In 2017, Lisa Mann was alone, riding the subway in New York City. Lisa is in her mid-fifties, an architect. She and her husband, who is also an architect, are in business together. The couple has two teenage sons, whom they raised in the Windsor Terrace and Park Slope neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Lisa was riding the New York subway when two teenagers got on her train car. They approached a third teenager and started to taunt him aggressively. The third kid may have been developmentally disabled, Lisa first thought. The altercation felt ominous: something dangerous, something ugly, was going to happen. As the train pulled into the next station and opened its doors, other riders quickly shuffled out, away from the brewing fight. Without thinking, Lisa stood up at the subway door near the teenagers and put her foot up against the sliding door, preventing it from closing, which prevented the train from moving on.
“I let the door thud against my foot again and again and again,” Lisa remembered, “more a sensation than a sound.” What was she doing? Not escaping the car like the others. Not calling for the police. She just stood there, stopping the train from leaving the station.
One of the “almost men,” as Lisa called them, got in her face, staring her down. Lisa’s mind went to a recent tragedy on a train in Oregon, where three riders intervened in an altercation. A man was harassing other riders. The men who tried to talk him down were stabbed, two of them to death. Lisa stood resolutely, now eye-to-eye with the teenager. Their faces were inches apart and she could see that he was about the age of one of her sons.
Something about Donald Trump’s election, which had shaken Lisa, made her want to be less anonymous, to take more responsibility, to intervene in her community. “I didn’t want them to hurt each other,” she thought. The aggressors told Lisa that the third boy had said something to them that made them mad. Lisa responded, “Do you think you could be the bigger person here? Can you be the bigger guy?”
The boys were surprised. They sat down. They stayed seated, keeping to themselves. A few stops later, they were still on the train when Lisa got off at her stop. As she passed them on her way out, she looked all three in the eye, as if to say, “Please. Don’t hurt each other.”
Intervening like this isn’t natural. Diffusing a fight. Assuming responsibility, respectfully, for the children around you whom you don’t know. It was hard for Lisa. She reflected about this experience in writing, in words she couldn’t as easily say out loud. “It is time to be . . . very brave. Brave enough to speak with people we fear, to face the nuances of our bias, to recognize the frailty of humanity, and to forgive.”
Lisa told me, “I really started feeling that if we are going to save our democracy, we all really need to work, to do hard things.”
Before 2016, Lisa was a voter, read the newspaper, but otherwise practiced “benign pseudo-engagement,” as she put it, sometimes dropping references to her friends about token political activity “as a kind of liberal currency.” In other words, she was a political hobbyist.
After the 2016 election, she wanted to do in politics what she did on the train: intervene, participate, take responsibility. She found her way to a meeting in her Brooklyn neighborhood, where small activist groups were popping up. Lisa volunteered with some of these groups for a while. By temperament, though, she didn’t like protests and shouting. She didn’t like showing up confrontationally to the office of her member of Congress. She was more comfortable in one-on-one dialogue than in large groups. After a few months, she took a step back.
Then a close friend received an email about a new group called Changing the Conversation Together, founded by professional organizer Adam Barbanel-Fried. Adam had adopted a strategy called deep canvassing, in which volunteers usually undergo hours of training before they face voters. They don’t just talk to likely supporters who need a mild nudge to show up on Election Day, which is the focus of normal canvassing. Volunteers talk to voters who are likely to oppose the volunteers’ side or have strong misgivings about their side.
The volunteers don’t get into arguments with these voters. Instead, they focus on building mutual understanding, by listening and taking each person seriously. There’s not a robotic script, no forced thirty-second conversation that both the canvasser and voter can’t wait to run away from.
In training for deep canvassing, volunteers are asked to think of intimate stories from their personal lives. They share these stories at the doors of strangers to help to convey why they have reached the political conclusions they have reached and allow the strangers to open up about themselves in turn. Together, maybe the volunteer and the stranger can learn from each other.
