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Aug 31 2009

Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up: Why Calling Congress Isn’t A Waste Of Time

Okay. That title is a bit off. A more accurate title would be, “Why Calling Or Emailing Congress, The President, And Your Other Elected Officials Not Only Isn’t A Waste Of Time, But Is One Of The Most Important Things We Can Do To Take Back Our Supposedly Democratically Elected Government.” But the Writer’s Union would have my head if I went with a title like that…

PhoneI’m writing today to ask you to write and/or email your Senator, your Congressperson, your President. Your governor. Your mayor. Your city council. Your school board. If you don’t live in the U.S.: Your Prime Minister, your Premiere, your MP, your Assemblymember, your Deputy, whatever.

Not on any particular issue. Just in general. On whatever issue you care about.

And I want to argue that this is not a waste of time. I want to argue that this is one of the single most effective political actions we can take: not just to change this policy or that policy, but to change the entire way our government works, and the amount of power we have in it.

When I wrote my recent piece exhorting readers to call/ email Congress and the President about the public option for health care, many of you followed through, with a heartening degree of enthusiasm. But a surprising number of politically aware, politically astute people were strongly resistant: not to the public option for health care, but to the very idea of contacting their elected officials at all. They thought their voices wouldn’t be heard or cared about. They thought it was a waste of time.

I want to persuade you that it is not a waste of time.

And I want to persuade myself as well. I don’t call or email my representatives nearly as much as I think I should, and I’m writing this partly to remind myself to do it more.

Here is my thesis.

*

Empty voting boothsThe fact that Americans feel so alienated from our government? The fact that so many people don’t vote? The fact that most people don’t call or email the President or their Congresspeople to tell them how they feel about important issues? The fact that so many people think politicians don’t care about them anyway, so there’s no reason they should bother getting involved?

This plays directly into the hands of the very people we don’t want running the show.

This is one of the main reasons government is so much more responsive to hard-line extremists and big-money corporate interests than it is to the majority of people it’s representing.

This is one of the main reasons government is so screwed up.

When very few people get involved in politics — when very few people even bother to vote, and even fewer bother to call or email their elected representatives — then the few people who do bother are the ones who get listened to. The hard-line crazies get to set the terms of the debate. Them, and the people with money.

Baptizing of americaWhy do you think the extreme religious right was so successful, for so long, in setting this country’s political agenda? They were successful, in large part, because they had an extraordinarily well-oiled machine of millions of inspired people who would make phone calls and write letters at the drop of a hat. When the folks on the mailing lists of the religious right got a call for action telling them to call or write their Congressperson, they didn’t lapse into cynicism about how no politician really cares about them
 and they didn’t lapse into soul-searching about whether they were sufficiently educated on this issue to express their opinion. They bloody well picked up the phone and called.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

And if we want to be making the decisions, we have to show up.

There’s a larger, more systemic way that this plays out, too. The fact that people feel jaded and alienated by politics and government? It’s a textbook example of a vicious circle. The less that people get involved in their government, the less politicians have to worry about the voters
 and the more they can suck up to big money contributors. And the more that politicians suck up to big money contributors, the more alienated and jaded people get about government… and the less likely they are to get involved.

Figures mouseThis circle isn’t going to get broken by elected officials. And it sure as hell isn’t going to get broken by corporate interests. The only way it’s going to get broken is by citizens picking up their phones or getting on their computers and telling their elected officials, “If you want my vote ever again, you freaking well better vote for X.” And then Y. And then Z. Over, and over, and over again. The only people who can break this circle are you and me.

Not getting involved doesn’t make government better. It makes government worse. It plays right into the hands of the corporate intererests, who find it easier to get laws written their way when there aren’t all those pesky citizens to worry about.

And it plays right into the right-wing “keep government small and taxes low” rhetoric — otherwise translated as, “Keep taxes on rich people and big corporations low; keep regulations on business to a bare minimum if that; and keep government services for poor and middle- class people stripped to the bone.” People’s cynicism about government, their belief that it never helps them and doesn’t have anything to do with them unless it’s screwing them over, and it’s always better to have it small and weak since it sucks so badly? That’s one of the strongest cards in the right wing’s hand.

FirefightersI’ve written about this before, and I’ll write it again: Government is — in theory, and at least some of the time in practice — the way a society pools some of its resources, to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and that promote the common good. And it’s the way a society decides how those pooled resources should be used. It’s one of the main ways that a society shares, cooperates, works together, takes care of each other — all those great ideals we learned in kindergarten. Government is roads, parks, fire departments, street sweepers, public health educators, emergency services, sewers, schools. Government is not Them. Government — democratic government, anyway — is Us.

But for government to do all this and be all this, not just in theory but in practice, we need to start seeing government as Us.

