How to talk to politicians

This google document that has been going around the progressosphere is an important read.  An extremely important read in the days going forward.  (And, I trust it because, humble-brag-6-degrees-of-separation-style, my aunt knows one of the authors!)

Many of us, I think, are new to this whole getting involved with politics thing.  We may have fired off an email or a letter when something particularly egregious has happened, but for the most part we’ve voted and generally trusted our elected officials to do what’s right or to ignore what’s right because we’re outnumbered.

We no longer have luxury of trust.  And we have the moral imperative and the will to fight to stem the worst excesses even if outnumbered.  With enough of our voices we can make change.  We’re the majority in the country even if not a majority in our gerrymandered districts.

A question I’ve had as I make these phone calls to politicians (something I’ve been doing almost every weekday since recovering from the election) is whether or not we can/should batch up comments into one phone call to an office or if each item should get a separate call.   Another question is whether it’s ok to leave a voicemail or if I should keep trying offices until I get a voice on the other end of the line.  And should I be using polite scripts or should I be more confrontational?  (Answers down below.)

Calling every day is a bit draining.  Generally the feeling of being drained happens before I make the call and I feel fine and maybe a little strong and powerful after, but I was a bit shaken and angered by an extremely unpleasant call with so-called “Richard Wilson” at the house financial oversight committee republican number who claimed to be the front office supervisor who told me that they couldn’t possibly investigate Trump’s potential conflicts of interest until they’d finished investigating the oh so corrupt current administration and then got confrontational with me (and if I wanted to complain about him, I would have to call my senator because he is the top supervisor).  Usually though I just do the polite script, they say, “thank you I will let X know” and that’s that.  Easy Peasy.  But I was feeling really angry about the latest Trump conflict of interest and the way that the financial oversight committee is determined to do nothing (and has plans to do nothing) so I started asking when and why.

According to the guide, I should be having more of that type of conversation, pushing aides to give me an answer and telling them I’m not satisfied.  And I will, but those phone calls take energy.  (I did recently have a script-like conversation with a nice lady at the governor’s office about an issue directly related to my kids– it was easier and more natural to push on that because I did want information and I did want the governor to actually do something.)  The guide recommends a separate phone call for each issue.  Calling until you get a staffer, and not just talking to the staffer who answers, but talking to the staffer specific to the issue you’re concerned about and not letting go until you’ve talked with them.  If that sounds overwhelming, keep reading this post.

I want to remind everybody that although the script in the google document is the ideal, that although having confrontational phone-calls, going to town hall meetings, and so on are important and we should be working towards them, in politics as in everything else that matters:

Don’t Let The Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good.

Reading that google doc has made me want to do more, much more.  And it’s pushed me to try to connect more with our local groups even though they’re not making it easy.  (If we ever get in touch, one of our first orders of business will be to make it easier.)  I’m going to try to use more confrontational scripts with my local staffers.

Part of the reason these calls are so important is because staffers check a box based on your call to see what issues constituents care about and in which direction they care.  So calling up and telling your senator about the appointments you oppose in one phone call gets those boxes checked (“We prefer it, so much easier for everyone,” a staffer told my sister.)  That’s not ideal when talking to Republican representatives, according to the google doc , because we don’t want things to be easier on them, but we do need those boxes to be checked.  Calling and getting those boxes checked is so much better than not getting any checked because you couldn’t make all those phone calls.  Similarly, leaving a message isn’t as good as talking to a staffer, but if you aren’t going to be able to keep calling until you get a staffer (because you have a job), leaving a message is still important.  Polite scripts still get your voice heard and that box checked.  We don’t need everybody to be confrontational, but we do need our representatives to know that people are noticing that what is happening is not acceptable and we do not support it.

I’d say right now, in D&D terminology, I’m a level 3 activist (and if you play D&D, you know you’re still fighting slime molds and can die by goblin at that level).  But that’s ok.  Just like with role-playing games, we need experience before we can level up.

What I’ve been doing has been doing one action item off one of the newsletters I subscribe to each day.  Sometimes I talk to a person (and sometimes I call different offices until I get a person).  Sometimes I leave a message.  You may prefer to bunch up and make all of your phone calls on Moral Monday or Activism Thursday or whatever fits best in your schedule.  (And I may move to Moral Mondays as time goes on.)  Start at whatever level you feel most comfortable.  Batch your calls once a week if that’s what you have time for.  Use the polite script if you don’t have the time or energy to have a discussion.  Leave messages if you don’t have time to call different offices until you find a person.  As you get more comfortable or as you’re working on the issues that you care about more, then do more.  The more you do, the sooner you level up, and the more you’ll be able to do and the easier it will be.  Because we have a lot to do to keep this country from moving backward, and we need to make our voices heard and to organize in order to survive the next few years.

