a way it is. And sometimes it doesn’t work. A lifetime in a racist society is hardly undone by one conversation at a door, no matter how convincing. But it is drastically more effective than dismissing or lecturing. If I were to hazard a guess at how the left can win over right-wing voters – and, for that matter, Labor voters who need more than a simple alignment of policy positions with personal concerns – it would be in the articulation of a broad, transformative vision for changing society. This is otherwise known as a politics.

Having and enacting a politics is hard. It is the thing that no-one seems to want to do anymore. In Australia, both major parties have shifted toward bland retail politics, even as the substantive differences between them become less and less apparent. The Greens take decent positions on most issues, at least, but the attitude of the party is too often one of moralistic scolding, sometimes crossing into the poisonous territory of blaming voters. Furthermore, the Greens are seen as a party designed to tinker around the edges, not to change society.

Unapologetic large-scale ideology – the kind that is unafraid to identify common enemies and propose bold solutions – is out of fashion. Terrifyingly, those on the far right often come closest – at least they channel the anger that many voters feel. Pundits like to tut-tut over the ‘problem’ of anti-politics, but that tends to blame a disaffected population, not the politicians who have failed to offer anything worthy of affect.

Getting people to believe in hope – that is what really tests my skills of persuasion, time after time, even long after I have become adept at the rest of it. This is the barrier doorknockers come up against most often, and it is the barrier we often can’t get people to cross.

I can’t really blame them for it. After all, most people’s experience of daily life is one of extreme powerlessness. My fellow campaigners and I experience this ourselves – in our workplaces, our universities, our neighbourhoods. (Indeed, although this essay necessarily imposes some distinction between campaigners and the populace we campaigned to, we are of course part of that same populace, albeit a more organised and cohesive segment. Many of the people who became key doorknockers were recruited by being doorknocked themselves.)

The mediums by which ordinary people once wielded collective power, most notably trade unions, have been effectively hollowed out. Much has been written on the immense loneliness of the neoliberal subject, that perfectly atomised individual, but it is only through the work of campaigning that I appreciate this reality in concrete terms. Doorknocking moves these concepts out of the realm of the abstract and hits me over the head with them: real, real, real.

Accepting how little one knows isn’t easy, especially for those of us who consider ourselves to ‘understand politics’. But the more my fellow doorknockers and I move beyond our smug, vaguely elitist ideas about how voters think and behave, the more open we become, and the more generous and deep our conversations. Although wildly out of context, the famous Corinthians verse still feels oddly appropriate: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

 

*

 

As campaigners, our relationship with voters is only one part of the story. Another part concerns our relationships with each other, which tend to be surprisingly intense, surprisingly intimate, even between virtual strangers. Fellow campaigners – especially people who are new to doorknocking – inspire in me feelings of pride, admiration and affection. Often these newcomers arrive to doorknocks with trepidation on their faces. Their movements are hesitant. You can tell they are wondering why they have allowed themselves to be talked into this. But at the post-doorknock debrief, they are full of energy and animation, excitedly telling stories. Almost all of them say the same thing: ‘It was so much better than I thought it would be!’

Intense emotions saturate the work of political campaigning. Doorknock debriefs are their most convenient outlet, and during these discussions the air is always thick with laughter and excitement. The relief of being finished for the day (although, in the last few weeks of a campaign, many of us doorknock twice a day) is a big part of it. But we also get that excitement from each other. We joke a lot. If you have had a difficult experience, it helps to tell the others about it. It helps, too, to hear about someone’s good experience. There is no competitiveness – we feel as if the success of one person belongs to all of us.

After a debrief wraps up, we offer lifts home and, in cars choked with campaign materials, we chatter excitedly, still laughing. ‘See you soon!’ we say, knowing that we mean it.

If I were to translate these connections into leftist-speak, I might say that our work makes us comrades. This is a relationship that cannot quite be described using the word ‘friendship’. Many of us become extremely close friends, but running under our friendship is a current of obligation, and in many ways this obligation can’t be separated from the friendships. In a recent article for n+1, Alyssa Battistoni beautifully characterises this particular form of relationality:

Organizing relationships can be utopian. At their best, they offer the feminist dream of intimacy outside of romance or family … But they were not only friendships, and not only emotional ballast. The people I looked to for support would also push me when it was called for, as I would them; that, I knew, was the deal.

The people I now count as dear friends expect me, always, to turn up to the next doorknock, an expectation I also hold of them. What is more, we all know that our friendship rests upon the fulfilment of this unspoken expectation, weekend after weekend.

In other words, our relationships are not just about ourselves as individuals. Perhaps this is threatening to the modern idea of a relationship, but that is the point: we are all part of something bigger. To sustain it, we ask each other for courage, dedication, hard work. This is given, received, asked for and given again. And I think this is what gives so much depth to our personal closeness, to the very real love we have for one another.

Of course, just as this love can’t exist without the work, the work itself is sustained to a large extent by love. Only love makes it bearable to keep doorknocking in the rain, in the heat, with a hangover, when you would much rather stay at home with a book. Only love makes it possible to bear the rejection, the long hours, the very real possibility that it might all come to nothing. Winning together is the easy part – losing together is the test. And yet, it is in these moments of loss that I feel most borne up by what we are creating together, that I feel most secure in the knowledge that I won’t ever be left to suffer these setbacks alone.

When our campaign suffers a narrow loss in the 2017 Queensland state election, a friend messages to ask how I am feeling. I tell her that I feel humbled by the bravery and generosity of the people I had campaigned with. ‘I feel full of love,’ I write, ‘and surrounded by love.’ It is not the kind of sentimentality I usually display, but there you have it.

