In my grassroots training seminars with people who want to get something done in the legislature, I like to play a word association game. I ask the audience to give me the first word that pops into their mind when I say “politician.” When a group responds with “sleaze,” “crooked,” “selfish,” “greed,” and other negative words, I know those people have very little political experience.
Other groups, often those who are most successful at getting what they want from the government, respond with words like “caring,” “sincere,” “dedicated,” “hardworking,” and “honest.” Two things become obvious immediately: (1) people with little experience in politics have a negative image of politicians and (2) most people who participate in the system have a positive image.
How is it that the people who are in direct contact feel good, and the ones out of touch feel bad? How can they feel so bad about something they have no direct experience with?
After hearing this enough, I started asking focus groups questions such as, “Since you really haven’t been involved, what causes you to form this opinion about politics?” The answer always came back loud and clear: the media. People who feel negative about politics have accepted what they read in the newspapers and see on television or the Internet.
In case you have negative feelings about politics and politicians, consider the things you know about-your job, your elected officials, your community. Does the media do a good job of reporting on these things? Do they give frequent, thorough, complete, and accurate reports? If you only read the newspapers and watched TV, would you have an accurate impression about your work or community?
The answer usually is “Absolutely not.” That’s because the media report on the exceptional, the unusual, the entertaining, the failures. The media folks-I used to be a newspaper editor – look for controversy, conflict and contention.
It doesn’t meet their definition of news to report that a member of Congress or the Assembly works hard, serves the district well, listens to the constituents and tries to make rational sense out of a lot of complex problems. It’s not news that your senator is honest. The news you get about politics is like much of the news you get about everything else-all you get is the exceptional, which often means the disasters. What you have hammered into your consciousness are the failures of our political system.
There’s another more important effect that contributes to the negativity people express about politics. Much of what is reported is about campaigns. Campaigns are by nature contentious, adversarial and controversial. The story plays out as drama focused on conflict. This is called the horse race story: who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead, who scored, who didn’t. If you are campaigning, the name of the game is to slam your opponent.
It’s like football. It’s a contact sport. It’s rough and
people get hurt. But it’s important to recognize that it is campaigning-and the media coverage of it-that largely creates the negative perception about all politics. Keep in mind that campaigns have little or nothing to do with most issues. They have little to do with what government does.
Don’t get me wrong-campaigns are important, as is voting. But campaigns and voting only decide which men and women will serve in office. Very few issues are decided in elections, unless you hold a referendum. What we are talking about-lobbying by grassroots volunteers-is what happens between the campaigns and elections. Grassroots lobbying for legislation has almost nothing to do with the things you see on TV or read in the newspapers. It has everything to do with getting what you want.
Unlike campaigns, legislative lobbying is a civilized, orderly, sane and mostly low-key business-like process. That’s why you almost never read about it or see it on TV. It is dull, but it gets things done. When you get engaged, it will feel much more like your day-to-day work in which you deal with rational people in a rational way.
In some ways, politics is like the workplace. When you vote on Election Day, that’s the day you decide who gets hired. Next, your unlearned, unskilled new employees, your senators or assembly members, report to work. Their success is determined by what happens in the ensuing weeks and months after being hired. You need to give your newly elected officials constant direction and coaching just like any employee. Getting elected does not mean the voters, or anybody else for that matter, has told them what to do despite the winners crowing “the voters have spoken” or “the voters have given me a mandate.”
Even if they do have any kind of “mandate” it will only be one issue, and that’s probably not your issue. You still have to tell them what you want. If you don’t, you leave them free to do whatever they choose. They will undoubtedly be hearing from people on the other side of your issues, and if your elected official doesn’t hear from you, you give them permission to go the other way.