Here’s a daunting thought: You may be the only person in your party or movement that another person knows. Therefore, you bear the responsiblity of representing that cause honestly, winsomely and effectively to that person.
When I ran for office, I decided that I would campaign door-to-door in places where my party was weak. I did this against the advice of seasoned veterans, who told me that we were at a 4-to-1 registration disadvantage in the city, and so I should concentrate on the suburbs where we were strong. After all, they said, your job isn’t to change minds, but to increase voter turnout among those who already agree with you. I knocked on a lot of doors in the suburbs, but I also spent a lot of time in the inner city.
One particular encounter sticks in my mind. Late in the day, I met a man sitting on the front step of his store. It was a kind of catchall store where he sold a wide variety of odds and ends. He told me that he got his start selling socks out of the trunk of his car. As we talked, the sun went down. Near the end of our encounter he told me that he had never met — or at least, never knowingly had a conversation with — someone from my party.
That stunned me.
Since then, I’ve tried to convince members of my own party that we should spend more time in the inner city, and not just during election seasons. I say this because I’ve become convinced that most people haven’t rejected my views. They’ve never really heard them from a person who believes as I do. All they know is what they hear in their own little circle of associates, and their favorite media sources. Like attracts like, and we all tend to huddle up with people who reinforce what we already believe. Social media algorithms reinforce this human tendency, and feed us a steady stream of stuff that reinforces our existing biases. As a consequence, most so-called opponents of my ideas know only a caricature of them. Folks focus on the foibles of personalities, rather than the ideas that animate our movement.
I respectfully suggest that face-to-face contact with a gracious, respectful, happy person from “the other side” can completely change a person’s perception of an entire party.
For that man sitting on his store step in inner-city Allentown, Pennsylvania, Scott Ott was the party. I was the only living, breathing examplar of its ideas and values he had ever really met. During that election cycle, I met many people in similar neighborhoods who told me that no representative of my party had ever come to their door.
I am the party. You are the movement.
There’s a Christian song that says, “You’re the only Jesus some will ever see.” It’s the same idea.
No Hablo Español, pero…
As a candidate, I went to the publisher of a local Spanish-language newspaper, and spent some time talking with him, and explaining why I sought the elected office. He decided to host a fundraiser for me at an inner-city restaurant he owned. Nearly all of his friends were first-generation immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. As far as I know, none of them were registered to vote in my party.
As people arrived that night, I mingled among them, shaking hands, asking about their work and their families. When we settled down to eat, the restaurant owner introduced me, and I got up to speak. I don’t speak Spanish, but I did take three years of it in high school, decades ago. Shortly before my speech, I wrote down some introductory remarks on my smartphone, and used a translation app to turn them into Spanish. When I stood to speak, I read from my phone for about five minutes in Spanish. Apparently they understood me. After I got done speaking, several attendees stood up and delivered warm endorsements of me and of my candidacy. People in the room that night immediately gave money to my campaign.
I don’t know if they ultimately voted for me, but the lesson of this encounter is the impact that one person — me or you — can have as a representative of our cause. Most of the folks that night had never been invited to a fundraiser for someone from my party, and had never heard what we believe in a way that connected with their hearts and minds. I showed respect to them by speaking with them in their mother tongue for a little while, and the barriers between us fell.
I’m also aware that every time I take a message into so-called “hostile territory” I shape people’s views about my entire belief system, whether political or theological. They don’t just judge me, they judge my cause by me.
You are the movement. You are the party. You are the cause. You’re the only Jesus some will ever see.
You may have heard something like this from your parents. “When you’re away from home, you represent this family. Your words or actions can bring honor or shame upon us.”
This may seem like a heavy burden. It may seem unfair. But life isn’t fair. It is what it is, and people will judge the macro based on the micro. They will indict a movement based on one bad apple who claims to represent it.
During my brief stint in politics, I sometimes lamented that the party has no membership requirements. You just sign up, and you’re one of us. You don’t have to pass an entrance exam, a background check, or a character review. You don’t have to affirm the party’s principles, nor pay dues. Sign the card, and you can show up at every meeting, run your mouth, create division and dissension, and then go out and create a bad name for the party. We don’t even know if you voted for members of our party, and you can file as a candidate for office and tell everyone that you’re one of us. A person is a Republican, or Democrat, or Libertarian because she says she is. And other people will judge the entire party based on the attitude and actions of that person who claims allegiance to that party.
This I mention to increase the burden of responsiblity on you and me. It’s not just that you represent the party to people who have had no contact with it. It’s worse. You represent the party to people who have already had a bad experience with some other nominal member of it.
In these cases, it would be better for you if you were the only one they’d ever met. As it stands, they still have a sour taste in their mouth from their last encounter with “one of you people.”
Your demeanor, your words and your behavior face a steep climb to overcome the damage done by the last one. You might find yourself apologizing for someone else’s sins. Like it or not, you are attached to that unknown ruffian. He might have been a blowhard bore who spouted his opinions as if they were official party doctrine, as if God had handed them to him on stone tablets on the mountaintop. You might even arrive in the wake of a politician who did something reprehensible in office, or in some other dark place. That villain stained the cause, and your job is to serve as a personal detergent.
In these situations, recall the physician’s oath: First, do no harm.
Sometimes you cannot correct the problems caused by another. The best you can hope is to show that there are others in your party who don’t talk, think or act like that. Even if you can’t fix the mess he made, you can be a positive example of what an adherent to your beliefs should be.
Again, this is a heavy burden, and it’s unfair that you should have to bear it. But human nature being what it is, you must. Frankly, we do well to simply avoid creating a mess that someone else has to clean up.
Sometimes we can get caught up in lamenting everything that’s wrong with our party, movement or cause. That can be useful if it leads to reform. Yet, I’ve found that I have enough work simply reforming myself.
If you and I work on being good representatives of the views we espouse, then perhaps our tribe will multiply and more people will get to experience the worldview which has captured our hearts.
When they see us, they’ll see our cause, and they’ll want to join.