How to Turn Your Political Frustration Into Action
Politics in the United States today has turned into a binary choice; you are either with us or against us. A young person going through elementary school now is learning that American society is marked with suspicion, anger and even hatred in the face of difference. Do not doubt for one second that the next two and four years will shape the life and values of that child. We either continue down this destructive path or change course. We have the ability and wherewithal to make the choice.
It is clear to me that our time to speak up, show up and change course is now. In a defining moment like this one, the only real question is how.
Earlier this month, I hosted a forum in Schenectady entitled, “Organizing 101: Turning Frustration into Action.” Hundreds of people attended on a cold, snowy, Friday evening. We held three breakout panels focusing on three specific actions:
1. How to use social media for grassroots organizing;
2. How to lobby government officials, from local to federal office, and;
3. How to run for public office.
Feedback from the forum was tremendous. “When are you going to do more?” “Thank you so much!” “Please share this nationally.” “I came away feeling better informed and energized.” “Thanks for taking the time to share more practical, enabling advice with your constituents.”
After a lifetime of public service, I have learned a number of important lessons. Now, more than ever, I hope that by sharing these lessons we engage more and demand more of our elected officials. After all, as President Obama said in his farewell speech, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.”
Below is a short-list of my ideas to answer the frequent recent question, “How do I get more involved?”
1. Read the news. Whether you get your news on social media, from TV, on the radio or even by picking up an “old fashioned” newspaper, one of the most important things you can do is to stay informed. Try to consume local, statewide, national and international news, if possible. Be sure to consider different sources as well. By challenging your own opinions and beliefs, varying news sources will provide you with perspective and insight that no single source could on its own.
2. Use social media to share your opinion with elected officials. I have tens of thousands of followers on social media channels. Yet the engagements can often be less than one would expect. If you are working with others to influence an elected official, post regularly but not obnoxiously. If you disagree with someone on Facebook or Twitter, do not call him or her names. Cite a different source, back up your counter claim and build your case. If you agree with something, say thank you, press like or retweet. It is common to hear complaints, but a ‘thank you’ goes even further. It can give a representative the backing they need to take a bold stand.
3. Write your elected officials. There is nothing better than receiving an old-fashioned letter via ‘snail mail.’ It shows that constituents took the time and energy required to sit down and write a letter, and mail that letter, to express their thoughts. These letters often contain powerful anecdotes that my colleagues and I share on the floor of the House of Representatives. Short of a personal letter, signing petitions and sending postcards also has a great impact. In my office, we seek to respond to each parcel of mail we receive in a timely manner. If you took the time to write to me, you deserve to know my position and thinking on the subject, even if we disagree.
4. Call your elected officials. Earlier this year, there was a plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Many of you noticed and began calling your Member of Congress. The switchboard lit up, and after a week of pressure and calls, leaders in the House reversed their decision. Phone calls matter. When you call, be polite. Courteousness offers a far better way to communicate and relay your message. After your call, the message will make its way to a legislator. Request a response in writing, either via email or via physical mail. Often, before votes on major pieces of legislation, representatives will determine how many constituents have called in favor or opposition of the bill. Those raw numbers matter, as does each individual phone call.
5. Visit your elected officials. I do not just mean your Member of Congress! There is nothing more powerful for city council members or county legislators than having a one-on-one meeting with their neighbors to talk about issues of importance. Call or email to set up the meeting. Try not to walk in without an appointment, if possible. Many times, I am unavailable to meet, but staff takes the meeting in my absence. Oftentimes, depending on the request, staff can help speed up the process. Staff also regularly gives me updates on issues of the day, meetings and feedback. Therefore, do not assume that meeting with a staff member is a way of declining a meeting. It is anything but that outcome. If we do get a chance to sit down together, anecdotes are always incredibly helpful. Human beings generally remember and share stories. It is useful to leave behind a one-page memo summarizing the discussion and any further relevant information or statistics.
