For the past few months American kids have been pummeled with lefty entreaties to vote: Punkvoter.com, the 21st Century Democrats' Young Voter Project, and Michael Moore's Slacker Uprising Tour are just a few of the projects trying to harness the country's youthful energy. But only one Web site is taking advantage of all these riled-up youngsters--many of whom are below voting age--by siccing them on their parents. ConvinceYourMom.com, launched by J.C. Dwyer, a 26-year-old Wilmette native, offers young people a "Four-Fold Path to Convincing," his strategy for putting together a stat-fortified argument against Bush.
Step one: "Survey the Field." "The Cognitive Dissonance approach consists of finding out what your target cares about, then demonstrating conclusively how Bush has screwed it up," says the site. "Faced with an onslaught of carefully prepared facts, your target will have no recourse: in order to preserve a self-image as a reasonable, consistent person, he or she will be forced to vote against Bush. Or risk feeling, well, hypocritical." A sample icebreaker conversation follows. In step two ("Attack!") you can access seven topical categories' worth of administration-damning facts Dwyer's culled from sources such as Harper's Magazine, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (a nonpartisan data research and distribution organization affiliated with Syracuse University), Earthjustice.org, and several government Web sites. Steps three and four are "Parry" (the site offers scripts for dealing with rebuttals from your folks) and "Seal the Deal" (use "I" statements).
As a teenager Dwyer fled the suburbs on weekends to see punk bands at the Fireside Bowl; meanwhile he attended Loyola Academy and seriously entertained the idea of becoming a Jesuit priest. His parents had always identified themselves as political independents, and they taught him never "to have an allegiance to a party more than your own ideals," he says. When he reached voting age in 1996, Dwyer says, "I figured I'd just vote for the guy who was placed last on the ballot, so I think I voted for the Working Socialist Party or something. I felt bad for the guy."
After getting a bachelor's in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, Dwyer returned to Chicago for a year. He got a job with the United Way, installing computers at nonprofit agencies in low-income south- and west-side neighborhoods. The work left him with an "idealistic political streak," he says, and he cast his next vote for Ralph Nader. He has misgivings about that choice today. "I wasn't as politically canny or practical as I am now," he says. "Even now, voting for a Democrat makes me feel kinda weird. The Democrats are not perfect, but they can be used as a conduit toward better things."
Dwyer lives in Brooklyn now; he's studying social research at Hunter College in Manhattan. His parents still live in Wilmette. Dwyer has never managed to get a straight answer out of either of them about their voting records. "They're very cagey about it," he says. His mom, a homemaker, is especially wary of appearing partisan and tends to be nonconfrontational. "This is really the first year I started working on her," he says. "I've tried to find out what she believes in, but if I start arguing a point, she'll just let the conversation go." He tells me he's pretty certain she's voted "straight Republican" lately, then adds, after a pause, "But she'd probably kill me if she heard me saying that." (His parents chose not to comment for this story.)
As the prospect of a second term for Bush neared, Dwyer felt increasingly frustrated by how difficult it was to argue productively with his parents about politics. About a year ago he started doing research on the Bush administration, "to go with what my gut already felt," and thought about creating a blog about his efforts to change his mother's mind. "Then I realized this is a problem a lot of people have," he says. "Also, a lot of my friends are ginned up for this election; they know Bush is a bad guy, but they can't explain why. They needed content to go with their theory." He recruited a techie friend to help him build ConvinceYourMom.com's database, but he wrote most of the code for the simple-looking site. It went live on October 4.
So far the site hasn't convinced Dwyer's father, a former investment banker who isn't enthusiastic about either candidate, but it might do the trick for his mom. "She still claims she's on the fence but is definitely considering Kerry, something that wasn't an option three months ago," he says. "She's read everything on the site and likes the rational approach I've taken. Even if she doesn't manage to vote Democrat, it's been great talking to her about the things she believes. The site has definitely improved our 'political' relationship--she takes me seriously, and we can talk rationally about things."
The site has been linked to by memepool.com and lots of blogs and mentioned in the New York Daily News and Time. It's gotten about 2,000 unique visitors. Dwyer has heard from one woman who "wants to replicate the site structure to talk specifically about gay marriage," he says. "It would be great if we could create clones for unique issues like this, but we'll have to see how much tweaking it would take."
He's dismayed, however, to have heard that some visitors, rather than using the site as it's intended, have simply passed the link along to their parents. "That's not what it's meant for," he says, "and if I were a mom I might be kind of offended by it." Recently he received his first piece of hate mail, and he suspects the sender came by the site via one of those lazy link pass-alongs. "It was from an individual; possibly a mom, as it was cc'd to someone else with the same last name," he says. "I don't really remember the woman's argument, but it was decidedly not lucid, bearing more on emotional images--'the burning towers,' 'real Americans'--than rational facts. The site is a plea for rational discourse with your mom."
I decided to try out the ConvinceYourMom approach on my folks, who, like Dwyer's parents, are upper-middle-class independents who've leaned to the right over the years. By the time I called them up, mom didn't need my prodding anymore--she'd decided to vote for Kerry. Dad, however, is a trickier case; if his reaction is any indication, all the noncombative, fact-based persuasion strategies a Web site can offer might not do the trick. After we amicably discussed some of the site's facts on Bush's environmental record and the Patriot Act (as well as PBS's Frontline special on the candidates, which we'd both just watched), he said, "I find myself agreeing with Kerry right down the line, even with his waffling, and I'm repulsed by Bush's apparent motivations and religious fervor. If I put down the pros and cons on paper it clearly doesn't come out for Bush. It seems like I should be putting up Kerry signs in the front yard. But there's some gut thing in me that's totally separate from all that I know intellectually. I can't explain it." He and Dwyer's mom remain, at press time, undecided.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.