I can’t tell whether there are more shitty things happening in the world, or if I just hear about more of them because of my Facebook addiction. It could be that the people to whom shitty things happen have more of a voice now that media is less filtered through the opinions of rich white men with newspaper/porn empires, reputations, and rich white male investors. ANYWAY.
Technically, a lot of my job right now is lobbying Congress, but it’s not what I expected it to be. There have been precisely zero money filled suitcases and smoke filled rooms, and precisely a million emails to staffers exactly my age who went to slightly better colleges. Before I started getting paid to do it, I actually wasn’t much of an advocate. I was nervous about wasting the time of these very important people with something that I maybe wasn’t fully informed about. I wondered what difference one little signature would make. It shouldn’t take a lobbying job to demystify advocacy to people, so I’m going to try to make it less scary.
The first thing to know is that advocacy is a total numbers game. Congressional offices are looking for issues that LOTS of people care about. Don’t stress about any individual advocacy action; keep it quick, and do it often. Policy is frequently complicated, but the people who put the alert together should have distilled the issue down to EXACTLY what you need to know to decide your position on an issue. Here’s a confession: I very seldom actually read the bills I advocate about. They’re written in legalese and I get much more out of having someone explain it to me. You don’t necessarily need to know the legislative record of the Member you’re calling, as a citizen advocate. Those records are notoriously out of date. If the person says “Senator so-and-so already cosponsored that bill,” then you just switch to thanking them for doing so. That matters too.
Action alerts frequently want you to customize your response with your story. Advocates are always looking for great stories and people to take a more active role on issues they care strongly about. However, even if you don’t have a personal connection to the issue, you still have the right to tell your elected officials your opinion about it!
The tradeoff is that as it gets easier to weigh in on things, the numbers required get higher. The White House’s We the People site started out promising a response for any petition that reached 25,000 signatures in 30 days – now it’s 100,000. I can go on Change.org and sign 8 petitions in less than a minute. As a newfound government junkie, I haven’t gotten tired of watching petition counters click up by the thousands in minutes.
The second thing to know is that if you pick up the phone, you will never talk to a Congressperson. The people on the other end are getting paid (haha just kidding interns!) to listen to you. If you state your address and the policy you’d like to see, you are not wasting their time. If you are actually mentally ill and ramble for 15 minutes about aliens, they will still be polite to you.
They are talking to you on the assumption that you might vote for their boss one day. Some offices are sticklers for only talking to constituents. This is SUPER FRUSTRATING for people in DC because we are a bunch of government wonks with no representation. HOWEVER. Immigration and prison reform are big issue right now, and the most powerful advocates cannot legally vote. Go ahead and call your parents’ district, the district you went to school in, the district you spent your summers in as a kid. If you know an address there, and could conceivably influence the voting habits of people there, I think that’s completely legit. My favorite advocacy prank ever is when Trent Franks (R-AZ) proposed a ban on late term abortions in the District, and DC was all like “oh are you our Mayor now? Well, I have some potholes I’d like you to fix.”
A lot of people seemed surprised at the fact that voting isn’t at the top of my list of citizenship actions. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain,” right? But that’s not exactly fair — our voting infrastructure is completely fucked, so voting is actually NOT the easiest part of being a citizen. Swing state voters waited EIGHT HOURS to vote in 2008. In contrast, Oregon and Washington, vote-by-mail states, have some of the highest voter turnouts in the nation. I suspect that the reason most of the country went with voting machines rather than the civilized, inexpensive, and transparent vote-by-mail system is that disenfranchisement benefits the people making those decisions. For more evidence on why vote by mail rocks, check out The Stranger, “Seattle’s Only Newspaper.”
Even if you don’t vote, you’re still Schrodinger’s Voter to your Members of Congress, so feel free to still be an advocate. If you’re able to, though, please do vote! The ones in power make it hard to do because voting has power. Sometimes local races can be decided by several hundred votes, and they absolutely have a direct impact on your quality of life. If you’re intimidated by all the choices, here’s my advice: Don’t bother with the official voter guide with the candidates’ statements. Go straight to your favorite local alt weekly paper or advocacy group’s voter’s guide and vote their picks. There’s a lot to know, and that’s why those guides exist.
So, here’s the TL;DR: Politics is complicated, but don’t let that get in the way of sharing your opinions. Sign petitions and communicate with all the Congressional offices you can get away with. Share stories when you have them, but realize that your opinion is valid even if you don’t. Vote, if practical, and realize that the system doesn’t want you to be able to vote. Make a habit of small, frequent acts of citizenship. They will feed your soul.