Voting is more than a right. It is an obligation. It is the strongest mechanism we, the people, have to hold our politicians accountable to us. When we vote, we have power. When we don’t, the politicians have power over us.
But voting is just the beginning. Politicians need to hear from us more than once every two, four or six years. They need to hear from us regularly. Even daily. They need to know what we expect from them, and what we won’t stand for. They need to know that there will be consequences if they take actions that we oppose. They need to have a healthy fear that they may not be re-elected if they ignore what we are telling them.
How do we get their attention?
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Believe me, no one understands the cathartic release of a strongly worded post on Facebook. Over the years, I’ve gotten into countless scrapples with strangers on the Internet, cutting their arguments to shreds and getting in a good jab. I’ve done this on the pages of my friends and on the pages of politicians. Has any of this resulted in any good? Were minds changed? To be honest, I’d be surprised if they were. If there is any evidence that online arguing moves the needle on public opinion — or better yet, the actions of elected leaders — I haven’t heard it.
I’m not telling you to never get in a good Internet fight. I’d be a hypocrite if I did. But understand that these fights will rarely produce productive results. However, if they help you cope with our current political climate, or if you feel it helps you learn how to present and defend arguments, carry on!
The same goes for sharing news stories online. First, I implore you to verify that the story you want to post is factual, or if an opinion piece, is well-reasoned. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve shared stories that turned out to be untrue, and each time it happens, I kick myself. My suggestion — if you hear a story that you think people need to know, verify that it’s true by seeing if any other news source is reporting it, and preferably a news source you trust. You may really be ticked off by what you see on a site or page such as Occupy Democrats, or US Uncut, but both have been known to publish incorrect or even false stories. Please be responsible.
However, it is important to share good (as in verified) news with people. Not enough people are aware of current events, and I will forever support solid reporting and citizen awareness. So yes, please share news stories. But as with arguments, don’t expect this to change how our politicians are acting. At best, sharing news informs more people about what is happening so that they can take action. At worst, however, it is little more than another voice in an echo chamber that never reaches the ears of the people we want to hear it.
A part of our First Amendment grants us the right to “petition our government for the redress of grievances.” To that end, legitimate petitions can be powerful. What makes a petition legitimate? The wording and format of these petitions are approved by the Michigan Bureau of Elections and adhere to state laws in terms of the number of signatures they must gather, and in which time frame. Only registered voters may sign, and they will require people to sign their real names and provide a verifiable address. Violating these laws may have consequences, including jail time.
During the Obama administration, the White House also invited citizens to sign online petitions at petitions.whitehouse.gov. If enough signatures were gathered on any proposal, the Obama administration would address it, either through a communication such as a letter or by proposing legislation. These petitions didn’t result in ballot proposals, as do the state petitions described above, but they did often result in action from an elected official. That said, I’ve not heard whether the Trump administration will continue this effort, though I have trouble believing it will.
Most online petitions, however, are not effective. While some sites such as change.org attempt to contact elected officials once a petition gathers enough signatures, many more do not. Why are these petitions circulated, then? If you’ll notice, nearly all of them ask signers for an email address. These are a great way to harvest email addresses for future communication or fundraising. So sign them if you like, but be aware that it could result in pitches for donation and little else.
Protests and Demonstrations
As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are preparing to converge on Washington, D.C. for the women’s march. This is exciting, and I’m so glad to see it. I plan to take part in the march in Lansing myself. Not only will be emotionally satisfying to be among a big crowd who agrees with me, I know it will also send a strong signal that there are more of us than there are of them, and that we will not be ignored.
Consider the Black Lives Matter movement. They have grabbed considerable attention through mass protests, and in that way, they are useful. But protests alone won’t cause legislation that will end police bias toward people of color. That is going to take legislative action and good-faith efforts on the part of the law enforcement community, which will require effort beyond the protests. Please understand I’m not discounting the BLM marches. In fact, I love to see them. But political movements can’t stop there.
In the days immediately following Trump’s election, with reports of hate crimes skyrocketing, many people took to wearing safety pins as a sign of unity and opposition to the Trump movement. To some, the pins were a sign to others that the wearer was a safe person who could be looked to for help. For others, the pins were simply a visible sign that many people oppose Trump and what he stands for. This is a symbolic action.
Symbolic action is encouraged other times in other ways. After the terror attacks in Paris, may people on Facebook overlaid France’s tricolore over their profile photo. Many people overlaid the LGBT pride flag on their profile photo when marriage equality was established in the U.S. Bumper stickers are also symbolic action.
These things may make us feel good, and they may also make others feel good, so I don’t discount them. But they will not pressure a politician to take the actions we expect. They will not produce results.
So what does work? Read on to find out.