In the words of one of the new activism newsletters I subscribe to, “Letting your voice be heard in any way is more important than not being heard at all.”

What level activist are you?  What suggestions do you have for organizing?  Have you reached out to any groups?  How have your experiences with calling been?  Is it easier than you thought or harder?  What other kinds of things have you been doing besides calling?  Is anybody going to DC or a local city for the Women’s March?

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20 Responses to “How to talk to politicians”

  1. ivy Says:

    Years ago and in a different country, my mother had a job where one of her responsibilities was to answer letters people sent to politicians.
    Her advice was always to ask a question that forced someone to think and consider your concerns. “Could you please explain why xx (e.g. no tax on sugar) is a good policy, given yy (rising obesity)?” (not a very good eg in this case)
    I don’t know if that helps but I find that framing something as a question is often easier than being directly confrontational. I don’t deal with people being on the defensive well!

  2. contingent cassandra Says:

    This is excellent; thanks!

    One point I’d say is worth emphasizing, from my own (now long-ago) experience on the Hill: the person who answers the phones is, indeed, going to be very junior, quite possibly an intern, quite possibly a very young one (I interned in high school — not common, but I was local, and my high school still sends interns to the Hill). In addition to serving as a conduit for information, they’re learning about how the world, and politics, work from their experienced on the Hill, and you’re part of that experience. While it doesn’t happen all that often, people with somewhat narrow previous experience sometimes have their worldviews expanded by such experiences (and those people sometimes go on to be very effective “translators” between groups that don’t often talk to each other). So make your point, but be kind, and remember that there’s a human being on the other end of the phone (perhaps even one who’s in that particular office because that’s where their parents/community members/college administrators have connections, they could get a job, etc., etc.)

    I’d also be inclined to use the tactic of trying to contact a higher-up staff member sparingly, especially if one is in sympathy with the work of that particular staffer. After all, though dealing with constituent calls *is* part of their work, it’s only part of their work,and when they’re dealing with that part of their work, they’re not doing other things that might ultimately be more productive.

    I’ll be joining the Women’s March on Washington — and that, incidentally, is the current name for the event; apparently the Million Woman March already occurred in Philly in 1997, and it is important to the (mostly African-American) organizers of that march to lay continued claim to that name (and to the connection with the Million Man March). Now that grades are in, I’m also trying to sort out things like donations and effective advocacy given that I live in a very blue district, and have correspondingly deep-blue representatives.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      “when they’re dealing with that part of their work, they’re not doing other things that might ultimately be more productive”

      I think this is part of the point that the indivisible guide is making– when they’re answering phone calls, they’re not taking away our rights or destroying government programs. So us Red state warriors should be spending more time calling (while blue staters can be more brief with their praise and support).

  3. crazy grad mama Says:

    For me, calling is the scariest possible form of communication with anyone (all the spontaneity of talking in person with worse sound and none of the body language cues!) so calling my senators’ local offices and reading polite scripts to whichever staffer picks up is a Really Big Deal for me. I’ve done it multiple times since the election and will continue to do it, but it takes a lot of mental preparation and leaves me in a state of twitchy adrenaline for up to an hour afterward. So my first (defensive) reaction to that google doc was to be frustrated and angry and feel like giving up – it repeatedly refers to calls as a “light lift” and gives an example script that’s way longer than what I can do right now.

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s OK to start where I can.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It is definitely ok to start where you can! Thank you for making those calls. They really do matter when other people are doing the same thing. And other people are doing the same thing.

      One message, I think, is that when you’re doing the polite scripts, it’s good to get on one of those big coordinating mailing lists where you know a lot of other people will be doing the same thing. Also to react to big media stories because you know other people will be too. It boosts your message when you’re not the only polite voice. Drown bad policy in a ton of feathers!

  4. Foxy Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this guide – it is one of the best that I’ve seen! I work as an aide for a local elected official and so much of this guide applies to local politics as well.

    Everything about this election has me tied up in knots, I’m not sure how we are going to survive the coming years without massive collateral damage to our democracy.

