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Canvassing for Bernie in Suburbia

Knocking on doors is a key part of a grassroots campaign, and can be extremely satisfying work for those involved. But as more gates and security systems transform the fabric of American cities, voters are increasingly out of reach.

Yard signs for Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg are posted in front of an abandoned business on February 5, 2020 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Justin Sullivan / Getty

It is the day before the New Hampshire primary. A retired wedding photographer from Boston and I are canvassing for Bernie Sanders in a small rural town a short drive from Concord. It is not going well.

We have knocked on sixty-seven out of the sixty-eight doors on our allocated “turf” and thus far only five people have answered. One was a very elderly man with a jagged hole in his wooden front door who told us that he had never voted and never would. One was a man with no shirt and camo slacks who yelled abuse, sending me scuttling back to the car, thankful that he was speaking with his mouth, rather than a gun. One was a seventeen-year-old woman, too young to vote. One was a woman who had already voted via post for Pete Buttigieg. One was a Jehovah’s Witness, who told us his battle lay in a different kingdom.

It has taken us more than three hours to locate and knock on all these doors. The town was an unincorporated sprawl that hugs the side of a steep, wooded hill. McMansions with long, winding, unplowed driveways and icy stone steps are interspersed with bleak shacks ringed with rusty farm equipment. Over the last two days it has snowed, rained, and then snowed again and the ground is a patchwork of solid ice and muddy slush. Giant dogs hurl themselves at locked doors with sickening thuds. I diligently log each nonanswer using the canvassing app on my water-logged phone.

The sixty-eighth — our last — door was a modest, two-story house at the bottom of the hill, set back from the town’s main road and overlooking the dilapidated civic center that would soon serve as the town’s polling station. We shuffled down the icy driveway, practiced now at not falling over, and knocked on the door. A large dog exploded into life, barking at us through the living room window, but with no sign of human contact, we balanced a leaflet with Bernie’s grinning face on the doorknob (it’s a federal offense to post political material through mail slots).

We were trekking back to the car, ready to admit defeat and return to the field office when a man in his thirties came barrelling out the door, furious that we had woken his dog. My canvassing partner, also a dog owner, struck up a technical and not very convincing argument with the man about the sleep patterns and diurnal cycles of dogs. I interrupted to ask him who he was voting for.

He was a registered independent who hated Trump, was angry about climate change, and though vaguely interested in Bernie, was leaning toward not voting. We talked for twenty minutes about health care, the environment, and the economy. I gestured repeatedly to the polling station on the other side of the road. I laid out the reasons why Bernie was best placed to beat Trump, and after twenty minutes I got that precious, rare thing: a commitment to vote for Bernie. We shuffled back to the car, and as soon as the doors were closed we were shouting with joy, half high-fiving, half embracing.

A Public Sphere

Canvassing can be frustrating, difficult work. It requires engaging with a shattered, hostile, and depoliticized world on its own terms. But if it goes well it can also be a source of collective joy.

After an afternoon spent canvassing, the world begins to look different. It presents itself as an immense accumulation of doors. Doors with broken doorbells. Doors that are sealed away beyond the lobbies of apartment buildings. Doors with motion-sensitive security lights. Doors without numbers. Doors beyond enclosed porches where entering feels uncomfortably intimate. Sad and lonely doors on houses where the blinds are closed in the middle of the day. Joyous, welcoming doors fronted by accumulated layers of Halloween and Christmas detritus with cute notes and sometimes a basket of candy for delivery workers.

Canvassing is a reminder of the incredible diversity of the electorate, and during my time canvassing in New Hampshire and Virginia, I have met all types of voters: those who love the policies of both Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg; those who are supporting Amy Klobuchar because they think she has the best record on climate change. I met families of five where each family member was supporting a different candidate. I met a Democratic Socialist of America member in New Hampshire at 10 AM on election day who had voted for Pete Buttigieg an hour earlier and was already filled with remorse. He invited me into his home to apologize to me profusely.

