It’s Week 6 of the Get Fit challenge for Greener Grassroots. You’re not ready to quit yet, are you? I hope not, because this week we’re focusing on one of the most important parts of overall fitness: Building Muscle. Strength training allows your body to accomplish more, and do it more efficiently, as you put in the work to build muscles. The same goes for activism.
Traditionally, we’ve thought about activism as simply telling politicians to do things we want, or to stop doing things we don’t want. That’s true as far as it goes. But you can check the track record of being a sole voice advocating for something; it’s not often effective. It isn’t that your voice doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. What’s critical, though, is how much you can amplify your voice. If you want to make your voice too loud to ignore, you’re going to have to build muscle; muscle that will help you accomplish more of the heavy lifting in politics.
Politicians and elected officials typically only respond to one of two motivators: money or votes. So anyone who wishes to command the attention of their local politicians and elected officials on an issue should be devoting time to amassing a lot of money, or to amassing a lot of people who vote. Money comes in the form of donations to PACs, which are fairly easy to create (but have serious down sides). Votes come in many forms, but we’ll concentrate on some that are easiest to quantify, such as membership rosters and actions taken (like letters written or phone calls made).
There has been a lot of criticism of PACs in recent years. Candidates get to take advantage of them as a supplement to their own funding structure, and still stay within campaign donation limits. PACs also insulate the candidates they support from some of the more aggressive tactics they might employ, allowing the candidates some measure of deniability if a messaging campaign goes wrong. Issue PACs and ideological PACs don’t necessarily have better reputations than candidate-focused PACs over the past few election cycles. One reporter started examining the track records of PACs on the conservative side as well as their fundraising efforts, and learned that out of $54 million taken in by 10 PACs claiming to support conservative candidates, the PACs only paid out about $3.6 million to help candidates. That’s an abysmal track record, and a huge diversion of resources from well-meaning donors into the pockets of scammers.
That isn’t to say that PACs don’t have their uses. In some states, if you want to organize to support an issue, a PAC is still a good way to pool funds. Groups that want to mail information to voters, pass out fliers, or print signs to post around town need to raise funds to be able to do it. Those groups need to make sure they aren’t falling afoul of regulations and political campaign laws in their states, because some jurisdictions actually require groups to file paperwork in order to expend funds on political causes. PACs also help a group brand itself in the political arena. A ‘Stop High Speed Rail PAC’ postcard in the mail is unambiguous, and lets people know that the issue has more than one perspective to consider.
Leveraging votes for your cause is another way to prove that your issue is serious, and worth the attention of an elected official or candidate. Your single letter to a member of Congress or city council member might not garner all that much attention. But as one contact among many from others you’ve recruited for the cause, your letter becomes part of a wave. It signals to the elected official that you’re backed up by plenty of others who want the same things you do, and are willing to take action to get what they want. Whether through writing, e-mailing, calling, or visiting their offices, a visual representation of interest about an issue makes an impression on them. Just do a little research ahead of time to make sure you’re spending your effort on the most effective means of communication.
You aren’t limited to those ways of showing your muscle, either. You can start Facebook groups to find more people who share your concerns. If there’s an issue you want addressed, you can use the group to recruit people to join you at a public meeting before the governing board. You can create online events, inviting others to show up in a group at town halls and ask questions or express support for people speaking for your perspective. If you lead a group in your area, you can invite elected officials to take questions – and be sure to fill the room. (I recommend adding a Q&A over merely asking them to speak to a group unchallenged. There are some Class-A windbags and spinners in office. Insisting that they take questions if they intend to speak also reminds them that they have constituents to whom they are accountable.)
(A quick aside: you’ll note that there are groups utilizing the town hall tactic right now as their own congress members come home for meetings and town halls. Make sure as you are engaging elected officials and showing your ‘muscle’, you do so with respect for the other people at the events. It’s one thing to take an elected official to task for doing a poor job, or ignoring concerns of the constituents. It’s another thing entirely to drown out the other concerns of those constituents in an effort to be disruptive and rude and combative. Think about how the things your group says and does look to outsiders. Consider whether other people in the room or watching on video would be drawn to support your case based on your words and actions. If you aren’t representing your cause well, you could be doing damage to your issues among the very people you should be recruiting to fight beside you. We talked about proper form last week for a good reason. You don’t want to sabotage your efforts.)
The short version of all this, and some things to keep in mind:
- Use PACs when prudent, especially if required by law
- Pay close attention to PAC guidelines when using one
- Ensure and promote transparency of your PAC
- Amplify your voice by joining with others
- Study the best methods of communicating your concerns
- If you lead a group, invite your targets to take questions at one of your meetings
- Respect others, especially other constituents, at public events
- Be creative with your tactics
- Make your tactics fun, engaging, and informative when possible
You don’t have to yell and be confrontational; funny, backed up with easy-to-remember facts and points, will also get the job done. Work with your team to ensure that people who are at your events know more about your issue than they did when they got there, and that they go home with something either in their hands or in their heads that sticks with them.
Recruit some allies, make your activism fun, and your team will be eager to do more together. And THAT is how you build muscle that lasts.