“Luxury apartments,” said the sign. But the chipped paint and graying wood beneath those words indicated something different–a worn neighborhood of transients able to hold onto their apartments only as long as they could hold onto their jobs.
These, we were told, were the “undecideds,” the people who 10 days before the historic presidential election had yet to make up their minds despite the multi-million-dollar barrage of advertising, the horse-race headlines, and the droning of the pundits.
On Saturday, my husband and I found ourselves padding through the pine needles in this sprawling New Hampshire subdivision. We had crossed state lines to help get out the vote–along with a gang of other folks, mostly middle-aged and up, including a 75-year-old grandmother who had hitched a ride with us from Massachusetts. This was the first time, she said, that she had ever done anything like this: gone door-to-door to engage strangers on a subject about which she was passionate. But dressed in running shoes and armed with a warm smile, she was ready. And so was the crowd of canvassers–one on crutches, one with a cane–who gathered for a pep talk at party headquarters before hitting the streets with their packets of maps, names, and flyers.
“We’ve got a lot of interest in democracy today which is really exciting,” shouted a young field organizer as he stood on a chair and scanned our faces. He was hoarse, but still ebullient after all these months of campaigning. He’s right, I thought, following his eyes across the crowd. This is exciting, all of us here, able to speak our minds and express our hopes—without fear.
In so many of the countries in which Oxfam works that’s not the case. Repression, and the wariness it breeds, silences the voice of independence. We’re advised to be guarded in our phone conversations with colleagues in some foreign offices: The lines could be tapped. Don’t discuss your political thoughts in taxi cabs, we’re instructed: The driver might be an informant. And consider carefully before you print the names of the people you interview: The government could retaliate against them.
In the New Hampshire subdivision, one resident warned that the managers of the complex had little toleration for solicitors. You’ll get kicked out, she said. But no one bothered us. In fact, we found just the opposite: In this tired-looking place, where rental vans were moving households in and hauling others out, the undecideds stopped in the busyness of their Saturday morning—and listened. One in her stocking feet, another toting tools, a third ducking out to the laundromat with a load of dirty clothes—all of them paused, and then prodded and pushed, digging into policy issues, weighing our opinions against their own. They may have been undecided, but they were thoughtful and questioning, and had the right to be so in public.
Thinking about it now, it was a great day for democracy.