My car’s tires grind gently over the beginnings of a dirt road as Siri familiarly alerts me to my arrival. I park in front of the neighbor’s chain fence, check my social media — nothing much of note — and emerge from the car. I walk a short way down the dirt road and faraway downtown Reno emerges in the distance to the north, mirrored by the beauty of a faraway ski resort to the west.
The only nearby restaurant has the name “Old Tyme Saloon” painted on its front in loopy letters. The air is so dry it feels like my nostrils are tightening. I haven’t seen a single Tesla in at least 30 miles.
Looks like I’m not in Silicon Valley anymore.
I am volunteering in Reno, Nevada for the Democratic campaign. I look forward to helping elect the first female president, and I also look forward to getting to know Reno, Nevada and its people a little better.
Then I get to the volunteer office. “So where’s everyone from Reno?” I ask, laughing, after the first four people I meet identify themselves as natives of San Francisco and San Diego. “I’m from Reno,” a man in the corner offers. Others look around — most hail from the Bay Area.
I came here alone; all my friends were busy. Anyway, I committed to working Friday through Wednesday, and I figured most of my friends wouldn’t be able to get that much time off of work. But when I arrived, I found that many of these volunteers from California have already been here, calling voters, registering voters or walking from door to door to help them vote early for a week or more. On the Saturday before Election Day, a thousand volunteers from California had arrived ready to help just in Reno, exceeding expectations. The offices were overflowing with Californians.
Was Trump’s campaign doing the same thing? Some of the other volunteers had seen a couple of Trump volunteers, once, maybe, from far away. Nowhere exists like California for Republicans, from which voters can flock in masses to support a nearby swing state. Suspicions were confirmed when Mercury News noted that “While Clinton and the Democrats had set up six staging areas, each expected to draw more than 100 volunteers on Saturday, there were only five people inside Republican headquarters.” And Jon Ralson, a journalist who focuses on Nevada politics, said, “The Republican Party here is a joke.” He was talking about the on-the-ground organization. If Clinton wins Nevada, it will be a nod to the power of door knocking.
But I think it’s more than organization — this election is different. Like me, many of the individual volunteers I met had never volunteered before this election. People flocked to support Hillary this year because of a chasm that exists between the parties and between their supporters. Mild panic, along with an undertone of “I just don’t get it” color every conversation about Trump and his supporters. I’m partially here to try to understand Trump supporters, and a few others share this attitude.
Bob Figlock, a volunteer from San Francisco, will volunteer in Reno for twelve days, staying through the election. He is an ardent Hillary supporter, and one who also hoped to better understand the perspective of Trump supporters by living in a swing state for a couple weeks. But it seems he hasn’t been enlightened. “I totally understand people who are upset with the elites,” he told me. “And economically I get it — it looks like 2008 out there. But it’s the demagoguery, and at the cost of the rest – LGBTQ, immigrants…” he stops. He explains to me that he has spent his life trying to understand people who come from different backgrounds than his own as a white male American. Now he feels ironically that this quest has led him away from understanding his own demographic.
Bob takes a more intellectual and measured approach to visceral feelings many newbie Silicon Valley/San Francisco volunteers experience. In these areas, most people support Clinton. When faced with the reality of the American white male experience nearer to the center of the country, San Franciscans are thrown off. “Idiocy,” one volunteer blurted when I asked why this election is different. We’ve all heard the words that one party calls the other. “Crazed,” “unstable,” “little demons,” are a few I’ve heard from Democrats in the last two days. And from the Republicans, “nasty” and “crooked.” I haven’t seen the word “crooked” since childhood mystery novels, and “little demons” makes me imagine baby vampires. When one person doesn’t understand another, the natural reaction is feelings of superiority, apparently along with a dose of weird name-calling.
The Economist noted that Clinton and Trump are talking to two totally different Americas, and I see now that it is true. And whoever is president will need to speak to both. I wonder if it is possible, when no one from one side seems to understand anyone from the other long enough to have a conversation, or long enough to shake hands at the beginning of a debate.
The same volunteer who called the children of Trump supporters “little demons” also told me about a mindfulness class she just took for eight weeks, where she worked on compassion. We are all hypocrites — this is news to nobody. I try really hard too, don’t you? Nobody is perfect, and we don’t always see where we are going wrong.
While in Nevada, I will continue to work for the party that I currently understand as trying harder at compassion. And on a personal level, I will continue to test my own skills at compassion and love when I walk through these diverse neighborhoods, when countless people close the door in my face. Of course, I know that I still am surrounding myself with likeminded people as a volunteer. I believe we will be a better people not when we have stopped surrounding ourselves with likeminded others, but when we are no longer blind to the others who lay beyond our immediate surroundings. To make progress, voters must confront opposing ideas, and alternate realities. I believe the highest, most difficult and most important form of compassion is not for your neighbor or daughter, but for the strangers and the masses of nameless theoretical people. That’s something that the Democratic Party seems to agree with me about. So why are we name calling? Why are many Silicon Valley Democrats so able to grapple with the refugee crisis, and so unable to grapple with the situation of a huge part of our country?
So to my fellow Silicon Valley and San Francisco Democrats, and anyone else who feels this essay applies to them, let’s not forget why we’re voting. I’m not voting to shut the door in the face of Trump supporters, or anyone else. I’m voting for a President who can identify the issues that have risen to the surface of 2016, and will confront them directly. And if not solve them, then I hope she will put the necessary structures in place to ensure this kind of hate-driven election never happens again.
Democrats of San Francisco and Silicon Valley live in a unique world, where nice cars and houses, racially and sexually diverse friends, and name-brand educations feel common. If we’re going to influence the election, we have a responsibility to understand our uniqueness. Parallel universes exist, and in order to get closer to understanding, voters must first acknowledge and start paying attention. We have a lot of compassion and understanding left to build before we bridge this chasm.
-Kristen Stipanov ’16
Former photo editor, The Stanford Daily
Contact Kristen Stipanov at stipanov ‘at’ stanford.edu.