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Deep Canvassing Takes New Approach to Bridging Divides

by Bill Hogseth, WFU Watershed & Organizing Coordinator

It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon in September. The air is crisp and the leaves are beginning to turn, but I’m not outside enjoying the day. I’m sitting inside, in front of my laptop on Zoom. This is not a typical Zoom meeting. The faces in the grid of boxes across the screen are holding phones to their ears, and their mouths are moving but their microphones are muted. This is the Wisconsin Farmers Union deep canvassing team. The people gathered on my screen are having conversations with voters across Wisconsin about issues like health care, CAFOs, and gerrymandering.

I look down from the computer screen at the phone held in my hand. My next call is to Steve, a 47-year-old man who, according to my list, lives in Pittsville, WI. This is all I know about Steve. Before each call, I get the same little pinch of nervousness in my throat. I swallow my nerves and begin to dial his number.

In election season, we are flooded with one-way messages telling us how we should think about an issue or candidate. Yard signs go up in our neighborhoods. Political ads fill our screens. Text messages ding on our phones. Glossy postcards appear in our mailboxes. A barrage of messages telling us what we should believe and how we should vote.

The profound irony is the tidal wave of electoral communication — the commercials, billboards, and emails — have almost no impact on persuading the minds of voters despite $6 billion projected to be spent this year. In an analysis of television, digital, and radio communication, Joshua Kalla and David Broockman concluded political communication strategies rarely or never overcome the inertia of people’s predisposed opinions.

If this comes as a surprise to you then let me offer this, “When was the last time you changed your vote after seeing a political ad?” My guess is: never. In fact, I would wager a bet that political ads only further entrench your existing viewpoints (as they do mine). Most political communication operates on the misconception that if we just expose people to the perfect combination of words and phrases they will magically change their minds about an issue or a candidate. That’s not the case because our political opinions are not conjured up by rational thinking; they are entangled in our deeply held beliefs, personal experiences, cognitive shortcuts, and social identities.

Wisconsin Farmers Union is trying a different way of communicating about issues: two-way conversations. Instead of lecturing or bombarding people with messages on how they should think about issues, organizers and volunteers are engaging voters in a strategy called “deep canvassing” that uses listening and storytelling as a way to connect on personal experiences and shared values. In a time of rising political temperatures, in which we seem to have gone deaf to those who disagree with us, deep canvassing may seem naïve or unrealistic. However, our experience suggests people in rural communities all over Wisconsin have an appetite for these conversations.

Which brings me back to the conversation with Steve. As he picked up the phone, I greeted him, “Hi Steve, my name is Bill with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. We’re talking to people today about expanding the Badgercare program in Wisconsin and I’m wondering if I can get your opinion on that?” Right away, Steve told me he was opposed to Badgercare expansion because “some people who don’t need it might abuse it.” Even though Steve’s opinion was different than mine, I intentionally chose not to show judgment nor persuade him. Instead, I responded by asking a simple question, “Why is that for you?”

When I showed genuine curiosity in Steve’s perspective, he was willing to share more. This allowed the conversation to unfold in a direction different than most political conversations. Instead of debating health care policy, we talked about our experiences. I found out Steve is a disabled veteran of the Iraq war, paralyzed from the waist down; I heard what it is like for him to live with chronic pain. He found out that my wife and I were uninsured during the pregnancy of our first son, who was born six weeks early with an emergency c-section. Steve explained to me the effort it takes him to get out of his wheelchair and into the driver’s seat of his car just to go to the grocery store. I told Steve what it was like for me to sit in the critical care unit for 10 days watching my newborn son on a feeding tube. I told him how grateful I am now that Frankie is a healthy 9-year-old boy.

Near the end of the conversation, Steve said “no one plans on getting sick or injured, but eventually we fall on tough times, and we all deserve some help.” I agreed with him, saying, “Expanding Badgercare is a gift we can give to the people we love.” When asked again, Steve told me he could support expanding Badgercare in Wisconsin. He even committed to calling his State Senator to encourage expansion in next year’s state budget.

