Dispatch From The Dispossessed: Listening Post #1

This article appeared in an abbreviated form on the op-ed page of The Philadelphia Inquirer on November 4, 2008, under the title "Views of Unsought Voters."

Despite all of the feverish pre-election conversation and analysis, there is a group of keenly-interested voters whose opinions have been neither sought nor documented. We are deluged with exhaustive and exhausting data about Wall Street vs. Main Street, Red states vs. Blue states. But no polls and few commentators have explored the views of the residents of the State of Poverty, even though those living within its confines not only have a lot to say, but a great deal to teach us about what it means to be a conscientious voter.

Most Wednesdays, I spend time listening to the women and men who flock to a lively corner of Kensington anchored by a soup kitchen, a free clinic, and an AA/NA center. A community of people living on the social margins congregates here, and I simply listen to their stories, opinions, jokes, joys, and sorrows. For the past few weeks, there have been lively conversations about the upcoming Presidential election. I have been struck as much by the rationales behind people’s voting preferences as by their actual choices. All of us could learn a thing or two about election year decision making from folks like these who have suffered the very worst that life can offer, and somehow survived with enough stamina and insight to care deeply about this election.

First of all, not a single person thought that the outcome of the election would impact or benefit him or her directly. Not one. Yet most of those interviewed hold thoughtful preferences, arrived at by looking at what would benefit not themselves, but others. Some spoke of the needs of friends, family members, various people they know and care about. Many spoke about ‘everyone’ and how their candidate of choice would benefit ‘everybody’. These voters are not voting self interest. They are voting the Common Good.

A sampling:

Carlos Hernandez listened to the debates, and feels most positively about Barack Obama. He was disappointed, though, that “I didn’t hear anything about immigration.” Carlos is Puerto Rican and has no immigration issues himself. But he is concerned for undocumented Mexicans and others he knows who “work harder than me, but aren’t treated well. They come to work, they’re good people, I want them to get some help.” Carlos explains his concern for others over his own needs with a smile of surprise: “Sharing is what you do,” he says.

Anna Mae Clancy wants more than a Head of State; she wants a Heart of State. Her vote will go to Obama because “”He’s for everybody. He knows what poverty is all about. He understands it, and he’ll fight for everyone, do the best job he can---from his heart. His slogan says enough: Change We Can Believe In. I believe in it.”

Jobs and wages are at the center of Lee’s decision for Obama.“I can only make the same wage I made 30 years ago,” he reports. I made $5.25 an hour, and that’s all I can make now. I want someone who will bring back manufacturing jobs to Pennsylvania, get us out of the war, spend money to help the poor.”

Sam is undecided. He is weighing his choices in light of a book he recently finished reading on the life of the Emperor Claudius. The book has made him think carefully about what qualities he wants in the next president. “A leader needs to be ready to educate, to lead the people out of all the problems.” Sam is leaning toward Obama because of his national security positions, and because he is respected by people all over the world. “The US is a mixture of people from all over. So it’s good to have a president who is versatile. (Obama) is a ‘We the People’ person; he represents everyone.” But Sam also has deep respect for John McCain and his service to the country. “I would never put McCain down.. I haven’t decided yet, but I just hope everyone chooses wisely.”

Garland sees Obama as “the first person who is guaranteed to help the homeless. Because he came from nothing, and when you come from nothing, you’ve got no choice but to help other people.”

Mark Jamison is confident in an Obama victory that will affect “every corner of the world. Change isn’t coming; it’s already taking place; just hold on and get ready for the ride. I don’t see him as a ‘he’. I see him as a ‘we’, because he represents the people, all of us.” Mark believes that an Obama administration will have some intangible, but extremely important consequences: a higher level of trust, (“because we know we’ll have someone in government who really speaks for the people.”) a re-ordering of priorities and greater involvement of average citizens “in things they were silent about, things affecting our neighborhoods, like violence.” This involvement will spring directly “from an increased sense of worth,” a new hopefulness in people who “have been stripped, deep down.”

Not everyone expresses clarity about the issues: TR sheepishly confesses that he’s not voting. “I struggle so hard, and it doesn’t matter who’s in office. It doesn’t make a difference in my life. Maybe if I thought it did, I would vote.” Hector and friend are both voting for “that white guy, what’s his name?” because he is accustomed to power and “will know what to do with it.” Others are apathetic or express confusion over who will “get healthcare for everybody,” or “end the war in Iraq,” so that money spent on war will be spent “on help for people who are poor.”

But the overwhelming majority of these energetic and impassioned conversations were characterized by similar themes: a tolerance for different viewpoints, unwillingness to vilify either candidate, a generosity of spirit toward both “good men’, but above all, a selfless undercurrent of empathy and compassion resulting in a decision for whichever candidate is believed to hold the greatest promise for the most people, and especially, for those who are poor and vulnerable.

I wonder what our nation and world would be like if all of us shared this empathic perspective, voting not out of narrow self interest, but out of a shared sense of a common destiny, an inseparable unity, a sure knowledge that We are One. If any of us are hungry, we all suffer. If some of us lack healthcare, the entire Body is weakened. We are all on this American journey together, and as recent economic events demonstrate so powerfully, we sink or swim together.

I invite all of us to follow the lead of voters like these who are living on the edge in Kensington. The folks who hang out at K and Hagert have varied histories, but all have experienced life in its harshest forms. They are a resilient bunch, bound by ties both of vulnerability and toughness. And they know, “deep in their bones’, as one man told me, that what is most important is a president who represents all of us, sees all of us as worthy of care, understands that the plight of the most vulnerable of us is inextricably bound to the well-being and health of us all.

On November 4th, my hope is that each of us will adopt this viewpoint. So, dig deep, and vote our common future. Vote what benefits the most of us. Vote your heart. Vote the Common Good.

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