By Tom Lee
Remember, in the damp chill of our present politics, a summer's day in a small Southern town. It could be your town: 92 in the afternoon sun, average relative humidity of 65 percent, a "feels like" temperature of 108.3. Ghastly, oppressive, punitive heat. You can hear the grass baking brown.
And so it was in that town last July, as I walked asphalt streets, knocking doors for a friend running for a seat in the Tennessee State Senate. I carried two water bottles and one extra shirt. I needed them all.
The neighborhood, born of mid-century optimism with streets wide and lots judiciously sized, had begun to tire. Inside, homeowners had drawn heavy drapes across their windows, iron curtains against the heat and other enemies, foreign and domestic. Empty cars filled empty driveways.
Invisible is not, of course, the same as absent, which is why I was there. The neighborhood may have drifted from the economic center stage, but the citizens behind these curtains were still people to be reckoned with.
Because they voted. Cross-tabbed, philosophically isolated, and demographically sliced and diced, yes. Resembling less a citizenry and more a Chevy truck-ad focus group, perhaps. But, not inactive. They voted, and they voted every time the polls opened.
"You know how you can tell who the voters are?" my candidate friend asked me. "They all have flags."
He was right. Time and again, my knock list sent me past better-kept homes to smaller, tiring houses where, invariably, there would be a fading stars and stripes hanging from a pole. More often than not, an older person would answer my knock, open their door to the heat, and engage in, yes, political dialogue. It may not have been Cicero in the Roman Senate, but it was heartfelt.
Southerners answer the door. Southerners welcome strangers at the door. In the summer, Southerners offer iced tea at the door (several did for me). And, so, for the Southerner interested in political change, it is to the door you must go.
The reason is this: Most people think door-to-door campaigning is about persuading voters. There's an element of that, but it starts with listening to the voters' stories.
We understand story in the South. We are heirs to a storytelling tradition, in word, deed, and song, and we will tell them to almost anyone, including heavily perspiring strangers asking for our votes.
The hard analytical work for a campaign is to capture these stories, synthesize them, and in some respect tell them back to the voters to get them to do one essential and equally hard thing, and that is to vote.
A campaign that is doing this, all other things being equal (or even a little inequal) will win. You can see evidence of it happening right now.
You likely know of Danica Roem, a first-time candidate who recently unseated a 25-year incumbent in Virginia's House of Delegates elections. Bob Marshall, the incumbent, liked to call himself Virginia's "chief homophobe." Roem is trans.
But Roem didn't run on homophobia. She ran on fixing traffic. It was on her yard signs: "FIX ROUTE 28 NOW." As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times, "Danica Roem Is Really, Really Boring." Where'd she get that idea? Her campaign knocked on 75,000 doors in a year. They heard voters' real stories at their doors.
"Transportation affects every single person," Roem told Vice.com the week before the election. "I've been talking about this for 10 months. And what's Delegate Marshall been hitting me on? My gender."
Unquestionably, some voters are worried about who can use which bathroom in a public school. In Roem's district, however, more were worried they couldn't get to work on time. It took listening to divine that, and it worked. Roem won by eight points.
Less well known is what happened last week in Oklahoma. The Sooner State's 37th Senatorial District includes middle-class exurban communities — Sand Spring, Mannford, Sapulpa — across the Arkansas River from Tulsa. By ethnic makeup and economic status, the 37th sits solidly in the center of Oklahoma. Just last year, the Republican incumbent won re-election by 15 points. Donald Trump carried Tulsa County by 23 points.
Then, in June 2017, the incumbent senator suddenly resigned. And last week, in the special election to replace him, the winner was an underfunded 26-year-old Democrat.
Allison Ikley-Freeman's campaign knocked on thousands of doors, including 4,000 the weekend before the election. After she won, she said, "When we were knocking on doors, so many people said, 'Thank you. We didn’t know there was an election.'"
To be fair, national Democrats brought in resources. And the campaign had a sharp operative, Sarah Baker, with experience winning tough elections in unlikely country.
But the thing you have to know about Oklahoma is that Republican presidential candidates have won by increasing margins there in every election since 2000. So, Democrats don't get national resources unless they've done the groundwork first to win (a bipartisan truth, by the way). And now the Oklahoma Senate has a new member, Ikley-Freeman, who won by 34 votes.
Regardless of political affiliation, it is easy in these times to feel pummeled by the hourly outrages appearing unbidden on our phones. We all may need PTSD counseling.
As always in the face of trauma, however, there are healthy choices.
Television tells us we engage in political community when we watch television, but what television really does is what television always has done — sell more television. It may be a drug to manage our condition, but it is not a cure.
You want some of that ree-form, as Pappy O'Daniel says in "O Brother, Where Art Thou," you gotta go get it, even when it feels like 108.3.
As scripture says, knock. And then, when that door opens, when that barrier is breached and the cool air rushes out to surround you, you can tell a story, you can listen, and perhaps you can put a vote on the board.