How to engage voters in a dark time

Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

My friends, we are in a difficult time.

It’s a difficult time because we haven’t come to terms with racism in America, even after 400 years.

It’s a difficult time because we are in the midst of barbaric capitalism, which is forcing people to work under lethal conditions.

It’s a difficult time because we have a president who has no respect for our democratic norms and institutions and who gins up white supremacy.

And it’s a difficult time because, frankly, the Age of Enlightenment is over.

It is dead.

We are in a new Dark Ages, with superstition and tribalism in the ascendancy, joined dangerously now not just by quack conspiracies—I give you Q-Anon—but also by refried prejudices and resurgent nationalisms.

Plus, millions of Americans are suffering from nightly “truth decay,” as they are being fed lies and distortions on propaganda channels like Fox News and rightwing talk radio.

And we’re all in our separate camps. In a sense, we’re living in totally different intellectual universes, which makes it difficult to have a conversation with people from the other universe who get vastly divergent explanations for what is going on in this county and in the world.

In these new Dark Ages, the very idea of “truth” is under assault, as Michiko Kakutani, the longtime book editor at The New York Times, wrote in her book, “The Death of Truth.”

In such a circumstance, how do you differentiate between fake news and real facts? 

Well, here are my suggestions:

  1. Read broadly. Find the most respectable sources you can find. But read around – and not just in your comfort zone.
  1. Go to the primary source, not the mediated one. If you didn’t see Vice President Mike Pence’s latest speech, Google it. Watch it for yourself. Don’t depend on the media stories about it.
  2. Be skeptical of everything you read and consume. Be even skeptical of your own ideas and beliefs. As the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas once said, reserve 10% of your brain for self-doubt.
  3. Scrutinize everything. If something seems too facile in your own belief system or arguments, fact check it yourself!
  4. Don’t just read the headlines, especially on Facebook! We’re all busy but we’ve got to get past just reading the headlines and clicking “like” or “share” even without reading the article. I’ve done it myself. I’ve shared something on Facebook only to realize later that it’s a two-year-old story. That’s embarrassing. We can’t be lazy like that.

So these are some of the ways to distinguish real facts from “alternative facts,” as Donald Trump’s departing adviser Kellyanne Conway once so notoriously put it.

It’s crucially important to do this during this election year, where so much is riding out the outcome.

Don’t be fooled by Trump’s attack on mail-in voting because the truth of the matter is, it’s tried and true. It’s safe and secure.

Members of our armed services have using doing mail-in voting for decades – with no problems.

Five states, including Utah, do entirely mail-in voting – with no problems.

And fraud is not a problem because states safeguard mail-in ballots by using signature verification, tracking barcodes, 24-hour surveillance of ballot drop-boxes, and setting clear chains of custody for all ballots.

Now, of course, given the slow-down at the Post Office, you should get your absentee ballot in early, or drop it off at your clerk’s office yourself if it’s getting close to Election Day.

If you want to tell your friends where to go to get information about voting, they can go to

Or they can go the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin’s website. On the League’s website is a section called “Voter Information,” which tells you not only how to register and what you need to vote, but also how to gather information on candidates so you can make an informed choice. The League also publishes an issue guide on candidates for office, so you can see where these candidates stand on many issues that might be important to you.

And you can always go to a candidate’s website and compare that candidate’s position with those of the candidate’s opponent.

You can also go to our website, at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, to see who is funding them. Then click on “Follow the Money,” “Look Up Candidates” and click on “Campaign 2020.” We also have information on some of the outside groups that are splattering our screens with mud at “Track Dark Money” and “Hijacking Campaign, 2020.”

So that is how you can educate yourself as a voter.

Figuring out how to educate other voters can be tougher, frankly, depending on who they are.

If they are open to rational conversation but just don’t know about the candidates, especially in down-ballot races, you can give them the information you have or steer them to the League of Women Voters or forward them articles you see in the local papers on those races.

And down-ballot races are vitally important, as we’ve learned here in Wisconsin over the last decade.

It really matters who is governor.

It really matters who has control of the Legislature, and whether there is a veto-proof majority or not.

It really matters who is on the State Supreme Court.

It really matters who is your mayor, and who is on your city council.

It really matters who is your county executive, and who is on the county board.

And yes, it really matters who your sheriff is. Just look at Kenosha!

In this Age of Covid, who your local officials are can actually be a matter of life and death.

So yes, encourage everyone you know to vote – and to vote down ballot.

But if people are dug in ideologically, it’s hard to know where to start.

Here are a couple of examples that I have been wrestling with lately.

I play poker, Texas Holdem, and some of the other players, let’s just say, don’t see the world the way I do.

After the shooting of Jacob Blake, one of them posted on Facebook the rap sheet on Jacob Blake, and sneered at those of us who were protesting. My approach, always, is to be polite and try to engage. So I said, “C’mon man! Just because he had a rap sheet doesn’t justify the cops shooting him seven times in the back or justify the mocking of those of us who oppose racism and police brutality. You’re better than that, my friend!”

I’m not sure it made a difference. He didn’t respond. But I do have a relationship with him. In fact, just a few weeks ago, he posted something about lamenting the Facebook friends he has lost because of his posts, and I responded that it wasn’t worth losing friends over posts. So we’ll see how that goes.

Here’s another example. A few houses down from where I live, the neighbors are flying two big “Trump 2020” flags. I don’t know these neighbors. I only have had one conversation with them while my wife and I were out walking, which was pleasant enough. It was mostly about birds because they have 10 bird feeders hanging outside their windows, and I’m a big birder myself. So if I were on Team Biden, I might send them some information on Trump and his attempt to gut the Migratory Bird Treaty, but I’m not sure it would make a dent.

Because here is the crucial point: We are actually fooling ourselves when we believe that if we only give voters the right article, the perfect leaflet, the most coherent argument, or show them the cleverest meme, or point them to the most informative website, they will come around to our way of thinking.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. There have been a lot of studies showing that people will repel the fact that disproves their beliefs rather than change their beliefs.

So educating voters is more of a long process of building relationships and engaging in conversations with people we know — first over shared values and only then on the particular issue that concerns you.

That is our task, whether we are talking about racism or the unequal economy or climate change or any other crucial issue that concerns us and confronts our democracy.

So my advice is to work on people closest to you, those you already have a relationship with – family members, friends, people you socialize with.

And don’t preach to them. Talk to them where they are at. Listen to and acknowledge their concerns. And try to nudge them along.

That’s all I do these days: Nudge, nudge, nudge.

And if we all nudge, nudge, nudge the people closest to us, we may be able to survive the New Dark Ages.

As W.H. Auden said, 81 years ago, “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie.”

And he ended his “September 1939” poem this way:

“May we, beleaguered by the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame.”

And what shall we affirm?

Let’s affirm the Enlightenment.

Let’s affirm facts.

Let’s affirm science.

But let’s also affirm values, such as solidarity, racial equity, democracy, freedom, equality, and justice.

And let’s also affirm love and kindness and friendship and working together for a full democracy, where everyone has an equal voice.

May these affirmations prevail!

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(This piece is adapted from remarks to the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Women on Aug. 27.)