  5. bogart Says:

    I am calling, but I do not yet feel I am doing a very good job of calling (except for last week when I made some very, very angry calls about some more local issues and I felt I did a GREAT job of that and I ENJOYED IT. However, I was speaking to machines and my tone would not have been appropriate had I been speaking to a person. I am going to consider what Ivy said, above, and maybe try that. Also, anything my calls can prevent anyone in my Senators’ offices from doing (i.e. by consuming their time) is a GOOD thing, so no qualms there (for me).

    I listened to an interview on NPR of Newt Gingrich (re: Trump) as I was driving in this morning and while several things he said did make me mad (unsurprising) I *agreed with* some of what he said (surprising) and am thinking when things like that happen I should take EXACTLY his words and call my Senators and say something to the effect of, “I completely agree with former Speaker Gingrich’s point re: President-elect Trump that ‘This is not a country that wanders around trusting people with power. This is a country that wants accountability.’ What steps is the Senator taking to make sure that happens?”

    Besides calling — I am wary of “easy solutions” to complex problems, but in the “low-cost things I can do” category, I am trying e.g. to find out what local businesses in my community are owned by immigrants and/or African Americans (sometimes this is obvious, other times not so much) and shop at those places for things I would be buying anyway. I joined a local credit union that assists recent immigrants and plan to move some of my banking activity over there (I will probably make my next Roth contribution to them, as I like to keep some of my Roth in cash and the election results certainly haven’t changed my desire to do that).

    I am considering marching either in DC or in my local capital.

  6. Debbie M Says:

    I guess I’m only a level 1 or 2 activist. I only sign petitions. I have been doing so for a few years: once you sign one petition, the organization that put it together sends you more, and so I sign about 70% of the petitions I receive. I read each one carefully and sign only those that I feel strongly about. I don’t sign only one ones that I feel knowledgeable about: I sign a lot of petitions asking to protect certain species or bits of land for example that I’ve never heard of. Anything I have mixed feelings about (like minimum wage), I don’t sign.

    Fortunately, those petitions come to my “business” e-mail address (not to be confused with my social e-mail address or my work e-mail address). So I don’t have to sift through them to get to emails from my friends. Unfortunately, I also get about a 3-to-1 ratio of fundraising versus petition e-mails. And of course it’s super depressing to read about all these problems, especially the ones that should be obvious to anyone who’s not a sociopath.

    It takes me forever to get through all those emails, especially if I skip a day. And I dread doing it. But of course now it’s more important than ever.

    Some of the petitions let you modify the wording. I try to put things in terms my right-wing representatives can understand, like market economy and states’ rights.. I pretend they are reasonable people who just happen to disagree with me about the best way to achieve common goals. Because how helpful is it to just say “I hate your guts for taking big-oil money and doing whatever they want you to no matter how evil, you stinking pig.” Only with more swear words. Occasionally I have said that I can’t imagine any way that someone could possibly believe X is a good idea unless they are corrupt.

    I occasionally do get e-mails back from my Representative and Senators. They generally take the form of one paragraph thanking me for my input which they love receiving, several paragraphs saying how they would never, ever do what I am asking in a million years for several reasons, some of which sound good, some of which are blatant lies, and some of which are both. Then a paragraph thanking me again and saying how important my beliefs are to them. Or sometimes the middle paragraph will be about how they are not on the relevant committee, but if my opinion ever becomes relevant to them, they will pay attention to it. The replies are always form letters (they rarely have much to do with what I actually wrote) and they never show the original petition/email that I sent.

    One of my Senators often lets you check a box that says you don’t want a response from him, and you just wanted to voice an opinion. I always check that box now. I despise all three of my representatives and have decided that it’s not my job to listen to them, but it is their job to listen to me. This makes me feel closed-minded, but I don’t trust them and want to get my information on good right-wing ideas from sources that I do trust instead.

    Perhaps calling would be more satisfying because I could talk to a real human being (who’s not my actual rep) and not just get form letters.

    I also donate to charitable causes. So some money is going where my mouth is. Though ten percent of my income feels like nothing, I just have to remember that if a lot of people just do what they can, it adds up.

    I don’t currently volunteer for anything. I have a lot of excuses for not calling or volunteering. They aren’t any good, but are good enough to have stopped me so far. Maybe I should talk to my friends about these issues. I mean, duh, of course I should. I’m seeing some at a party tomorrow, more on Christmas, and even more on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I’ll propose that we challenge each other to do something. If I ever do get good ideas, I will post them with you.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Also, don’t you live in your state capitol? I think I actually have some links for you for things you can do in town from actiongroups.net. Maybe some of your friends are already involved? Plus you can go to the Women’s March in your city.