The work of a canvasser is to fulfill the endlessly deferred promise of mass politics. It is to wield the anonymous multitude of individuals secreted away in suburbs, remote farmhouses, and tall apartment buildings into a coherent block of support. It is to explore and conquer the built environment. It is to try and make a public where once there were strangers. To canvass, however, is also to realize that American urban space is increasingly organized in ways that make this task very difficult.

The idea that each individual adult will be endowed with a single vote that they will exercise in private after a process of internal deliberation and reflection is a product of the nineteenth century. In Britain, this view of politics came to displace a cruder and more face-to-face politics of “representation,” in which a tiny propertied electorate would vote in public, beholden to a mob of their neighbors. “Canvassing” in eighteenth-century Britain mostly involved buying off this mob with booze and other treats.

Debates over who was and who wasn’t rational enough to exercise the vote raged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as voting became the primary means of political participation and was circumscribed along lines of race and gender. In most of Europe and the United States, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the birth of something beginning to resemble a mass electorate, with bureaucratized political parties and sophisticated, nationally coordinated political campaigns. This electorate was still male of course, and, in the United States, increasingly white, following the violent suppression of black voters after the partial gains of the Civil War. As the electorate expanded, canvassing became about identifying, targeting, and mobilizing bases of support.

Out of Reach

This modern way of doing politics was forged in cities that look very different to our own. To canvass is to try to retrofit a political subject born in a world of street cars, vast factories, public squares, and print media into a world of tract suburbia, Facebook groups, and Craigslist sublets. To canvass is to maintain some level of faith in a democratic public sphere that is accessible in urban space. But it is getting harder and harder to suspend this disbelief.

More and more people are living out of reach of canvassers. Take, for example, gated communities. More than eleven million Americans live on streets behind gates, walled off from the public sphere of politics. These developments are particularly common in cities like Los Angeles, which will be a major battleground on Super Tuesday. Millions more live in secured apartment buildings with porters and key-fob entry systems.

Instead of gates, many houses have more subtle and sophisticated technologies for isolating themselves from the democratic public sphere. The most pernicious of these is the Ring branded doorbells, a security system acquired by Amazon in 2018 that is prevalent in wealthy suburban neighborhoods. The doorbells take the form of sleek, menacing boxes fitted with cameras that emit a delicate blue light when activated. The doorbell beams footage of you to an app where the homeowner, at work or secluded in the bowels of their home, can decide whether or not to answer.

Canvassing also presupposes that people live at the same address for years on end. It is very common to find that the residents of a house bear no resemblance to the people on your list. To canvass in a dense modern city is to uncover a transient and fleeting world where houses are split into multiple apartments. It is not unheard of to be greeted by bemused Airbnb customers. People like myself and most of the people I know, who have churned through more than a dozen different banking addresses since leaving college, are not easily canvassed. The same precarity that makes it difficult for many young people, poor people, or migrants to secure residential stability also makes it difficult to be a diligent political subject.

As the cities we live in change, public spaces erode and security systems proliferate. In these conditions, it becomes harder and harder to conjure a political community into being. The political promise of candidates on the Left such as Bernie Sanders needs to be underwritten by massive social movements, but the fabric of the twenty-first-century American city makes this more and more difficult.

Beyond the reach of canvassers, a different public sphere exists, one that was unimaginable when mass politics first took shape. Increasingly, people form their political opinions alone, while watching Michael Bloomberg ads on television or scrolling past Trump ads on Facebook. With America’s already fragile democratic public sphere in retreat, people form their political opinions in mysterious and secretive spaces that can be bought by billionaires or manipulated by shadowy forces. It is this indeterminacy that breeds fears of foreign interference in elections.

Canvassing, however limited in effect, is a means of reimagining the look and feel of democracy. It’s organized around people rather than with money. It is an expression of solidarity and possibility, one way of demonstrating the kind of world that we might want to see from a left-wing presidency. For those of us that are able, we should all be canvassing while we still can.