Thursday, May 19, 2005

Knocking on doors "with" Chip Berlet Or Organizing Not Labeling

Chip Berlet, one of the best progressive analysts of the right from his position with Political Research Associates, started his blog with very provocative idea that progressives are wrong to use or overuse terms like "radical religious right" or "religious political extremists." He says that most conservative evangelical Christians do not want a theocracy, in fact, are opposed to the legislative agenda of the Christian right.

Let's role-play. So here I am knocking on a door in Emporia, Kansas, and when the door opens I lead with "We have to stop the religious political extremists!" What’s my next line? (That’s assuming my nose wasn't broken when the door was slammed in my face). Unless the person already agrees with me, there is no constructive next line.
It's easy for me to get into Berlet's thought experiment. Back in the Reagan years I worked in SANE/FREEZE's door-to-door canvass. And, not only do I know people in Emporia. I grew up in Winfield and have lived in Wichita for about the last ten years or so.

Now in some ways, canvassing is more like fund-raising for a cause organization, rather than being part of electoral or union organizing drive. That is you can raise your quota or meet your organizational fund raising goal by finding a few people who agree with you and extracting the maximum from them.

Nonetheless, I discovered that how you approach people can make all the difference in how they react. I'd like to share that because I think it has some relevance to Berlet's case.

In the Washington, D.C. area, where I spent most of my canvassing time, there were lots of military and DOD employees. Frequently, my qualifying question ("I'm on the annual fundraising and membership drive for SANE/FREEZE. We're working to end the nuclear arms race on both sides through a comprehensive, verifiable test ban treaty.") was met with the response "I'm in the military..."

At first, I took that to be a no. But when you are talking to 40 households a night, five nights a week, it can get boring, always reacting in the same way. So I experimented and tried something different.

I discovered that if I responded to "I'm in the military," with "Great, then you know better than anyone that building more and more nuclear weapons doesn't really increase our national security..." I found a fair level of support from those folks.

I came to understand that often the comment "I'm in the military" wasn't a slamming of the door in my face, rather it was a question. Sort of "are you one of those crazy unilateral disarmers who thinks I'm a war criminal?"

Daniel Yankelovich did a major study of public attitudes towards the nuclear arms race and found four major clusters. I simplified and popularized these as not only the familiar hawks and doves, but the less familiar ostriches and owls for training our canvassers nationwide. We even used the four types for role-playing to improve our canvassing raps.

The groups, and this is reconstructing from memory, could be understood as falling along two dimensions. Fear of nuclear war and and fear of the Soviet Union. Hawks (-,+); doves (+,-); owls (-.-); and ostriches (+,+). The importance of two dimensions is that on issues around the nuclear arms race it was important to respond to the concerns of two very different "middle" groups. "Owls," who tended to be well-educated and fairly affluent, were moderates who need to know that arms control proposals were reasonable and bi-lateral and backed by responsible experts. They weren't as concerned about the dangers of the nuclear arms as doves and were far less likely to support unilateral American initiatives to end the arms race. On the other hand, the owls didn't have the extreme anti-Soviet paranoia of the hawks.

The "ostriches," to use an old shorthand that is a considerable oversimplification, were Reagan Democrats. They were the group most likely to believe that nuclear war was a real, imminent threat and on some questions were more anti-Communist than even the hawks. They were simultaneously the most frightened of nuclear war and the most apathetic or pessimistic about the possibility of putting the nuclear genie in the bottle. With these folks, the best approach was to stress the size of the nuclear arsenals, the likelihood of nuclear war unless changes were made. And it didn't hurt to bash the Soviets as well as the United States.

The relevance of this long recounting this long personal history is not merely to agree with Berlet's point about finding common ground. It is also to point to what I think is a parallel for progressives today: the importance of using a multi-dimensional mental map in building alliances and framing issues.

Back in the aftermath of the November election, I pointed to some interesting comments by political scientist Russel Arben Fox, which are still relevant.
One of the paths...[is] a "soft libertarianism" which will be able to pull in the "South Park Republicans" and other small government-types that sympathize with what might be called social liberalism.... The other path is mine: a "communalist-socialist" left that accepts--even embraces--the religiousity of the rural South and Midwest so as to bring the working class back around to (or at least, remove moral barriers from them giving a good listen to) egalitarian politics.
(You can find Fox's comments here.)

So if I was knocking on doors with Chip Berlet in Emporia, I think I might say something along these lines" "Hi, we're with XYZ which is a bunch of people from churches, unions and community groups who have come together to make this a better town, state, and country for everyone. Right now we're asking people to help us protect social security...."

"We think it's a moral issue when people work 40 hours a week and can't support a family...."

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