ControlAnd calling/ emailing your President, your Senators, your Congressperson, your governor and your mayor and your dogcatcher, is one of the most powerful things we can do to turn government from Them into Us. It reminds our elected officials that they work for Us, that they’re there to represent Us. And maybe just as importantly, it reminds us of that, too.

If you want to look at it idealistically: Many elected officials get into politics because they want to make a difference, and want to represent the will of their voters. And those officials are desperately wishing for citizens to kick up a stink on important issues: it makes it easier for them to fight special interests, and it lets them know that we’ve got their back. (It’s a whole lot easier to tell your big campaign contributors, “No,” when you can say, “I’m really sorry, but my phone is ringing off the hook about this one, and if I don’t support/ oppose it my voters will have my head.”)

But you can also see this in a completely venal, Machiavellian view… and still come to the same conclusion. Squeaky wheels. Grease. Many elected officials don’t much care about making a difference… but they bloody well care about getting re-elected. Politicians assume that if people care enough about an issue to call or write about it, they’ll care enough to vote the bums out on election day. If enough people call or write, it can override the voice of big- money special interests
 even for the most self-serving politician in the world.

So that’s the general principle. Participatory democracy. You know, the principle that this country fought a revolution for.

NapAnd yet a lot of people who agree with the principle still don’t follow through in practice. A lot of people who passionately support the idea of participatory democracy still don’t pick up the phone or get on the computer to, you know, participate in it. (Including me a lot of the time.)

Why is that?

I posted this question on Facebook the other day. I asked, “If someone asks you to email your Congressperson, and you don’t, even if you care about the issue — what stops you?”

I wasn’t asking to judge or criticize. Hell, I do this, too. I decide that I’m too tired, too busy, that if I responded to every “Call your Congressperson” email I got I’d never get anything else done. But it does bug me. It’s such a simple thing to do, and it can make such a huge difference, and I’m trying to figure out what, specifically, keeps us from doing it.

So now — again, for my own benefit as much as anybody else’s — I want to respond to some of the answers I got to this question. I want to remind myself, and anyone else reading this, that the reasons for not calling or emailing your elected officials, as understandable as they may be, simply aren’t anywhere near as compelling as the reasons for calling and emailing.

(To be continued tomorrow.)

14 comments

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  1. 1
    yogurtbacteria

    Another way to speak out:
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/771?e=12&ref=image

  2. 2
    Dean Allemang

    I was one of the “I don’t call/write unless I am sufficiently well-informed to believe in whatever I am going to say.” people. But you bring up an interesting point – certain groups, especially religious groups – can motivate masses of people to write or call, without being sufficiently informed. So my first reaction was, well, I should do that, too. I should just respond to every call by an organization I roughly agree with, e.g., HRC, moveon, etc., and write/call/email whenever they tell me to. Then they will have power similar to the religious right. That’s good, right?
    But then I thought wait a minute – another part of the problem is decision making by idiots. Or to be more exact, decision making by people who don’t bother to think things through. Will it really help the cause of just government, if I just contribute to the thoughtless hoards who write/call whenever someone tells me to? I might agree with moveon’s overall goals, but they aren’t infallible. Don’t I really have a responsibility to look at least a bit before I ask my congressperson to leap?

  3. 3
    Greta Christina

    Don’t I really have a responsibility to look at least a bit before I ask my congressperson to leap?

    Yes. I certainly think you have a responsibility to look at least a bit. I don’t want us all to become the mindless hordes of the HRC and the ACLU.
    But I also think there’s a cutoff point at which it’s okay to call or write even though you don’t know everything there is to know about an issue. If we wait until we have every single possible piece of information on an issue before we act, we’ll be paralyzed. (And I think — hell, from personal experience I know — that “I don’t know enough about this” can often simply be an excuse to not get involved.)
    The guideline I’m suggesting is that if you know enough about an issue to have an opinion about it and to care how it comes out, you know enough to call or write.
    But if you don’t like that criterion, then another might be: Read at least one argument for, and one argument against. And another might be to see how the organizations who make endorsements are lining up. If every progressive organization I support is for something, and every conservative organization I can’t stand is against it, then probably I’m going to be for it. If the progressives themselves are fighting and debating about it, that tells me I need to learn more.

  4. 4
    Dylan

    I wrote my senator today after reading this blog. Unfortunately, my senator is Mitch McConnell.

  5. 5
    yogurtbacteria

    “But I also think there’s a cutoff point at which it’s okay to call or write even though you don’t know everything there is to know about an issue.”
    That makes sense. Even with a small increase in the likelihood that people are taking the right stance, a large number of people writing in betters the likelihood that the average letter will be right, even if a lot of them are still wrong. I.e. even if you might be wrong, you’re helping drag the mean in the right direction.