6. Find a charity or serve the needy. If you are passionate about hunger, homelessness, housing, veterans or any other number of issues, one of the best ways to get involved is locally with a charity. Oftentimes this can mean volunteering your time, talent or treasure to help others while building relationships and becoming better informed on the issues that matter most to you. These charity outings can serve as great storytelling for future meetings with your elected officials and give them even more reason to hear what you have to say.
7. Volunteer at your local place of worship. I know this may not apply to many of you, and that is okay. However, for those of us that practice a faith, your local place of worship is a great resource to get involved. Many times, they collaborate with other local non-profits and serve our neighbors and less fortunate.
8. Talk with your friends and family. To this day, I continue to hear from hundreds of people that this past presidential election tore friends apart, ended relationships and caused family feuds. That is not “the we in us” at our best and is exactly the kind of breakdown in civility about which we have been warned. Discussions with family and friends of different political persuasion are the beginning of what is required to rebuild civility and discourse in our democracy. It is okay to disagree. We all seem to have “that Uncle” that gets under our skin. But remember your “Uncle” is not motivated by the wrong values or seeking to undermine your own values. This challenge simply means finding a way to discuss issues of the day based on facts, sound judgment and a balanced approach.
9. Attend meetings, town halls, forums, etc. If your local mayor has an open meeting, attend it. If your city council committee meetings are televised, watch them. If your member of Congress hosts a town hall, go to it. It is one thing to respond to questions in a press release, it is quite another to have to directly answer for your votes or views from an inquiring citizen. The more interest you show in your government, the more your government has to respond to your needs.
10. Donate to campaigns. Let us be clear, our campaign finance system is broken and there is far too much money in politics. I am a big advocate for changing that. However, until the system is overhauled, fundraising is unavoidable. If you believe in your representative or are inspired by someone campaigning against him or her, consider supporting him or her financially. It is true that every dollar counts. Obviously, this is not a possibility for many people, as many of us struggle to pay our day-to-day bills. However, some of the most thoughtful and moving contributions I have ever received have been in small amounts from seniors or students that simply said, “Keep up the fight.”
11. Enroll in a local party committee. In our neighborhood, this often means a city, town or county committee. The “committee-people” hold regular meetings, carry petitions, set policy, help find candidates to run for office, raise money, enroll voters and do so much more. Local committees represent the fundamentals of democracy in action. How do you get your name on the ballot? What does each office do? Is there a primary? How many people vote in the general election? Your local party committee will know the answers to all these questions. There are occasionally vacancies that a hard-working, smart, dedicated person can fill for a local party committee.
12. Volunteer on a campaign. This is another way to get to know the basics of democracy in action. A solid volunteer program can determine the winner or loser of an election. To many, knocking on strangers’ doors or calling their phone does not seem like an enjoyable afternoon. However, personal contact with a voter is the single best way to convince undecided individuals to vote for a candidate. When you volunteer, you learn how to run a campaign, how to talk about issues of the day, and what it means to be a team player. Volunteering can build a sense of camaraderie and teamwork as well as provide direct access to a candidate.
13. Run for office! Unbelievably, I consider myself a shy person, slightly afraid of large crowds and speaking in public. As an engineer by training, I fit the stereotype of someone that would rather solve complex problems privately than debate policy publicly. Nevertheless, at a young age, I was inspired by President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their values and dedication to our nation led me to step outside my comfort zone to make a change. You too can improve your neighborhood, community, city, county, state or even federal government. It takes firm resolve and a commitment to doing what you think is right to make things a little bit better for our family and neighbors. The beauty of our system is that it is open to anyone willing to roll up his or her sleeves and make a difference. So get out there, overcome your fear and get to work!
Finally, take a deep breath. We are all in this together. It is understandable to get excited, worked up, and passionate about the people and policies you care most about. However, anxiety and tension will not improve things. We must resolve to be fact-based and rational in our decision-making, and governing. Out of many, we are indeed one. Let us treat one another with respect, dignity and civility. That is what those that came before us in this grand experiment would expect and deserve. Let us show the rest of the world that we can indeed turn frustration into action in the land of the free.