“I’m not really a political person.” This familiar expression was recently conveyed to me by a friend as he was describing how he and his team creatively persevered to keep their business afloat while navigating the COVID tsunami over the last two years.
I’ve often described COVID as the great revealer. One of the most significant outcomes of the COVID aftermath is that it awakened people to the affairs of their government in a whole new way. If the government response to COVID has reminded us of anything, it’s that government impacts every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not.
So, everyone has (or should have) a vested interest in decisions being made by our political leaders at the federal, state and local levels. Yet very few citizens take full advantage of their ability to have meaningful influence with their government representatives beyond the ballot box.
In my own prior attempts to influence the decisions of lawmakers, I hadn’t realized just how small the keyhole view is for citizens on the outside of the capitol. Once elected to the senate, however, I quickly discovered the considerable knowledge gap between my largely misinformed perception of the legislative process as an average citizen and the complicated reality of that process as an actual legislator.
If you had the opportunity to be in the room, around the table with the key political decision-makers, and provide meaningful input on how best to solve our collective problems, would you want to? The fact is, you can. It simply takes proactivity and a thoughtful posture.
The intention of this essay, therefore, is to offer some observations in answer to the basic question, “What do I know now as an elected official on the inside of the political system that I wish I had known when I was a concerned citizen on the outside of the system?”
Because Americans typically hold a jaundiced view of politics, they struggle to believe they can actually make a difference. Or, in their frustrated attempts to convey their input to elected officials, they often pursue an antagonistic approach that ultimately becomes self-defeating. But affecting real change is possible if a person understands a couple of key ideas.
The Public Servant’s Dilemma
Many people are surprised to learn just how many bills are filed at the beginning of each legislative session. This year was no exception, with more than 850 bills filed collectively in the Indiana House and Senate.
Part of the dilemma for any political leader is determining the right decision to make on a given issue. For those in elected office, there is a common scenario that plays out on virtually every issue at every level of government:
Advocate A passionately talks to their elected official and argues for one position on a given issue, concluding, “You need to do the right thing.”
Then, advocate B comes and passionately argues for the opposite side of the same issue, concluding, “You need to do the right thing!”
So, who’s right? As someone who is commissioned to represent all of the people in their district, how does the elected official figure out the right path forward amid constantly competing interests?
Relatedly, within our democratic form of government, how is the elected official to practically know the will of the people he or she represents? In my own case, for example, my legislative team and I mailed out my annual pre-session survey to the more than 150,000 constituents currently in District 24, asking for input on just six to eight key issues prior to the 2022 legislative session. Of the 43,670 mailers sent out to the households in my district, only 403 surveys were returned. This less-than-1% return rate was only slightly lower than the typical constituent response every year.
The engaged citizen, therefore, will quickly discover that his or her voice can have an outsized influence on the issues being considered by political decision-makers, because so few people actually speak up. Making a meaningful difference is possible for those people willing to engage, depending on how they go about it.
Government Is Human
There is a common tendency to unconsciously assume that government is a disembodied, bureaucratic machine. If we hope to effectively influence our elected officials, however, we must recognize the fact that “government is human.” That is to say, government is made up of human beings – real people who have actual feelings, families and experiences, all of which shape their decision-making and influence their responses to how they are treated.
We need not look far to see the lack of civility that permeates our social interactions with one another, and this is especially true in the political space. In a free society, we certainly have considerable latitude to criticize (and even publicly shame) our political leaders. But such an approach can often sabotage our ability to influence those who are making decisions on our behalf.
How might the relational dynamic between us and our elected officials improve if we took a more thoughtful, collaborative approach in our advocacy efforts? What might happen if we employed “Golden Rule” diplomacy, choosing to treat our political leaders the way we would want to be treated if we were in their place?
There is a certain psychology of influence summarized in the Dale Carnegie strategy of how to win friends and influence people. That same psychology of influence applies to how we interact with our political leaders.
So, the next time you find yourself frustrated by political decisions that seem beyond your control, remember that you have the ability to be your own best advocate on issues that matter to you. Thoughtful engagement with elected officials can go a long way toward effecting the changes you seek.
Originally posted by Towne Post.