“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”
You can be in that majority and make a difference in favor of your cause. This book tells you how.
As I was closing a seminar in Washington DC, a woman stood up to get my attention, very agitated. I thought she was angry. “Joel,” she shouted, “you left something out.” She went on to explain that she had been in my seminar the year before and I said something that changed her life.
“You told us last year that the people who write the letters, write the laws. I took it to heart and went home and started writing letters and it’s true. They pay attention.”
Honestly, I did not remember saying that, although I have many times since.
How You Can Harness the Most Powerful Moment in Politics
That moment is when a voter talks to an elected official they can vote for. You will learn how to communicate and get action from elected officials; how to work through an organization and get results on legislative issues. I will show you that you can have significant influence without ever looking at that chart “How a bill moves through the legislature” and without spending a lot of time and money. If you get engaged as I suggest, you will meet interesting people, have fun and make a difference.
Although the techniques here will work anywhere, this book focuses on California. That means how to get the action you want on bills in the Assembly and Senate in Sacramento. I also include references to members of Congress because California is an important state for federal issues. If you live here, you have the opportunity to influence national policy.
Please understand, this book is about legislators and legislation, not what people in politics call “case work.” That is a personal problem that affects only you, such as your dispute with an insurance company or a missing payment from the state. If you are trying to resolve some issue like that and your elected official can help, they will.
That’s their job and politicians and their staff are happy to help —if they can —because they know every successful case turns into votes.
Issues and policy, on the other hand, are things that will be decided in the California Senate and Assembly. My goal is to help you achieve your goal and get what you want from those two legislative bodies. I don’t care about your political identity, party or issue. I believe in democracy. You achieve your goals by winning the support of enough senators and assembly members at each step of what is likely to be a long and convoluted process. Don’t be discouraged, though. A constant theme through this book is that our system works— for those who work it. You, your issue and your organization can win.
I emphasize “organization” because of one key operating principle: Don’t expect politicians to pay attention to you if you represent just one person with a good idea for a policy or law. They don’t have time to devote to such matters because there are too many equally good ideas that have widespread support from broad-based organizations called special interest groups.
Am I saying you probably won’t get much unless you are part of a special interest group? Yes, and it’s important to understand why. For starters, the U.S. Constitution supports and enables special interest groups. Such groups are a key element in finding and expressing consensus.
Despite this, you will often hear politicians deriding the power of “special interest groups.” This is balderdash for the consumption of uninformed, disengaged masses and the people spouting this nonsense know it. The newspapers and television routinely portray “special interest groups” as a version of the AIDS virus, a plague upon the Republic that needs to be eradicated. I hope that when you’ve finished this book, you will have a different view.
Next time you hear a politician railing against “special interest groups,” ask them: “Which special interest groups have too much power? Teachers? Bankers? School boards? Realtors? Boy Scouts? Catholic Church? Insurance agents? What would you do to curtail their power? Fact is, any honest politician will tell you that the government, and certainly the politicians, couldn’t function without special interest lobbying groups and their volunteer and professional staff.
“Lobbyists are, in many cases, expert technicians and capable of explaining complex and difficult subjects in a clear, understandable fashion. They engage in personal discussions with Members of Congress in which they can explain in detail the reasons for positions they advocate…. Because our congressional representation is based on geographical boundaries, the lobbyists who speak for the various economic, commercial and other functional interests of this country serve a very useful purpose and have assumed an important role in the legislative process.”
—Senator JOHN F. KENNEDY, Congressional Record, March 2, 1956, vol. 102, pp. 3802–3
If you want to change law or policy in any political arena—city, county, state or the United States—you need to show broad-based support. You do that by joining or forming a special interest group and mobilizing people who can vote for the politicians who can give you what you want. That’s all a special interest group is: like-minded people joining together to fight for a cause. Having an organization is important because if you are the only person who wants something, why should your needs define public policy?
That’s why we have a system in which special interest groups play a huge role: Special interest groups demonstrate depth of support beyond one person. After all, “majority rule” means you have and can show a majority. If you don’t like our political system—the way money works, the way special interest groups work—I encourage you to try to change it. This book will help. On some structural issues, such as the role of money, many politicians and lobbyists will agree with you. I probably agree with you. But I don’t see the system changing anytime soon. For now, I’m trying to help you get what you want from the system as it exists, using tried and proven techniques. Everything that follows assumes you can work through an organization.
Basic Concepts You Need to Understand
Our political system is not designed to decide, and cannot decide, who is right and who is wrong. It is designed to decide who has a majority.
There are no right or wrong positions in politics, just decisions made by human beings for good reasons, bad reasons or indifference.
If you can’t prove that lots of people are with you, you will fail.
If you have the votes in the legislature, you’re right. If you don’t, you’re wrong.
No political decision is permanent; the fat lady never sings.