Be a Cynic, not a Nihilist. Call Congress.
So why — specifically — is calling Congress not a waste of time?
Recently, I wrote about why calling and e-mailing our elected officials is not a waste of time: Why it’s actually one of the most powerful actions we can take to change how our government works.
Now, I want to get into specifics. I’m looking at the specific reasons people give for not calling or e-mailing their representatives … and I’m talking about why, as understandable as those reasons might be, they aren’t anywhere near as compelling as the reasons for calling and e-mailing.
The other day on Facebook, I posed the question, “If someone asks you to e-mail your representative, and you don’t, even if you care about the issue — what stops you?” Here’s my response to the answers I got:
1. “I don’t think they listen.”
I said it yesterday, and I say yet again: Squeaky wheels. Grease. Especially if the squeaky wheels number in the thousands. Elected officials absolutely keep tabs of which issues people are calling or e-mailing about … and you better believe they keep tabs on which direction those calls and e-mails are going. If your elected official cares and wants to make a difference, she’ll want to know what her voters want her to do. And if she just wants to hold onto her position of power, she’ll bloody well pay attention to thousands of voters screaming for her head if she doesn’t vote the way they want her to.
Your one little voice may not matter so much. Your one little voice combined with hundreds or thousands of other little voices matters a whole hell of a lot. (Which is why it’s such a good idea, not just to call or e-mail your representatives, but to Facebook and Twitter and such to get other people to do it, too.) Hundreds or thousands of constituents kicking up a stink is a hard thing for a politician to ignore. Again, how do you think the religious right has been so successful for so long?
2. “My representative already agrees with me about this issue, and already knows how the people in my district/ state feel. I don’t need to let her know.”
I can see how you’d think that. Especially if you live in a politically monolithic district.
But here’s the thing. Your representative may know your opinion on the issue. But she doesn’t necessarily know how strongly you feel about it. If 60 percent of the people in her district want health care reform, but they don’t care enough about it to bother calling or e-mailing — and 10 percent of the people in her district think health care reform is socialized death-panel Hitler medicine, and they take the time to show up at town hall meetings and scream about it? Who do you think she’s going to listen to? How hard do you think she’s going to fight for what she believes in … and for how long?
Squeaky wheels. Grease. Politicians assume that the people who don’t care enough to call or e-mail about an issue probably won’t remember the issue when they vote. If they even vote at all.
So even if she already agrees with you and is planning to vote the way you want her to, it’s useful to let her know, not just how you feel, but how strongly you feel about it. Let her know this issue isn’t one for horse trading. Let her know that this is an issue you want her to stand firm on; that this is an issue that mattered to you when you voted, and is one you’ll be remembering when you vote again. It’ll make her more likely to stand firm when the fight comes.
3. “My representative already disagrees with me about this issue, and nothing I do will make him change his mind.”
Again, an understandable point. (Although I am entertained to see people arguing that it’s useless to call your representative if they already agree with you … and other people arguing that it’s just as useless to call them if they don’t.)
But I have two responses to this.
First: Part of the reason they’re voting the way they do is that they think that’s what their voters want. It’s your job to disabuse them of that notion. Let them know that their district isn’t as uniformly right wing (or left wing) as they think it is. If you can get a groundswell of people in your district/state/country who agree with you to all make calls/send e-mails, you might be able to shift your representative’s thinking. If not this time, then next time. And if not, you can help make them uneasy … and that’s always fun.
Second: OK. So maybe calling your representative is a waste of time. Why not call the president? Your senators? The Senate Majority Leader? The Speaker of the House? Maybe your representative doesn’t want to hear your pinko opinions … but your president sure does. This one does, anyway.
Besides, it gets you in the habit. Calling your representative even if you think you can’t sway them gets you in the habit of doing it on those rare occasions when you might be able to.
4. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
But nobody is grading you on this. Nobody is going to grill you or quiz you. You don’t have to be super articulate, and you don’t have to have multiple talking points in bullet form. All you have to do is say, “I am a citizen of your district/state/country, and I support X.” It’s nice if you can follow that up with a brief “why,” but it’s really not necessary. They’re mostly just tallying “yeas” and “nays” anyway.
5. “I don’t have time.”
This is always my excuse. Of which I am heartily ashamed, as it’s the weakest one on the list. It takes 2 minutes. (Especially now that I have the “e-mail the White House/your senators/your representative” sites bookmarked on my computer, and their phone numbers programmed into my phone.) If I have time to watch Entourage and read Cute Overload, I have time to call or e-mail my representative.
6. “It’s a hassle. You have to go through a whole phone tree to get your call through, and you can’t e-mail them directly, you have to go through their Comments Web page.”
Here’s the part it took me an embarassingly long time to figure out: You can program these phone numbers into your phone. And you can bookmark the “Leave a comment” Web pages. It’s a very mild hassle the first time out — you have to Google “senator,” plus your state, and if you don’t know who your representative is you’ll have to look that up — but really, it’s 3 minutes of Googling if that.
