(I’m OK with media is the moron… I was many years a newspaper reporter and editor… I think of myself as a grass roots journalist… and sometime moron…)
My political education began when I ran for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives many years ago. I came to understand the most important dynamic in politics: The special relationship between politicians and the people who put them in office-the voters in their district.
This realization came as I shook hands and talked with voters. I was both very interested in what they had to say and how I could get their votes. Later I spoke with politicians and lobbyists and explored the vast research into how politicians make decisions. I learned a lot about how politicians feel about the people who can vote for them and how powerful those people can be.
((Video nterview with Pat Libby who teaches not-for-profit lobbying at University of San Diego))
Elected officials lust for voter approval. Constituents are the most important people in the world, and every candidate or elected official must pay attention to them. They are like customers, and if they don’t buy what you are selling, you will be out of office. Elected officials know they must listen to the people who can vote for them, or else.
You see this principal hammered home time and again, as recently in Virginia. The Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, was described by The New York Times as spending so much time on national party politics that “he was leaving the home fires dangerously unattended.” He got beat in a primary. A smart politician never forgets who put him in office and who can take him out: the voters back home.
I spent a lot of time shaking hands and talking with voters. Now, my personal goal is to get every concerned American to speak, as a representative or member of an organized group, to the people they vote for, just as the writers of the Constitution intended. If we do that, we can solve every problem the nation faces.
But Americans are sinking into cynicism and doubt about our political system. Almost everything you see on TV or read in the newspaper feeds that cynical point of view. The presentation of politics in newspapers, on television and online feeds negativity and gives people an easy excuse to shun political activity. To an outsider, it all seems about money, power, and sometimes sex. That is not the reality I have experienced. Our system is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it works for those who work it. Make a note: FOR THOSE WHO WORK IT. People aren’t left out; they drop out.
We all know how few people take even the simplest step to participate in our political system: vote. In most elections, such as Assembly races here in California, only 20 percent to 40 percent of eligible people vote. An even smaller number make meaningful contact with an elected officeholder about an issue. My grassroots poll found that about 13 percent of Americans have contributed money or time to a politician.
Other polls found even fewer, depending on how the question is asked.
In the June 2014 California primary, only 25 percent of California registered voters cast a ballot, 4.4 million out of 17.7 million registered-about half the population of Los Angeles County. Los Angeles, because of its population and the number of legislators it sends to Sacramento, is a major center of political clout. Even so, it consistently has the lowest turnout rate of any county in the state, a mere 17 percent in 2014. (Voting is important. Please vote, although later I will discuss why voting is the least effective means to affect public policy.)
That so few people vote, that far fewer write to or make phone calls to politicians, and almost none give money or time means that those who do communicate wield disproportionate power. People who write letters, send emails, make contributions and phone calls, or give time to politicians form a small political elite that drives public policy.
My experience, and that of many other political professionals, tells me fewer than one percent of Americans communicate often enough and effectively enough to influence policy. You can be in that one percent, the political elite.
It amazes me, as I work with ordinary people from San Diego to Boston to Miami, that those who get involved get results. They don’t always get everything they want-nobody does-but they believe there is a fair process and they often win something.
Contrary to the image presented in newspapers and on TV, nearly all of those people who talk to politicians and work with them will tell you that elected officeholders are honest, hardworking men and women of high ethical standards who are trying their best to find satisfactory compromises to complicated problems.
However, many people fall into the trap of believing that the corruption and failures reported in the media represent all politicians. If you are in that group, just note that what you are seeing are the people who got caught. This proves the system works. If you respond by saying, well, there are plenty who don’t get caught, I disagree. Nobody is watched more than elected officials. It is difficult to do anything without the whole world finding out. My experience and gut feeling is that politicians are more honest than most people if for no other reason than it is so difficult for them to escape scrutiny. It is true that many politicians operate within the cycle of taking campaign contributions, then helping those contributors achieve their goals, then getting more contributions. That’s legal and doesn’t mean they were bought. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Note that the campaign contributions DO NOT go to the candidate but to their campaign, an important distinction.
I also believe-and this is based on conversations with hundreds of staff, politicians and lobbyists-that most people run for office out of a sincere desire to do good, as they define “good.”
Whether you believe that or not, I can promise you that adopting a positive attitude is the first step toward getting what you want. Maintaining a negative attitude will do nothing but hurt you.
I hope this book will energize you to understand the constitutional role of special interest groups, become engaged and make this democracy work as it should. We don’t have political parties that engage citizens to pass legislation. As the founders intended, our system has evolved into a special interest democracy. One of my favorite type of clients over the years has been Realtors®. They are fond of saying, “We’re not Democrats; we’re not Republicans. We are the Realtor® Party.”
We Americans form and express consensus through organizations, not political parties. That’s how advocates gather the critical mass of political weight needed to move Congress or the California legislature. It’s very important to understand this. When you read in the newspapers or see on TV that the “Democratic Party” or the “Republican Party” has done something in Congress or the legislature, it’s misleading. A better description would be, “the Democratic caucus” or “House Republicans.” To call movers and shakers a “party” invokes an image of citizen participation that simply doesn’t exist. Citizens don’t enact legislation through parties but through special interest groups. If you doubt this, go down to any political party office three months after an election, if you can find one. Try to “join” the party to advocate for your issue. Let me know what happens.
I’ve worked in 47 states teaching people how to lobby. In my seminars I say, “All things being equal, politicians will go with the flow. Your job is to create the flow.” You can do that if you represent a consensus rather than a single individual. Usually this means an organization of the sort envisioned in the First Amendment: special interest groups contributing to public discourse already up and running and in the fight. Your best bet is to join a group and leverage your effort.