05.25.2011 0

On Political Proximity

NRD Editor’s Note: The excellent post below first appeared at Fits News.

By Talbert Black, Jr. — Friends of South Carolina, you can have access to a politician, or you can have power to influence him.

You can’t have both!

I have gained some experience over the last three years in moving politicians to do what they don’t want to.

I’ve spent much time on the phone and in the offices of politicians trying to convince them to change their position.

This is what I’ve found:

The only time I’ve been successful in changing a politician’s mind is when his voice mail and e-mail have been flooded by his constituents asking for the same thing. Here is the key… the constituents make it clear that the politician’s job is in jeopardy come the next election.

The change has never come by only me picking up the phone and talking to the politician to convince them that he or she needs to change their position. Never.

As a matter of fact, those phone calls end up with them trying to explain to me why I need to change my position … nearly every time!

I’ve learned the power to change a politician’s mind only comes from two things: (1) Lots of money in campaign contributions … which I’ve never had enough to cause a change. Alternatively, (2) motivate enough people to call in order to make the politician fear their next election.

And truth be told, if you are good enough at #2, then you have more power than they guy who can do #1.

So what do I mean when I say you can have access or power, but not both?

It’s simple human nature.

Let me give you the play by play, of how I’ve seen this work many times over. It is so consistent you could pretty much write a “playbook” for how a politician tries to neutralize your efforts.

First, he will ignore you. As long as you aren’t stirring up too much trouble, you will be ignored. That is the easiest thing for the politician to do. If you don’t motivate enough constituents to make him worried about his next election, you will be ignored.

Second, he will explain it to you. If you are getting enough people to contact your politician, he will tell you why he can’t support you. “Leadership is against it,” “It’s not the right time,” “There just isn’t enough support,” “The previous administration signed a memorandum of understanding,” etc. If you believe him, you stop pressuring him, and he wins!

Third, he will try to buy you with access. Such as, “I really like your ideas, I’m forming a committee to study the issue, and I’d like you to be on it.” Or “I’m forming an advisory panel, and I’d like you to be on it,” or “Let me come speak to your group and explain it to them.” If you accept and the negative pressure stops, he wins!

If the buying-off doesn’t work, there are more steps before you win, but I’ll stop here for the purposes of this writing.

Of course, you understand that “he” can easily be replaced by “she” in the three steps above, right?

You see, if you accept the offered access, you lose the power to influence. “Why?” you ask? Human nature. That’s why.

Allow me to explain what I’ve seen:

Once on the “advisory panel” or the “study committee” we don’t want to lose the politician’s ear.

We enjoy having the politician call us and politely explain to us why he can’t do what it is that we want, right now… next year will be a better time maybe.

Often times we will rationalize it to ourselves with thoughts like, “I’ve got more influence on the inside when she is listening to me rather than on the outside when she won’t even take my calls.”

It’s nice to be able to pick up the phone and call an elected official and have them answer and call you by name.

It’s fun to be able to tell your family and friends that you were in your politician’s office talking about such and such.

It’s a very heady game.

So, when your politician chooses to do something you don’t like, how will you change their mind? Like I said, the only way I’ve found is through lots of negative pressure from constituents. What do you think is going to happen to your access when you gin up that kind of pressure?

Likely, we wouldn’t even try, because we fear to lose our access if we do.

You can’t bring that kind of pressure to bear while you have the access.

You can’t sit on an advisory panel and have any real influence to make a politician do something he wasn’t going to do anyway.

Talbert Black, Jr. is interim director of the S.C. Campaign for Liberty, one of the state’s largest Tea Party groups.

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