Along with her friend, Lisa went to one of the first trainings that Adam led for this group. She is not one to share intimate details of her personal life with strangers, and found the training “deeply uncomfortable.” I talked to Lisa on the phone and to several others in Adam’s group, but I wanted to see them in action.
I arrive at the condo building on the edge of Prospect Park, in Park Slope, a liberal, wealthy neighborhood in Brooklyn. A doorman greets me. The event’s hosts are warm and unpretentious. Snacks are on the table. Folding chairs are set up in the living room between a comfortable deep couch, a scratched-up brown upright piano, and what looks like a broken television.
Around six o’clock, thirty people crowd into the living room. They are professionals, arriving from offices still dressed for work. They are almost all white, probably two-thirds women, and range in age from late twenties to late sixties. A couple of high school interns are also present. Lisa, now a leader in the group, introduces Dave Fleischer, who is in-town from Los Angeles. He is the organizer credited with inventing the strategy of deep canvassing.
Dave stands in the middle of the crowded living room. He has a shaved head, is sixty-three years old, looks younger. He’s originally from Chillicothe, Ohio, and has been canvassing since he was fifteen, a professional organizer his whole adult life. His work with deep canvassing is a scientific breakthrough. It’s possibly the most successful mode of political persuasion ever measured.
In typical campaigns, volunteers are recruited to do door-to-door canvassing and phone banking. They are given scripts and told not to deviate too much from them. For getting out the vote, a scripted reminder can increase participation by a couple of percentage points. Campaigns have not found as much success in using volunteer-based techniques for changing voters’ minds about how they should vote on issues or candidates. Persuasion is hard, which is why campaigns mostly focus on turning out their base voters.
“We are showing voters love when we canvass. We’re trying to teach them that voting is a gift we give people we love.”
Sometimes, though, a campaign lacks sufficient supporters to just mobilize the base and win. Then the only choice is to persuade voters to join your side. Dave cares about those situations. Also, in deep canvassing, volunteers focus on being good listeners and on making a human connection to someone they might disagree with. They are emissaries from one party to another, looking for goodwill. Dave doesn’t just think deep canvassing is effective; he thinks it is virtuous.
Dave’s workshop this evening feels like a religious space. The audience is rapt. Dave learns names, looks you in the eye. He is patient and kind. I think, as I sit watching him, that anyone from any political walk of life could come into this living room and feel connected to his message. People would feel that they should, in their own lives, try harder to be a better listener and a more decent person.
Dave shares as an example one of his own stories that he tells voters at the door when he canvasses. He talks about his high school girlfriend. Dave knew he was gay from the time he was six. In high school, still in the closet, he had a girlfriend. Sometimes, he would suggest they have sex, knowing that she was committed to not having sex until marriage. He didn’t want to have sex with her, but as a high schooler he thought, in his role as boyfriend, he should tell her he wanted to, knowing she would refuse.
Once, though, she didn’t refuse. Dave started making excuses for why they couldn’t. Dave thought she must have felt terrible—why didn’t her boyfriend want to have sex with her? Was something wrong with her?
In this story, and in every story Dave tells to voters at the door, he is not the hero. There is no hero. In this story, he presents himself as a jerk, even though the listener realizes how tricky this must have been for Dave in the early 1970s in high school. But, he says, he wasn’t honest with his girlfriend. He hurt her feelings.
Dave tells these intimate details to make a connection that maybe the person at the door can, in some way, relate to. Maybe they connect to the idea that sexuality is complicated. That people make mistakes. That they hurt others they care about.
Dave has told this story while canvassing on behalf of abortion rights. He might say how the memory of the story helps him understand some of the complicated reasons why a woman may face the decision to have an abortion. He tells a stranger at the door that his pro-choice position comes from a place of respect for the people he loves. He hopes voters will reciprocate by thinking through how they arrived at their own position; maybe they’ll come around to his. And maybe not; but even if not, he hopes they can understand him better than before. The audience in the living room is transfixed by Dave’s stories. Some are in tears.
