As someone who first got politically active in the 1960s as an anti-war activist, I have learned a few things about how to do this. And it starts with the observation that some amount of effort is required to have any chance of success. It doesn’t have to be as big as marching on Washington (fun though that may be) to get something useful done. For example, you can sometimes push a Congresscritter to do some good, and it can be done with a small effort.
What you need to always bear in mind is that in D.C. the first thing every politician cares about is re-election, and you can use that to your advantage. They will look for signs of what is important to their constituents, and that is where you come in. Messages to Senators and Representatives can, if there enough of them, influence their vote. In some cases, they will even go against the wishes of their PAC contributors if they see enough interest from constituents.
You do need to exert some effort, though, to be effective. Here are the ways you can do this, in increasing order of effectiveness:
- E-mail a message – Most politicians have e-mail messaging, which may be a normal e-mail address, or may be a Web form. This is the easiest for you to do, but also the least effective precisely because it is so easy. If you literally have no other option, it is better than nothing, but if you can do better you should. We are assuming you want to be an activist, and that you do in fact care about this, right?
- Make a phone call – I have entered into my Contacts list on my phone the e-mail address, the Web site address, and phone numbers for both the Washington office and the local office for my Congressmember and both Senators. I also have the phone number in Lansing (my state capital) for my state Senator and state Representativc. That way I can when necessary phone them immediately about any issue. This is the best thing to do when time is of the essence and a mailed letter may not get there in time. However, many offices have a voice mail that screens calls, and the voice mail box frequently gets full and refuses to accept more messages. Today, for instance, one of my Senators had a full voice-mail box. When that happens you can try two things: 1) If they have an option to speak to a staff member, try that; or 2) if the DC office is unreachable, call the local office. Pro-tip: Most pols are not, at this point, checking phone callers to see if they are constituents. So give it a try with some other pols outside of where you live.
- Write a letter – This is the best bang-for-the-buck solution, and has been ever since my anti-war days in the 1960s. It requires you to write the letter, put it in envelope, address it, put on a stamp, and mail it. And because it requires more effort, your politician will treat that a a signal that you are very serious. That is why it is the most effective. And you can learn some interesting things about your politicians. When I was a young fellow in Massachusetts, I learned that Senator Edward Kennedy really didn’t give a damn about letters from constituents. But Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican in a Democratic state) always replied with letter. Pro-Tip: don’t write a long, detailed analysis. Your politician won’t be reading any of the letters, they will just get a report from a staff member that tells them what the mail shows. So a two sentence letter is fine. And if you get a reply, that was also written by a staff member. You want personal service? Become a major campaign contributor. I don’t make that kind of money, sadly.
Now, these things are the ways ordinary citizens can influence politicians to do some good. And there is nothing that says you have to limit yourself to only one method. I like to hit them with a phone call right away, then write a letter when I get home. I buy a book of the First Class Forever stamps whenever I run low, and I have a box of inexpensive white #10 envelopes, available at any Office supply store. So I am ready at any time to make my voice heard. And while one letter or phone call may not seem like much, it is when the phone lines are jammed by outraged citizens and sacks of mail come pouring in that they take notice. We can all do our part there.