Practical politics

Many years ago, I was elected to be the president of a local organization.   It was a fairly prestigious group, with  many of  the members  a “who’s who” of the field.   I’d like to say I got it because I was so good, but the real reason was that I was five minutes late to a nominating committee meeting, and they stuck me with it.    I had  fairly successful terms – we doubled our membership, became financially solvent and stable, and embarked on a few new initiatives.   I learned a lot about practical politics from that time.

Among the lessons  I learned is that you can get a lot done if you’re not yelling at each other.    Part of “the job” was to occasionally go to other groups’ meetings.  One of the nearby ones had an “overlap” in membership area with ours.   After attending two of their meetings, I was not impressed.  They spent a huge amount of time on procedural trivia.   They followed Roberts Rules to the letter, and spent a great deal of time haggling over whether motion X was allowable, whether it should be tabled,  etc.   Motions were brought to the floor, and often degenerated rapidly into a debate – not always nice – and counter motions.   Things got so tense that a lot of their members left the organization – and I was there to scoop them up.  One of the people who had left attended one of our meetings.  Ours were radically different from the other groups.  We spent time socializing, talking about what we were doing, who had done what and so on.   Things were voted on, passed, and we moved on.  Technically, we also used Roberts Rules.  But the overall tone was different.    The person who attended the meeting called me a short time later, and said “You know, when I was at the meeting, I kept thinking that this was more like a social hour than an organization meeting.  It wasn’t until I was on my way home that I realized you people had just done three times more business than we ever did at one of ours!”

How did we do it?  First off, as with any organization, there’s the “standard stuff.”  It’s non-controversial.  Reading the minutes from the last meeting.  Reading the treasurer’s report. Updates on existing action items.   There’s no reason to get tied up with long procedural processes – we simply cut it down to “move to accept?” “Second?” “all in favor?”   You can get it out of the way in a hurry.   The second aspects – things that need discussion – we did a lot of work “behind the scenes.”   We talked to each other outside the regular meetings.   By the time I brought something to the floor, I knew exactly how it should be worded, and I knew that it was going to pass.  If I didn’t, I held it off until I knew that.    This came into play when I wanted us to implement a new program.  It would involve an ongoing financial commitment in addition to organization member’s time.   I could have just brought it to the floor, and it might even have passed.  Instead, what I did was to broach the idea with various members.  Most were in favor, and had suggestions – good ones – which I implemented into my draft resolution.  Then came the sticking point. One of our most influential members was dead set against the idea.   She had been burned by something like that in the past, as a member of another group.  I might have been able to push it through over her opposition, but rather than get into a nasty floor fight I might end up losing, or hurting the group, I did something else.  I called her.  I found out her precise objections.  I acknowledged her concerns.  I made some changes to address them.  I went back and forth with her, until I had a polished proposal.  I did not secure her support, but I did secure her neutrality.   When brought up for a vote, it sailed through unopposed.

What were the takeaway lessons from all this?  First, I didn’t assume that my way was the only way.  I knew what I wanted, but I found out what other people thought.  I modified my actions and proposals in light of objections, and changed to include new information and things I hadn’t thought of.   Second, I did a whip count.  I knew who was going to support my initial idea, who was neutral, and who was against it.  Third, I worked to persuade those who were neutral to move to positive, and those who would be against it to being neutral.  Yes, I had to make changes.   Finally, I didn’t pick fights that I wouldn’t win, or go out of my way to attack someone because they disagreed with me.

When I look at the “activists” on the so-called “progressive” side, I see them making the same mistakes over and over again.  Their way is the only way.  No changes, no compromise.  Their plan is perfect and they don’t want to hear anything but that.    They don’t do a whip count – a realistic assessment of their chances, they don’t know absolutely who’s with them, who’s neutral, and who’s against.  They’re not interested in persuasion, they demand.  Finally, they pick fights they can’t win, or which will harm their efforts in the long run.  They may get their way once,  or they may successfully scuttle another option they disagree with. The next time they want something, they find that their support is less – until they’re just another marginal, ineffective group that makes noise.  They leave behind the collateral damage of  a lot of anger, and the characterization of their issue as being the province of nutcase loons, much to the dismay of others who want progress on the issue.

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