The outcome of this conversation was not an accident. It was the result of an intentional effort to get under the surface of “politics” and have a two-way conversation. At the heart of this was my own willingness to show vulnerability by sharing an emotionally significant story. But, the conversation didn’t stop there. By actively listening and patiently asking questions, I invited Steve to do the same. This offered him the opportunity to reflect on his own experiences and, ultimately, change his own mind.

According to research by Broockman and Kalla, my experience with Steve is not unusual. Peer-reviewed studies show deep canvassing conversations have a measurable impact on people's attitudes on issues like immigration, transgender rights, and voting. Even more, impacts are shown to be longer-lasting in the mind of a voter; whereas a television ad may be forgotten in less than a week, the memory of a deep canvass conversation can last months.

Last winter, before the grip of the pandemic, WFU made the decision to invest in building an organized program to train a team of volunteer deep canvassers to deploy these conversations at a scale large enough to reach communities across the state. In many ways, this has been an experiment. When we decided to launch this effort, it felt exciting and important but there were a lot of unknowns. We had planned on having conversations at people’s doorsteps and never anticipated a virus would force us to shift entirely to phones. But, we pushed forward, holding multi-day trainings introducing over 30 people to deep canvassing. Many of those people have gone on to participate in regular canvass shifts and are helping us reach a goal of having 1,000 impactful conversations prior to the election.

For a democratic society to function, we need to be able to reflect upon opposing viewpoints. We need to hear from people who disagree with us, and, in turn, see each other as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and human beings, not as political enemies. Deep canvassing is a step in that direction.

Which brings us back to the Zoom meeting. After two hours of calling, everyone sets down their phones and unmutes their microphones to discuss how the day went. Together, we are learning as a team how to effectively communicate values without burning bridges.

Deep canvassing is a skill that many of us already instinctually have. The ability to talk and listen to another human about what is important to us is something we do all the time with close friends and family. The challenge is how to use these skills in an ideologically charged and emotionally divisive space like politics. It takes practice to learn how to skillfully navigate these conversations with voters across the spectrum. Our deep canvassers’ hours of training involves a storytelling workshop as well as roleplaying, coaching, and discussion.

Months into the project, we are asking ourselves: How can we apply lessons learned to our work going forward?

Listening is the missing ingredient. Today, many conversations end before they even begin because of a failure to listen. When faced with an opposing viewpoint, our minds search for a snappy rebuttal instead of following our curiosity to learn more about why a person thinks the way they do.

Deep canvassing conversations have power. Because we start from a place of listening, which requires empathy and non-judgment, deep canvassing offers an opportunity to reflect on experiences and reconsider assumptions. These conversations can be transformative.

This is slow work. One conversation is not enough. To have an impact, we need to have thousands of conversations, one at a time, with no shortcuts. It takes a lot of time and hard work. Time to recruit and coach volunteers, to make phone calls and, someday, knock on doors. It can be challenging and exhausting.

Organizing is the way. No person can do this alone. To be successful, a small army of deep canvassing volunteers is needed, supported by a network of organizers and coaches, who can change the conversation together. This requires structure, strategy, planning, commitment, facilitation, and leadership.

The alternative is to keep losing. Progress on many of our policies remain at a stalemate without a clear path forward. When we rely on tactics that focus only on mobilizing supporters, we miss the opportunity to expand support we need for our issues. Unless we intentionally reach out to the people who may not agree with us, we will continue to stall progress.

For a democratic society to function, we need to be able to reflect upon opposing viewpoints. We need to hear from people who disagree with us, and, in turn, see each other as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and human beings, not as political enemies. Deep canvassing is a step in that direction.

There has been much speculation on what is fueling today’s polarization. Could the culprit be social media, partisanship, the social isolation of the pandemic, or a lack of leaders providing living examples of civility and tolerance? A combination of all these things?

Whatever the cause, our fractured political discourse has real consequences. The more divided we are, the less likely we are able to act together on behalf of our shared interests.

The more susceptible we are to the will of elites and the rule of autocrats. The more blind we are to a basic fact of human existence: we exist in relationship to one another and share a common fate. In turn, the less likely we are able to work together towards the common dream of building a world where everyone can thrive and experience prosperity regardless of their race, income, gender, class, education, or ability.

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