Personal Voices: Talking to Bush Voters
Let's face it. Many progressives live in their own little bubble. It's only inevitable in a nation that has become geographically divided along ideological lines, as people increasingly choose to live in communities that favor their politics.
"The fastest-growing kind of segregation in the United States isn't racial. It is the segregation between Republicans and Democrats," observed Bill Bishop in the American Statesman. So it's no wonder that as a journalist living in San Francisco, I rarely met people who are leaning toward or support George Bush. I had no idea why any reasonable person could support him. What could they possibly think he's done to improve their lives over the past four years?
To find answers to those questions – as a concerned citizen, not as a journalist – I joined ReDefeat Bush, a group that meets nightly around the country and calls women in swing states to find out if they're registered to vote and willing to vote for John Kerry. On average, volunteers call 20 women per hour and register one or two new voters. Each of us also manages to change a few minds over the course of the evening. And those numbers add up when there are large numbers of us making the calls.
I quickly found myself having 10-20 minute conversations with women who are either undecided or are supporting Bush. They all had similar opinions about John Kerry.
"He isn't tough enough to fight terrorism," says Julie, a Bush supporter from Portland, Ore. "If Kerry were in office, Saddam Hussein would still be in power."
The male volunteers for our organization usually respond to such statements by telling the women that they are just plain wrong.
"But Saddam wasn't involved in 9/11!" yells one guy in outrage. Her comeback: Click.
Getting all self-righteous was obviously not the way to go.
I soon found a more effective, less presumptuous approach: Ask them what they think instead of telling them what to think.
"Do you think Saddam was connected to 9/11?" I ask Julie.
"Not anymore, but he's a horrible man and we're there, so let's finish the job," she replies. We spend the next 10 minutes talking about poor security in Iraq, the reasons why women in Iraq and Afghanistan are afraid to leave their homes, and what it must feel like to live in an occupied country. By the end of the conversation, she wonders out loud why the Bush administration is still bombing innocent Iraqis and why no one is talking about Afghanistan.
Julie usually gets most of her information from Fox, but is open to other sources of information, like the first presidential debate. It changed her mind about Bush.
"I wanted to believe him, but he kept repeating the same things," she says. "He was so uncomfortable."
Julie is now leaning towards Kerry.
Later in the same evening, I talk to Ursula, an 80-year-old life-long Republican who lives in Eugene, Ore.
"Why are you a Republican?" I ask.
"Because my family is Republican and Republicans are for the common man," she says. When I ask her what she thinks Bush has done for the common man, she says he has passed a tax cut for the middle and lower class.
I respond by offering her the following facts. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the poorest 20 percent of workers, who earn on average $16,600 annually, will get a tax break of $250 this year, which is less than two percent of their income. That amounts to about 68 cents a day. By comparison, the richest one percent, with average incomes topping $1.1 million, will receive $78,460 in tax cuts this year. That is nearly seven percent of their income. Kerry, in contrast, has promised to roll back tax cuts for families making $200,000 and spend the savings on healthcare and education.
Ursula also commends Bush for taking care of the military. I counter by pointing out that Bush's 2005 budget calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims. The VA receives 60,000-70,000 claims a day from soldiers who've experienced physical injuries and mental problems in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ursula hasn't heard about the budget cut. And she is furious when I tell her that soldiers stationed in Iraq have been forced to buy their own body armor.
We go on to talk about teachers who have to pay for their own school supplies, the high price of prescription drugs, and the privatization of social security.
Before we hang up, Ursula tells me she'll have to think about our conversation and talk to her best friend about it.
"For the first time in my life, I might have to cross party lines," she says ruefully.
The information I shared with people like Julie and Ursula doesn't take long to find online: America has lost 1.6 million private sector jobs and 2.7 million manufacturing jobs under Bush, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Family income has declined $1,535 under Bush, according to the Census Bureau. College tuition at four-year public universities has increased by $1,207, according to the College Board.
Just sharing those few key pieces of information with the women I called often got them fired up, and in some cases, downright angry.
Progressives often assume that by now all Americans should know Iraq is a catastrophic mess; there's no connection between 9/11 and Iraq; and weapons of mass destruction have not been found. The reality, however, is that most Americans get their news from television – in other words, superficial coverage primarily driven by sound bytes.
Mary from Reno, Nev., simply doesn't have the time to read blogs, web sites or multiple newspapers. She is a single mom struggling to raise three kids from three different fathers.
I met Mary on a recent "get out the vote" bus trip to Reno. She filled out a voter registration form, but didn't know which party to check.
"I'm leaning towards Bush, but don't feel like I have enough information to make an informed decision," she says.
I ask her if it is safe to assume to that birth control is an important issue to her.
"Yeah!" she agrees vigorously.
I tell her about laws being passed at the state level that protect pharmacists who refuse to dispense the pill for moral reasons. So-called "Conscientious Objection Bills" have passed in Arkansas and South Dakota. Ten other states – Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin – are considering similar legislation. I point out that these laws will have an easier time passing under a Bush administration, which supports a pro-abstinence agenda.
While Mary is on the fence about abortion, she believes women should at least have access to the information needed to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Bush's new budget provides $136 million in additional funding for "Just Say No," abstinence-only sex education, bringing the federal total to over $250 million a year.
I tell her that Kerry favors sex education, and received a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood.
At the end of our conversation, Mary decides to register as an independent. And while she still thinks Kerry isn't "tough enough" to fight the terrorists, she plans to vote for him because he supports birth control and sex education.
Not every interaction was as successful. A few Bush supporters hung up at the very mention of the word 'Democrat,' while others simply said, "You can't change my mind."
Some Republicans, however, were willing to talk. I reached Mark in Portland, Oregon after dialing the wrong number. When I asked him if he was interested in voting Democrat, he replied, "No, I'm a hardcore Republican and very much in favor of the war; in fact, I'm in favor of World War III."
When we reach people who have made up their minds, we usually end the conversation, but I had to tell Mark that I was uncomfortable talking to someone who supports killing innocent people.
"War isn't easy, but it's our only option," he responds.
As we talk about the war and Republican values, his position gradually grows more moderate. He concedes that right wing fundamentalists have hijacked the Republican party, but is hopeful it will move back to the center in another four years. Before we say goodbye, Mark thanks me for calling and says while he doesn't agree with me, he hopes ReDefeat Bush keeps up the good work.
I was at a loss for words. I wanted to hang up on Mark, but he was willing to listen and seemed sincere in his desire for the left and the right to engage in respectful conversations on a regular basis.
Perhaps if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zones, progressives may find that not all Bush supporters want to control women's bodies or prescribe to the "survival of the fittest" philosophy. More importantly, Republicans would learn that there is no such thing as a "wild-eyed liberal" eager to tell them how to live.
As for undecided voters, I assumed they were out of touch with reality. I was wrong. Based on the conversations I had, they either don't have access to substantial information or are being misled by the news they read – like most of the women I reached who truly believed that Afghan and Iraqi women are being liberated.
Preaching to the choir is necessary to maintain one's sanity, but reaching out to people who don't necessarily share our values is even more important. It's right wing extremists who win when we assume all undecided voters and Bush supporters are unreasonable, bigoted, or beyond appeal. To prevail, progressives must bridge the divide rather than affirm it.
If we start a dialogue, it will be the first step toward creating a more tolerant and inclusive nation. What greater victory can a progressive hope for?