Then again, spending every weekend doorknocking is obviously hellish. The obligation of the doorknock looms over every Saturday, every Sunday. We have virtually no free time. We can’t go on holiday. The pleasurable activities that fill other people’s weekends – reading, gardening, going for long walks, staying out all night drinking – have no place in our lives. We talk about them wistfully. By the time evening comes around, we have no energy left; the best we can muster is to sit on couches scrolling through phones, attempting to calm our brains.

In a way, it is paradoxical: many of us campaign because we are anti-capitalists who believe strongly in a society designed around working less. Those who subscribe to prefigurative politics often critique other leftist projects on this basis: if your aim is a future with less work and more leisure, then working yourself to the bone rather undermines the whole project.

But this critique focuses too much on leisure, and not enough on meaning – or it conflates the two, somewhat falsely. The campaigning work we do is difficult, but it is intensely meaningful. In the weeks after the federal election – those golden stretches of leisure, finally reached! – many people tell me that they are surprised at how much they miss campaigning. Without it they feel isolated, lonely, confronted with the brute meaninglessness of their jobs and PhD programs. More than one person asks when we can start doorknocking again.

The fulfilment comes from the work itself, even outside of its results, something I could never have predicted. Before getting involved in campaigning, I had been an introvert who learned about politics by reading thinkpieces and debates on Twitter. I had been compulsively focused on achievement, first in academia and then in the job market. Anxiety about my so-called career often reduced me to tears.

All that bullshit falls swiftly away once I become involved in doorknocking. Campaigning means that I am never bored, never alienated. I rarely worry about my purpose in life, or whether I am letting my twenties pass me by. My life is defined by something other than personal achievement, which proves to be a massive relief. I am alive to everything around me, and even when I am physically and emotionally spent, I always feel as though the broader arc of my life has energy, hope, direction.

In other words, I feel human. But the contradiction here – one that I am still trying to resolve – is that the work of campaigning requires a certain machine-like tendency. As a campaigner, you have a set of key messages that you are trained to spit out. You modify these outputs based on certain inputs from the person with whom you are speaking. Even in the face of utter physical and emotional exhaustion – say, towards the end of a twelve-hour shift on a polling booth – you have to continue campaigning, continue approaching people, continue working your mouth to say the same things over and over. You have to knock on people’s doors without thinking too much, because if you think too much you will never do it. The difficulty of this work – the sting of rebuff, the exhaustion, the nerves that pound through you when you knock on a stranger’s door – comes from being too much a human being, not enough a machine. The perfect campaigner, it could be argued, is really a robot.

Then again, the more time I spend campaigning, the more convinced I am that a certain robotic element is necessary to build any large-scale movement. (They don’t call it a ‘campaign machine’ for nothing.) Surprisingly, being a cog in that machine can feel immensely comforting and fulfilling.

I realise, too, that trying to change society means encountering people on a level other than individuality. It certainly feels strange to approach a stranger in their home, to have a conversation that circles around their fundamental anxieties, and then go around the corner with a clipboard and reduce the encounter to a point on a numerical scale. Organising at a large scale is a blunt instrument, but then it has to be, otherwise it is just inexpert social work.

I also learn that most people keenly feel this sense of being too much an individual – that is, of being unable to exert any real change upon ‘the system’. Their sense of acute individuality is, in the end, what precludes them from turning their anger into hope, from believing in the possibility of change. We need to go beyond individuality if we are ever going to get anywhere.

 

*

 

That is much easier said than done. I would be lying if I claimed that the ‘sell’ of voting for the Greens doesn’t sometimes feel a little pathetic, in the face of so much justified frustration and disenchantment. Your wages are stagnant, you struggle with the cost of childcare, you get up at five every morning to commute to work, you are worried about what will happen to your mother when she goes into an aged-care facility, your house is being crowded by high-rises and you have spoiled your ballot paper for the past few elections because all politicians are greedy and corrupt. Who am I to tell you that any of that will change if you vote for the Greens?

I obviously wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe that electing Greens candidates would yield positive results. And it is worth noting that, in raw electoral terms, doorknocking gets the goods – since shifting to doorknock-focused campaigning (combined with much more radical policy and messaging), the Queensland Greens have made huge electoral strides. But I also think the power of the work itself is not to be underestimated. I do believe that if anything is going to change, it will involve a mass movement of committed, organised people who understand the necessity of bringing the public along with them. I do believe that being able to meet people where they are, to politicise their everyday frustrations, is the most essential tool for shifting someone’s views and behaviours. I do believe that if the Greens, or any other left-wing party, are ever going to become a serious electoral force then they have to eradicate the tendency to moralise. Undertaking the serious work of talking to ordinary people is the only way to do that.

For those who do it seriously and on a mass scale, doorknocking is much more than a means to an end. The medium is the message, or at least a large component of it. The actual result of all that campaigning – that is, the figure on election night – is not exactly secondary, but it is not everything, either. As Battistoni puts it:

If the secret to winning isn’t really a secret  – you just keep organizing and organizing and organizing so that along with all the losses and setbacks some victories start to pile up –  then maybe the question of how to win is just a question of how to keep doing it, after you win and after you lose.

Just keep doing it, keep walking up to people’s doors and knocking, over and over and over again. Be open to whatever is on the other side.

 

 

 
 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Joanna Horton is a writer living in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Millions, and The Toast, among other places.

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