Or you can use this handy “find your senators and representative” directory. Then, if you save the numbers and bookmark the Web pages, you’ll never have to do that part again. And if you call, you don’t have to go through a phone tree. At least, I didn’t. You find their number on their Web site. You call. You leave a message on their voice mail, or you talk to a staffer. It’s really not that hard.
7. “I get 20 calls to action a week. If I called or e-mailed every time I got one, I’d never get anything else done.”
I totally sympathize. I get 20 of these a week, too. You can’t possibly respond to all of them. If you did, you’d never do anything else.
So pick one.
Make one call/e-mail a day, or one a week, or one a month. One is better than none. Maybe as you get used to it, you’ll get more efficient, and you’ll be able to pick up two or three more. Or maybe not. Maybe you’ll just make one phone call or e-mail every now and then, on the issues you care about most passionately. That’s cool.
8. “I’d rather e-mail than call or write … but I heard that e-mails don’t have as much effect as snail mail.”
This is no longer true. I’m not sure it was ever true; if was, it’s not now. (In fact, ever since the anthrax scare, physical mail to Congress and the White House is now much slower to get processed than e-mail.) I too heard, once upon a time, that e-mails to representatives didn’t get listened to as seriously as letters or phone calls, but that’s just not true anymore. They’re not complete idiots. They know that e-mail is how people communicate these days.
Yes, it’s possible that some methods of contacting your elected officials are more effective than others. But all of them are more effective than not doing anything. It makes no sense at all to stay completely silent simply because you can’t make your voice heard as loudly as you might like.
Some people may tell you that one way of contacting your elected officials is better than another: that phoning is better, or e-mailing, or using carrier pigeons. I am not one of those people.
I strongly believe that contacting your elected officials is like exercise: the best way to do it is whatever way you’ll actually do.
9. “I don’t know enough about this issue.”
If you genuinely don’t know enough about an issue to have an opinion about it, OK. You’re off the hook. I’m not asking anyone to e-mail their representative on issues they don’t have an opinion about. (Although it might make for some entertainingly Dadaist politics: “Dear Senator, I’m a voter in your state, and I’m e-mailing you today to tell you that I have no opinion about health care reform. I don’t know very much about the issue, and I haven’t yet made up my mind about it.”)
But if you know enough about an issue to care? If you know enough about it to have an opinion? If you know enough about it that you’ll be really happy if it comes out one way, and really ticked off if it comes out another?
Then you know enough about it to call or e-mail your representative.
I mean, do you think the people showing up at the town hall meetings screaming about Nazi socialist death panels have read the health care bill? Any of the health care bills? They haven’t. They know nothing.
Do you want them to be the ones who set the terms of the debate? Do you want the only voices that get heard to be the voices of easily frightened know-nothing idiots, just because you don’t have an advanced degree in economics and therefore didn’t want to express an opinion?
* * *
I get that it’s easy to be cynical about politics. Boy, howdy, do I get it. You don’t have to tell me about the massive role that big money and corporate lobbying plays in government and policy; or about the short attention span of citizens and how easily distracted they can be by the Drama of the Day; or about the great advantage incumbents have over challengers and how it contributes to inertia and indifference in politicians; or about how easy it is for voters to be manipulated by fear.
I am 47 years old, and I’ve been participating in my government for almost three decades and observing it for longer than that, and I am under no illusions about how deeply sucky government can be. I get it.
But I also think that cynicism is the easy way out. Cynicism is just a way of not having to care, so you don’t risk being disappointed. Not calling or e-mailing an elected official, because you think they don’t care and won’t listen, is like never asking out the girl or guy you think is really cute, because you’re afraid they’ll say no. It’s giving up before you’ve even started.
I keep thinking about that quote from Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Politics is never, ever, ever perfect. Politics is the art of compromise, and the art of compromise is often an ugly, messy, dumb art.
But giving up is not the answer. Giving up is not going to make government better. Giving up is actively making it worse. Giving up on government because we can’t make it perfect is the enemy of making it good. Or at least, making it better.
And better is … well, better. As my friend Nosmo King points out: The lesser of two evils is less evil. How is that a hard decision?
This isn’t idealism. It’s harm reduction.
Stay cynical if you want to. Keep being a jaded, cynical hard-ass who thinks all government officials are selfish, power-hungry jerks. But be a jaded, cynical hard-ass who thinks all government officials are selfish, power-hungry jerks … and who calls or e-mails them to tell them what jerks they’re being and what exactly you expect them to do to be marginally less jerky.
Be a jaded, cynical hard-ass. But don’t be a nihilist. Don’t give up. People fought and died for the idea of participatory democracy: not just in the United States, but all over the world. In many parts of the world, they’re still fighting and dying for it.
You’re lucky. You don’t have to fight and die to keep this idea alive. You just have to call or e-mail your elected officials. You just have to program the phone numbers of the president, your senators and your representative into your phone. Or else Google the “contact the president/your senators/your representative” Web pages and bookmark them.
* * *
E-mail or call the White House: (202) 456-1111
Call or e-mail your representatives and senators (This takes you to a directory: you plug in your ZIP code and it tells you who your senators are, and links you to their Web sites with contact info)
E-mail or call Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi: (202) 225-4965
E-mail or call Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: (202) 224-3542