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Political Pen Pals

Practical educational and civic transformation.

Imagine…

Millions of voters all across the country start contacting friends and colleagues in the opposing party or with different political beliefs to have a series of one-on-one “civic conversations” about their shared values, local and national opportunities to join forces for our shared future, and discussion about where we get our information and news from so we can eventually find a more informed basis for choosing our political leaders and understanding our policy choices.

Perhaps even more important given the political bubbles that many Americans live in, millions of voters start systematically reaching out to engage voters who they DON’T know. Using a combination of postcards, text messages and phone calls, each volunteer would take responsibility for contacting, say, 20 voters from the opposing party.  A phone conversation might go like this:

“Hi, my name is Tom and I’m a Democrat, but I believe that Americans have to find a way to heal our political divisions and I’d like to have a conversation with you about your perspective on how we move forward as a country and see if we can find some common ground.  Would you have maybe 10 minutes now and then if you feel comfortable, we could set up a time to talk again in a week or two?”

I don’t have a specific agenda.  I want to understand your position and I hope you’ll try to understand mine. 

I have two kids and I want them to have a good future. [Each volunteer should speak from their heart about what motivates them.]  I’m one of many volunteers trying to have similar conversations. I believe if millions of us can have these conversations, the odds of our country coming through this decade stronger is great.  If we remain this divided, I’m scared that something terrible will happen. It could be terrorism, climate change, economic collapse or some combination of these or other events.”

They might send a postcard to recruit voters that looks like this:

Long-term:  Strengthening our civic fabric, social capital, and sense of collective efficacy and trust.  At a deeper level and for the ongoing success of our federal government and American democracy, citizens need to feel a greater sense of “civic friendship.”[1]  We need to trigger that feeling of being part of the same community, of civic fellowship and interdependence, of having a shared future. As Martin Luther King put it, “We must learn to live [and work] together as brothers [and sisters] or we shall perish together as fools.”  This approach will teach a growing number of people the skills they need to connect with people across class, race, and ideology to build those civic friendships and sense of interdependence.

Details

Voter rolls for each state are publicly available, sometimes but not always for a small fee.  Imagine that voters all across the country can go to a website to get a list of voters from the opposing party that they will contact.

The proposed process would include phone calls, text messages, emails and hand-written postcards or letters:

  • If we know the undecided voter’s cell phone number, we start by sending a text message like the one in the below.
  • Try to call. If you don’t reach the person, leave a voice message.
  • Follow-up:  If you do reach the person, try to get their email so you can follow up or, alternatively, follow up by text message or mailed note.

[1] See, e.g., Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen, Turning Strangers into Political Friends (Dec. 2004). http://inthesetimes.com/article/1777/turning_strangers_into_political_friends  “When distrust of one’s fellow citizens pervades democratic relations, it paralyzes democracy; it means that citizens no longer think it sensible, or feel secure enough, to place their fates in the hands of democratic strangers. Citizens’ distrust not of government but of each other leads the way to democratic disintegration…”

How?  Be Patient, Kind, and Gentle – but Persistent and Creative

It will take time and persistence to find common ground. Adam Grant talks about the importance of listening and asking “How” questions to help your conversation partner think through the nuances of their concerns and the solutions that they gravitate toward.