In the course of participating on political blogs over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a problem with some people on them. They mistake popularity for influence. They think that because their blog, diaries, or comments are popular with the readers of the site , that equates to political influence. After all, if they have tens of thousands readers, it means that their opinion is something that can sway politicians to act accordingly, right? It turns out the answer is No. It doesn’t. Which has led to a lot of rants against various politicians, lashing out because the politicians aren’t doing what the bloggers want them to do, and exactly the way they want them to do it.
It’s seductive to think that your blog’s popularity is a measure of your influence. You have thousands of people reading you, and many of them will be telling you just how much they agree with you, and how wonderful, insightful, and brilliant you are. It’s great for your ego, but translating that into political influence and the ability to push your agenda requires actual work, time, and the development of face-to-face, personal connections. It’s easy to sit a keyboard and spout off. Doing the behind the scenes, day-to-day work of politics is not. But that is where you develop real political influence.
I learned that lesson many years ago. First from a woman who was one of the most politically influential people I’ve ever met. I guarantee most people reading this have never heard of her. She wasn’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. She wasn’t on any lists as a major campaign donor. She didn’t live in a major media center, and never appeared on television talk shows or wrote columns for newspapers. All the things that many people seem to think are necessary for political “influence.” They’re wrong. There was not a politician in this state who did not personally return her calls. If she took an interest in a piece of legislation, or wanted something introduced, she was on the phone – and things happened. She did it the old-fashioned way. She worked her way up the party hierarchy – starting as a volunteer, moving to being on the party committee, and then to a Party Chair. She made personal connections. Politicians relied on her to organize campaign workers, arrange for events and turn out the vote. She did favors for people, she helped out whenever possible. She was someone that a lot of office-holders knew personally, and as someone who was an asset. Just the sort of person that any politician wants for them, not against them.
I also learned this lesson from personal experience. I used to participate in an organization. For 15 years, I was “a nobody.” I was the person who belonged to the local groups, helped organize and worked at their events, held some elected offices, and generally helped out whenever possible. I did a lot of favors for people along the way, and got to know quite a few. Then I had a chance to write for one of the magazines, and developed a following. Through that, I got to meet other people, develop friendships, do some more favors and provide advice. It wasn’t until something went wrong with the national organization that I found out something. I had real influence, and not because my column was popular. Most of the people I called on didn’t know I had a magazine column. The people I’d helped, all ones who knew that I “showed up and worked,” and the friendships I’d built along the way gave me the ability to get a lot of people to work with me to change things. My “popularity” as a columnist was simply a bonus.
If you look at the really influential people in a party, they’re often the ones who have done just that: Built influence the old-fashioned way. It’s also the way things still work, which is what many Internet activists don’t realize – or want to do. You have to work at your local party level. You have to attend boring meetings. You have to help on all the dull, dreary, nobody’s paying attention local elections. Sometimes you run for local office. You have to talk to people, listen to what they’re saying, and come up with answers. It’s often thankless, dull, and frustrating. Your ego isn’t stroked very often by it. It’s much easier to write a blog on a popular site, where thousands of people will tell you how wonderful you are. But if you think it’s going to give you real influence, the only one you’ve fooled is yourself.