During my senior year of high school, I campaigned for a Democratic candidate running for Manhattan District Attorney. The race, already important in and of itself, took on an added weight because of the lawsuit against former President Donald Trump. During his 2016 election campaign, Trump had falsified business records in order to conceal damning information about his business conduct and protect his public image ahead of the election. Many Manhattan voters were seeking assurance that the new district attorney would continue the prosecution against him. Given the stakes of the election, I quickly knew that I wanted to be involved.
When one of my close high school friends shared with me that she was spending her weekends campaigning for a specific candidate whose platform she felt passionately about, I was intrigued. That night, I spent hours on my computer researching the candidate and reading through her proposed policies. By the next morning, my eyes fatigued from staring at a screen, I had decided that I wanted to sign up to be a youth ambassador for the campaign; not only would I broadly campaign for the candidate, but I would attempt to recruit others my age to support her cause and work on increasing the overall voter turnout in Manhattan.
On the first day I worked for the campaign, I rode the subway far uptown and watched familiar stations turn into unfamiliar ones. I realized that I was going to be campaigning in an area of the city that I had never even walked the streets of before. Living in Manhattan was strange that way — the whole island is only about 13 miles long, but my life was confined to certain neighborhoods and areas of the city; bustling Union Square where I went to school, and the quieter, more touristy West Village where my apartment was located. Hurtling along in a subway from neighborhood to neighborhood, I didn’t explore the areas in between them. As I sat nervously on the subway that first day, I worried about my lack of familiarity with these new places.
Emerging from the grimy subway station into the bright, springtime light, I quickly noticed that this area of the city was economically disadvantaged. Many storefronts were permanently closed, and people, far more than I had observed in other areas of the city, were approaching strangers with outstretched hands and the words “anything will help.” Coming in with the privilege of a wealthier upbringing, I was suddenly very worried about how I would be able to even pretend to relate to the hardships of these potential voters or attempt to convince them to give our campaign their vote. Sharing my ideas felt insensitive.
As I found the group of youth ambassadors outside of the subway station, it was clear that others seemed to feel this looming discomfort as well. People who were usually chatty stood still and surveyed the surrounding neighborhood with expressions of concern. A student leader eventually cleared her throat and straightened up, grabbing the pencil from behind her ear and looking down at her clipboard. She welcomed us to the campaign and explained that we would split into smaller groups in order to door-knock.
Door-knocking was a campaign method that, in theory, offered a way to engage with voters while they interacted from the comfort of their own homes. Instead of stopping people on the street as they hurried from work to home or from the gym to meet friends, campaign workers could engage with potential voters when they didn’t have somewhere urgent to be. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that door-knocking was not really as simple as the student leader had made it seem.
As my group approached our first building, someone said that we were going to have to sneak in. I exchanged horrified looks with some of the other new students. Noticing our alarm, the girl explained that many of these buildings had anti-soliciting rules and although that made our job much more complicated, it would be worth the risk when our candidate won. I stared at her with wide eyes, not really agreeing with this argument but also not really having the courage to argue with someone I would have to work with over the next months.
It soon became clear that “sneaking in” to buildings was not an easy process and really just meant standing awkwardly outside of a building for half an hour waiting for a resident to come out or go in so that we could jam our feet in the door as it was closing. At other buildings we would eventually give up on waiting and resorted to sliding a handful of fliers under the door, hoping that they wouldn’t be ignored or discarded.
As we moved from apartment building to apartment building, one door after the other was either closed in our faces or grudgingly held open for a frustrated, half-listening ear. Regardless, the slivers of space between each cracked open door offered us a glimpse into the residents’ lives. It became even more clear that I, and the group of students I was accompanied by, could not relate to the lives these voters lived. Most of the youth ambassadors were from socioeconomically privileged backgrounds, yet we were often canvassing in lower-class, working-class neighborhoods. The disparity between our situations and those of these voters was undeniable. This tension felt palpable, and I wondered if the voters I spoke to were also questioning why we had the authority as young high school students to discuss how this new district attorney would impact the life of the working New Yorker. Many of us had never even worked a real full-time job before.
The Democratic primary was in June of 2021, but throughout the months of April and May, it became painfully clear that my candidate did not stand a real chance against some of the other Democratic candidates. Her platform was far more progressive than her opponents, which presented a natural challenge when trying to convince voters across party lines that she would best represent them.
I did not stop working for my candidate’s campaign, despite the conflicting feelings I faced each day as I set out to knock on doors. I felt that I had a duty to see the campaign to the end, but as I continued to enter different spaces where I knew my political opinion could not really be of value — and rightfully so — I could not completely convince myself that I was doing the right thing.
As I scrutinized and grappled with my participation, however, I began to notice a shift in my door-knocking experience. My candidate’s likely and looming loss actually began to loosen up the conversations I had with voters. As I felt no real pressure to convince people of her platform, I stopped memorizing the points of the campaign verbatim and shed the looming anxiety of losing a vote. Instead, as the months wore on and success grew less and less likely, I became more and more interested in simply hearing others’ opinions on my candidate’s campaign. Voters almost never dismissed her platform, but instead talked about how certain ideals she advocated for could be implemented in the future — right now, they seemed unrealistic. I started to feel more comfortable in these spaces, because I was no longer telling people what to do with their lives.
This dilemma of continuing with the campaign while knowing it would fail made me question the degree of idealism wrapped up in politics. At the time of the campaign, I would have self-identified as progressive and leftist. I thought the greatest person to walk the planet was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I would have voted for her to be president without a second thought. My experience campaigning changed much of this. I no longer think it would even be a possibility for AOC to become the Democratic presidential candidate. But I don’t feel a loss in no longer believing this. I continue to uphold leftist ideals, but that’s what they are: ideals, not goals. I think that I dwelled too completely in the intellectual domain of politics before my time on the campaign. Implementing certain political theories seemed like the ultimate goal, which I no longer believe to be practical.
Talking to Manhattan voters changed how I view politics in that it convinced me that the practical can be just as valuable as the ideal. Endorsing practical policy is not a damnation of ideal policy. Some have the privilege to be idealists in the present moment, while others do not. We cannot condemn those who turn to the practical because of their situations. Instead, we must continue to talk to those who cannot endorse a political ideal right now. We must understand each other, have conversations and meet people where they’re at. See where we can help.
On June 22, 2021, after campaigning for many months, I walked into my poll station. This was the first election in which I was able to vote. I stared at the ballot, and without hesitating, I filled in the circle next to my candidate’s name. I voted for her because by not doing so, I would have devalued the ideals and beliefs upheld in the conversations I had had with voters across Manhattan. I voted for her because we must continue to dedicate ourselves to causes that might, in all ways, seem destined to fail. If we do not, we surrender ourselves to inaction. And with inaction, there can be no progress at all.
Statement Columnist Olivia Kane can be reached at email@example.com.