Civics 102: Getting Action

One of the reasons that I started the Civics posts was because of what has been a long-standing problem with various groups on the Left.  They want political action, but they have absolutely no idea of how to get it.  Oh, they’ll tell you they do, they’ll even tell you what you should do to get a politician’s or “the party’s” attention, but what they say is something that doesn’t work.   Mind you, they’ll scream their heads off when it doesn’t, but they never seem to think “Maybe I should learn what does work.”  To learn that, you have to start by learning how the government works.    If you know that, you can start to see how to influence it, and actually succeed in getting your agenda passed.  Milt Shook has a great post up on what doesn’t get a politician’s attention.   Not surprisingly, they’re all stuff that I’ve gotten any number of “action alerts” or seen blog posts promoting over the years.  They don’t work at best, and can be counterproductive at worst.

Last year, I wrote a post on “cargo cult politics.”  I wrote back then that today’s “activists” tend to mimic the form of past successes, without actually understanding what actually was being done to make those happen.  I was reminded of that in a back-and-forth with a Sanders supporter, when I asked him “Just how do you think Bernie’s going to get Congress to act on his programs?”  His response?  “The people will march on Washington.”  I informed him that that wouldn’t work, and his response was “All those people marching, and politicians will know that if they want to be re-elected, they’ll listen!”  No, they wouldn’t, and there’s a reason why which I’ll cover in a moment.    What the whole “People will march on Washington” (and I’ve seen it numerous times) is apparently based on is what they think happened back in the civil rights era when the March On Washington occurred.  It was definitely a memorable event, one that’s in the history books.  Around a quarter-million people marched, there was one of the greatest speeches in American history given, and it’s credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act.

That was it, right?  Just a big march, a great speech, and Congress jumped on it, right? No, not really.  That’s the myth that seems to have grown up around it.   In and of itself, the March wouldn’t have caused that to happen, and for the same reason any proposed action like “The People Will March On Washington!” won’t.  I used to live in Washington DC, and one of the things you learn early on is that there are protests there every day.  More on some days than others, but there’s always a protest going on.  Lafayette Park across from the White House used to have (and may still, for all I know) virtually resident protesters.  Big case at the Supreme Court?  Protesters.  Head on over to the Capitol?  More protesters.  Big huge crowd flooding the Mall?  Well, it might either be the 4’th of July, or it’s probably at least once or twice a year for something.  In short, all that amounts to “just another day” in DC.   So your big People’s March would amount to making you feel good.  Oh, you’d probably have a couple of politicians show up to make speeches about how they agree with you, and make you feel like you accomplished something, but in reality, nothing beyond that would happen.  Why wouldn’t they fear you or worry about being reelected?  Quite simple:  Most of you, even all of you at the march aren’t their constituents.

The reason the March on Washington succeeded was that there were a lot of other things going on.  You had numerous people around the country pressuring their representatives.  You had voter registration drives in the South, often dangerous ones.  You had a concerted behind the scenes effort going on to move the political needle.  Yes, the March was big, attention getting, and important, but it wasn’t the only reason landmark civil and voting rights acts were passed.  It was all the not so glamorous stuff that often didn’t get  a lot of coverage or make the history books that made it work.  It’s also what you have to do today to get Congress moving.

Milt details in his blog what happens when people write or call various Representatives and Senators, or “petitions” are delivered to their offices.   Simply put, if you don’t live in their state or district, it gets put into the circular file.  They never see it, they don’t pay attention to it, as far as they’re concerned, it’s just annoying noise.  There are only three people in Congress who will pay attention to you:  Your two Senators and your Representative.  They’re the only people I contact when I’m voicing my opinion on something.   That’s why I got annoyed by all the “action alerts” begging me to call some Senator or Representative about an issue.  I’m not from their state, I’m not in their district, so my making a call simply wasted my time and theirs.    So how do “The People” get Congress moving?  There are 50 states each with 2 Senators, and 435 Congressional districts.  You need a lot of people, and they have to be in all those states and Congressional districts.  They have to write, e-mail, or phone their Senators and Representative.  Even the ones who are considered “complete sell-outs” pay attention.     You see, they’re hearing from people who actually vote in elections they’re running in.  That makes the “lose the next election” a real threat to them.

Now, that’s the basics, but there’s some “advanced” stuff.  First and foremost you need to be a registered voter and a regular one.  Politicians do know who is registered to vote, and most of them also know how “reliable” a voter is.  If you registered to vote a long time ago, and have never shown up to vote, or once in a great while, you’re not “reliable.”  If you’re voting in every election, you’re reliable, and yes, they’ll definitely weight things that way.  Second, don’t use boilerplate.  Yes, all “movements” send out a “fill in the blanks” form letters to use, but don’t.  “Copypasta” isn’t as effective as one you wrote yourself.  Third, be polite.  Remember, the Senator or Representative isn’t likely to be reading your e-mail, letter, or answering your call, it’s going to be one of the staffers.  State your case clearly, concisely, thank them for listening or reading, and end it.   Fourth, don’t threaten.  No, really.  In my previous post I said that there were times when I was really furious with my Representative.  But I didn’t write a note saying something along the lines of “I’m never voting for you!” or “I’ll make sure you lose!”  Instead, I wrote saying I have supported them in the past, and was very disappointed with their vote/stand, and why I was.  Fifth, make sure you send “thank you” or “good job!” notes when they do something you liked.

Do all that, and will you see Congress enacting your progressive agenda?  No, not entirely.  You see, besides there being an opposition party which may control some or all of Congress, you may not have enough people scattered around the country to outnumber the ones who are also contacting Congress against you.  In fact, you might even find that other progressives are standing against you with their representatives.  Why?  It’s a big country, and as I pointed out previously, issues that are terribly important to your area may not be to another area.  But you will get a lot more of it than you would by marching on Washington.  Less exercise, but more of your progressive agenda.  But if you really want to go to Washington, I recommend the museums.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Civics 102: Getting Action

  1. Excellent post! I used to write Michele Bachman emails when she was my representative. Her seat was R+8 so relatively safe. I wrote her mainly so that when she appeared on the TV saying people agreed with her I could talk back to the TV and say, “Not all of us!” Her last election she won by 1% so clearly not everyone was thrilled with her.

    The naiveté of the Sanders supporters thinking that a march on Washington would be the kick off for their ‘revolution’ has me shaking my head.

    I like both the Air and Space and American History museums. 🙂

    • It’s an unfortunately common belief, I’ve been seeing it all over the place. I guess it’s an indicator of how bad civics education is these days, and it’s not helped by all the “super liberal” sites promoting things like this, or asking for “signatures” on their petitions (along with money). For any ‘impact,’ you’d have to get (I did the math) 576 people from each district in the country at your march, to make up the quarter million. It’d be a heck of a lot more effective, not to mention cheaper, if those people would just write their representative or show up at one of their town halls.