  6. 6
    lunalelle

    I barely have enough motivation to vote in my state, much less write letters. Even our urban hubs, with the exception of one, are extremely conservative and will continue to vote ineffective, stubborn, and frustratingly right wing representatives into office.
    What real difference would my disregarded, likely-not-even-read letters mean here in Texas?

  7. 7
    Jeffrey

    It’s funny you mention this, because I was thinking about my Congress persons earlier today. The thought that crossed my mind was this: When we elect officials, we pick the person that would do the best job, and then they do what they feel is best. I’m torn about this post, because I get that we want them to ‘hear our voice’. But, I don’t want my Congress persons to be swayed by the constituency. I want to select them for their stances, their positions, etc., right? I don’t know. I am underthinking this? Overthinking?

  8. 8
    sav

    Greta, thanks for writing this. I was the one who posted on Facebook the other day “Can someone tell me why I shouldn’t be cynical about politics?”
    But, as I later followed up, I have all my reps’, the governor, and the White House lines in my phone. I call and write them often (more than twice a month–that’s a conservative estimate). I keep up on a lot of issues. I’m very passionate about it.
    But yet, I still get cynical. So I thank you for writing this because it is basically the mantra I repeat to myself to get myself out of my cynical funk. I should bookmark it and read it whenever I get that way again.
    One suggestion I’d offer to folks who want to engage but don’t feel as informed is this: I read a lot about a lot of issues and constantly feel like I still don’t know enough or know everything there is to know on a subject. We are citizens, not experts. I have to constantly remind myself of this. We can have opinions and not know everything. That’s OK. Plus, we view things from our own perspective. My perspective is not your perspective is not the dude down the street’s perspective. We all have something to offer in the debate. So speak up.
    One other tip I’d give is to try, especially for the things you really care about, to not send the form e-mails you may get from the various groups you subscribe to. Someone mentioned MoveOn.org. That would be an example. If you have little time, then sending these forms is a good way to get yourself counted among the masses. But reps much prefer an individual e-mail or a phone call or a visit to their offices. Sometimes, I base my personal e-mail off these form e-mails, but I don’t need to do that as much these days. Also, when you call your reps’ office, you don’t have to say why you take one position over the other. You just say to the intern answering the phone “I’m calling today to ask my rep. to support such and such” or “to oppose such and such.” You don’t even have to know the bill number. Just the issue–say, health care–that you are calling about.
    For people who live in California in the U.S., the governor’s line discourages contact with a real person by having you vote in favor of something by pressing 1 and against something by pressing 2. It’s really easy and really fast, though the format sort of bothers me. I’d rather talk to someone.
    I hope this information is useful to some of you.

  9. 9
    ninthdayexposure

    “What real difference would my disregarded, likely-not-even-read letters mean here in Texas?”
    This might be an overly simplistic view of politics (and I apologize if that’s the case) but I thought that Matt Dillahunty from the Atheist Community of Austin explained it pretty nicely, why progressives in Texas (or any red state) should still vote:

  10. 10
    Jen R

    You know, I just had a thought. The thing that sometimes hinders me from sending a letter is that I have to go and look up the office address, figure out the right form for a formal letter, etc. I would totally use a service that would let you fill in whatever text you want in the body, and then outputs it as a properly-addressed and formatted letter, ready for printing.
    I might think about setting that up, actually.
    Of course, this would only matter if printed letters were taken more seriously by Congressional offices than emails are. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore or not.

  11. 11
    Greta Christina

    What real difference would my disregarded, likely-not-even-read letters mean here in Texas?

    I answer that in Part 2. Short answer:
    (a) The letters are too read.
    (b) Not calling and not voting feeds the vicious circle. If every progressive in Texas started calling or emailing their representatives, it might make them think twice about reflexively moving to the right on every issue.
    (c) Even if calling or emailing your representative really is a waste of time, you can still call the President, the Speaker of the House, etc.

  12. 12
    Greta Christina

    Of course, this would only matter if printed letters were taken more seriously by Congressional offices than emails are. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore or not.

    It’s not the case anymore. In fact, ever since the anthrax scare, snail mail to elected officials is slower to get read than email or phone calls.

  13. 13
    Christine

    Hi Greta,
    I saw your post on facebook, and I meant to respond but didn’t quite get around to it. That’s pretty much the same reason I don’t usually contact my representatives. I start to write the email, then I get hung up on wording or something. If I get stuck on it for long enough, I decide to do something else and come back to it later. The reality is that I rarely come back to it. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but having an example or form letter that I could copy and tweak as needed would make me much more likely (doubly, at least) to send the damn email.
    That said, I did force myself to slog through a message to Dianne Feinstein last week. I wish I’d thought to save a copy to use as a template for writing to my other representatives.

  14. 14
    thediamondmind.blogspot.com

    Excellent, well-written, astutely reasoned argument. Thanks for posting this. I hope you don’t mind that I linked this for others to read.
    – Eddie

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