      I’ll shoot you an email. You’re in a really good situation to do activism stuff. It won’t be like pulling teeth like my sister and I are doing in our respective town/cities.

      You and your friends *will* make a difference.

  7. bogart Says:

    So I had an epiphany. I made today’s calls and one of them went “badly” (I blamed a State Representative for something that happened in the State Senate, although, just to be clear, Republicans on both sides were, in fact, messing things up. The Senate just beat the House to the punch. But anyway, the staffer tried to argue with me and I was having none of it and said words to the effect of, “I don’t care who started it, both of you go to your rooms!” or actually, “The Republican party better get its act together and start representing the interests of this state, you are an embarrassment!” or something like that.

    Then I ended the call (politely, no, really.) and realized that the person I’d been talking to had a point (albeit a small one for the reasons noted above).

    Then I realized IT DOESN’T MATTER. I and the people I know virtually and IRL value things like logic and persuasive arguments but actually, all my elected officials need to know is that I am (or any constituent is) MAD AS HELL and will NOT vote for them until the things that are making me mad as hell change. Also, ideally, that I will make a nuisance of myself in ways that may attract bad press.

    Recent (as well as not so recent) history should make this obvious, but see above re: valuing logic and persuasive arguments. But just as (e.g.) an unemployed coal miner can blame Obama for coal’s decline, I can blame my elected officials for — well, really whatever the heck I want. And all they actually care about (this is the Indivisible point about the importance to MCs of re-election) is changing enough of the things I want changed, or keeping enough of the things that I want kept the same the same, that I am persuaded to vote for them.

    And no, they are not totally clueless about the fact that my vote is just one of many and they don’t need every vote and [insert relevant observations about opponent presence and quality, and gerrymandering, and whatever the heck else here]. But in fact we know that all MCs “run scared,” in terms of fearing losing an election (and that even those not vulnerable to general election challengers are vulnerable to primary challengers) and that if I am MAD AS HELL, the likelihood of their being able to reason with me (taking me as the average voter, here) is slim to none.

    So: bad (and angry) calls will continue. Now to figure out how best to coordinate on others ways to make a nuisance of myself.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Good!

      And you’re right, well-reasoned arguments don’t seem to be particularly important right now and do not and have not swayed the Republican Party. Listening to reason and paying attention to reality has been solely the Democrat’s thing ever since Sarah Palin.

      And YES, coordinating with others is KEY. If you hit our activism tab, you can see links to resources to help coordinate. We’re still having difficulty organizing locally (next on my list is to see if the university orgs are any better than the local orgs, failing that we’ll have to start our own group), but we will keep at it. If you’re in a major city that has an action network, they’re making it super easy to connect. Get on their mailing list by signing up here: http://actiongroups.net/ . So far they’ve only made it to a few cities, but the work they’ve done connecting and organizing in those few cities is pretty amazing.

      If everyone spends a little time over break talking to friends and relatives about how to activate, we will make a big difference going forward. Every small horrible legislative thing we block will literally save lives, and will particularly save lives of our most vulnerable people.

  8. Rosa Says:

    I’m kind of terrible about calling, I don’t do it often enough, I almost always follow a script, and I always end up depressed when I call to disagree on something (I have excellent senators and an excellent representative, so I’m mostly calling to say “good job! keep it up!” but I do disagree with them on a few longstanding issues) I always end up feeling helpless and depressed.

    I do love showing up in person though -protests and vigils always make me feel better, so I go when I can, and practical support – showing up as court support, giving people rides, getting hot drinks and hats for picketers – I’m good at. Less so with the kid, who at this point is old enough to voice his opinion about going instead of just hanging in the stroller (though sometimes the answer is, we do things that are important to you all the time, sometimes we do things that are important to me.) I know a lot of old activists – hell, at this point I *am* an old activist – but I know people who started in the anti-Vietnam war movement and made it through the Reagan years, so I’m protected by a kind of fatalism – you have to do the work but changing the world is slow and complicated – and also by having gone to the huge, sustained anti-war protests in 2001 that were just ignored.

    I’m really encouraged by the amazing skill and tenacity of recent movements – especially Black Lives Matter – and how fast stuff like this daily call action has spread after this election. Long term organizing is the key and that’s a thing i haven’t really done, I’ve just shown up to support other people’s organizing. And there are amazing leaders right now to follow.


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