Monday, February 25, 2013

The "L" Word

You are  a professor. Your Dean has changed your class schedule and you don’t like it. Which of the following would you do:

       A)    Walk in and say “You are an a**hat with the administrative skills of a dung beetle." You then write a letter to the student newspaper calling your Dean a “Fascist Tyrant Who Would Make Hitler Proud”.

      B)    Thank the Dean for letting you teach a new course you’ve been wanting to teach. Make the case that you will have more time to interact with students and do research if you could move one of your courses to later in the day.

Yes, it’s a stupid scenario, but when we lobby Congress, we are stupid. Basically, we choose “A”. Mouthing off online is easy and fun; effective lobbying is more akin to completing The New York Times Sunday crossword, in pen, with no strikeouts. The Internet has taken our collective political rhetoric back to eighth grade, and what "works" on Facebook (generating "likes" or comments) generally doesn't work when you are talking to a Member of Congress or (more likely) his or her staff.

If you want to amaze your friends and influence Congress, log off the Internet. No one writes snail mail letters any longer, which makes them unique and garners a lot more attention than “signing” a 15 word online petition “demanding” something or other.

Your audience is almost certainly an underpaid, overworked partisan 21 year old who is expected to spend 65 hours a week in a pressure cooker. That staffer spends countless hours sifting through a ton of online and offline mail for something interesting to bring to a staff meeting in part to make a good impression; help him and help yourself. If you are targeting a Republican, and your missive is full of partisan froth, they’ll dismiss you as a lunatic enemy in a New York Millisecond.

So, what is to be done?

1--Do your homework and read real news stories and level-headed, issue-orieinted web sites about the issue or proposed legislation. Don’t pull your talking points off a frothy, partisan DailyKos piece.       

2-- If your target is a Democrat, mention your party affiliation: "as a fellow Democrat…"   If said Democrat lives in a place where “liberal” is equated with “idiot” by most voters, be sympathetic. “I understand that in our District this is a difficult vote to cast.” It’s easy to praise a guy like Bernie Sanders for being “brave” and “speaking the truth.” He lives in Vermont, where a conservative is someone who thinks Marx went a tad too far, but was still a keen fellow. Being liberal in Vermont isn’t brave, it’s expected. A lot of Democratic House members reside in far more hostile turf, and barely defeat bona fide knuckle dragging troglodytes. Congressional staff will give your letter more weight if you acknowledge the political realities in the district. Empathy is effective, so feel their pain.

3--If your target is a Republican, do not wear your progressive ideology on your sleeve. A staff member will take you far more seriously if it seems that you might actually vote for their boss. We may not like that, but it is true.

4--Get in the head of your Congressman. That will be a wacky place if your senator is Rand Paul or Mitch McConnell, but it's useful. Peek at their web site press releases, and lift a quote or two. Speak in their language:


“I believe in the sanctity of the American family, and I believe we must move forward to require background checks on gun purchases and place limits on ammunition clips to keep our children safe. Newtown, Connecticut is a stain on American freedom and we must act so that it never happens again. We can respect the Second Amendment without contributing to the slaughter of our children.”

DO NOT WRITE (actual quote here from a real letter):

Get out of the sack with your rich pals and big oil and the gun nuts and Teabaggers and do something so innocent kids don’t get slaughtered.

This brings up another cogent pont…

5--Keep it to one issue. Conflating a bunch of issues weakens your argument. On the Internet, bloggers decry any politician who doesn’t sign on to a huge agenda. But that doesn’t fly in the real world. You are trying to convince one human being to vote your way on one issue. Fuggedabout everything else, and stay focused.

6-- Be polite. This is the deep dark secret of professional lobbyists, left and right. Start with a compliment. Representative Eric Cantor, whose very name brings bursts of profanity from me and a big swath of my friends, gave a speech on the role of House members in the civil rights struggle. To wit:

"Today, I am proud to serve with 44 black colleagues. As Reverend King said, 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.' “

“In your moving speech on civil rights you said: "Today, I am proud to serve with 44 black colleagues. As Reverend King said, 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.'". Today, the arc of justice threatens to bend away from black children. Too many are felled by gun violence. We must act today to restore the arc of justice and stop the senseless violence.

Call the office and say “Tell you boss, Mr. Cancer, that he is a f***wit who deserves to burn in hell.”

If you sound like a supporter of the Congressman, your letter carries far more weight. This isn't disingenuous, it's just smart. You want to get your representative to focus on the issue from his moral compass. If they are a "capital C" Christian, try this: "as a Christian, I am sure you understand the need for compassion in society. Gun violence is destroying that compassion."

7--Ask for the "favor of a written reply".

“This issue is extremely important to me. I would like to request the favor of a written reply; I am very interested in your comments and views.”

Then, if they write you back, you have opened the door to a longer dialog. If they don't write you back, you can write again and ask again for a reply.

No, none of this will convince a right-wing congressman to support abortion rights, gay marriage and taxing the 1%, but it might move a moderate Republican once in a while.

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