“You know what issue we’re canvassing on?” Dave asks. “It’s love. It sounds corny. We are showing voters love when we canvass. We’re trying to teach them that voting is a gift we give people we love. We want to connect our love of our family and friends to policies we think support those who we love.”
Everyone has questions for Dave. A woman who has canvassed before, but never deep canvassing, says she tends to get angry when people disagree with her about politics. She asks Dave how she can tolerate it better. Another asks whether this technique, telling stories and building rapport, is manipulative. One is simply exasperated about how awkward it is to share personal details about one’s life to a stranger. “Deep canvassing,” Dave tells the group with a smile, “is inherently socially awkward.”
In the 2018 election, Lisa worked with the Changing the Conversation Together organization in New York’s Eleventh Congressional District—covering Staten Island and a small portion of Brooklyn. The Eleventh District is the most conservative area of New York City, the only area of the city to have voted for Donald Trump and the only area, until 2018, with a Republican member of Congress. The Democratic candidate in 2018, a young decorated war veteran, Max Rose, won the race by about six points, carrying the Staten Island portion of the district by eleven hundred votes.
“I spent more time in Staten Island than I ever expected in my life,” Lisa told me. During the 2018 election, she canvassed eighteen shifts on Staten Island, plus a couple of shifts in South Brooklyn. On weekends, volunteers from different parts of the city would carpool over the Verrazzano Bridge. Some took the ferry over from Manhattan. Forty or fifty volunteers would show up, twenty of whom were regulars, such as Lisa.
“My stereotype of Staten Island,” says Lisa, “was that it was very white, a combination of middle class and maybe more affluent, and deeply Republican.” But she found this image changed over time. “In the neighborhoods we focused on, Staten Island was so mixed from one door to the next: about political persuasion, ethnic background, diversity of views, about everything. On a given street, from door to door, you didn’t know who was the next person you were going to meet.”
Even when these encounters didn’t lead to transformational, inspiring conversations, Lisa says, “there’s something good about what we are doing.” Another volunteer told me, “We talked to people who were raving Republicans and they didn’t bite our heads off. We all walked away feeling better.”
Storytelling in deep canvassing is like Lisa’s foot pushing against the subway door, preventing it from closing, slowing down the pace of the interaction to allow for space between people, a moment of humanity.
Lisa told stories at the door about her mother, about her Japanese American in-laws who had been interned during World War II, about her biracial children. Following Dave Fleischer’s model, her stories aren’t political parables, nor does she play the role of hero protagonist. The stories are just ways to explain sincerely why the political climate is troubling to her, why she holds the views she holds.
If Lisa went to a Trump supporter and told him that Trump is bad and the voter should vote against Trump, it wouldn’t work. But she goes to the doors of Trump voters and says where she is coming from. Because she is sincere and respectful, some of these strangers will let her make her case.
Storytelling in deep canvassing is like Lisa’s foot pushing against the subway door, preventing it from closing, slowing down the pace of the interaction to allow for space between people, a moment of humanity. She felt she made progress even when a Trump supporter didn’t radically change his or her mind but might have thought, “Wow, you are a decent person. And you’re a Democrat. I was scared to talk to you before. I thought you were going to yell at me.”
In the 2018 election, Lisa’s group had deep-canvassing-style conversations with two thousand voters. The group’s follow-up analysis suggests that the voters they talked to were significantly more likely to vote, and to vote Democratic, than neighbors who weren’t canvassed.
Lisa is good at canvassing not because she is eager to talk to anyone about politics; that’s not her. She is good at it because she is resolute and honest. Many of the days she canvassed, she would truly rather have been with her kids at their track meets. She told the voters that. They understood that this was important to her.
She was so willing to respectfully give them the chance, maybe they could return the favor. More often than you might think, they did. She multiplied her vote, her democratic power.