Look, it’s time for straight talk. You already know how to get involved in politics. Starting in the fourth grade, the advice of every political counsel to the present day repeats the same refrain: “Write your congressman.” A tactic to get kids to shut up and sheep to be more sheepish, right?
Well, maybe not. While tracking the effect of letters is hard (like “impossible” hard), the word-of-mouth reporting from many congressional staffers insist that letters are good for the Illuminat–er, average man. Your congressman, congresswoman, or congresscrocodilemonster takes letters seriously. While your letter alone might not alter an official’s position on issues coming to the floor, it’s not because they don’t take you seriously. The problem is that you are only one voter in a constituency of hundreds of thousands. The sheer scale of the United States of America makes effecting national change an almost insurmountable task without major organizational and administrative experts. Geez, this is confusing.
So let’s back things up a second. How do letters make an impact? Well the key is not to organize a massive campaign, it’s to shrink the constituency. In other words, go local.
One hurdle that most people run into when trying to effect change is that they get caught up on big problems. How do I reduce the national debt when it is higher than 100% of GDP? How do I get everyone to address the student loan issue before the market for higher education crashes? How do I get people to calm down and extend a humane hand to over 10 millions Syrian refugees in need? Those are big ideas. Huge ideas. Break them down.
Imagine you need to make a better bow and arrow. Chances are, you have no idea how you would do that, unless you’re Katniss Everdeen. Or Legolas, for our older readers. But do you really need to know that much about a bow to improve the technology? No you don’t. You just need to know what parts make up a bow: the stave, the string, the arrow. Even the arrow can be broken into smaller parts: the arrowhead, the shaft, and the fletching. Now instead of one complex machine to fix, you have six simple machines to look at. Solving that problem is a far easier task than starting from the complex and working down.
So imagine using this theory in politics. Say you believe that the United States should welcome Syrian refugees. [If you don’t, just put “not,” “no,” and “don’t” in the appropriate places for the rest of the article. We aren’t here to tell you what to think, just how to think about it.] Welcoming refugees is a big, amorphous, and difficult topic. Welcoming 50 refugees to your home town of 50,000 people is a lot more feasible. And while 50 people is a small fraction of the millions looking for a new home, you can bet that those 50 individuals will be grateful for the opportunity. Small change still matters. So let’s talk about exactly what you can do, given your busy day.
With a free minute here or there:
Sign a petition. Change.org makes it almost frustratingly easy. Here is a search for “Syrian Refugee” on the site. Find a petition you agree with and sign it. Boom. You did something to stay active in politics in a non-election year. Great job, champ.
With ten minutes of free time:
Here’s where you write that letter to your local city council member or state representative. On a state level, you’re taking a shot in the dark. But that’s ok. You missed the length of one Overwatch match to do it. If it falls on deaf ears… oh well. You tried a whole lot more than the next guy did. On the city level, your words mean a lot more. Find out which politicians/policy-makers rely on small numbers of people to hold their position. Find the people who can be made or, more importantly, broken by one news story on an otherwise-slow news day. Tell them that you want to be a town that accepted Syrians in need, and explain to them why it is in THEIR best interest to agree with you. If all else fails, threaten them with those scandalous pictures that you took in Majorca. You know the ones, Mr. Senator.
With one hour of your evening:
Attend a city council meeting. If you’ve ever been to one, you know that in many small towns these are not well attended affairs. If you show up with ten friends, the council will be talking about it for years to come. Seize that power to start a dialogue. Explain how an infusion of new cultures might galvanize a new industry in town, or how some cities are defined by the cultural identities of the people who moved there. Ever notice how much of Chicago’s quintessential culture is appropriated from the Italian and Polish citizens?
With three to five hours of free time a week:
Consider volunteering for a political party or in support of something you believe strongly in. Feel like homelessness is a terrible problem? Volunteer at a homeless shelter or offer to teach a free class at the local library. If you truly believe in welcoming Syrian refugees, work with a local charity to build affordable housing where they can rebuild their lives. Organize a class to teach English, or simple skills like navigating a modern American city. You are an expert on the place you live. You have something to offer.
With at occasional weekend morning:
Attend your political party’s local meetings. If you can’t stand what the Republican Party has become (nobody will blame you; this is a safe space…), you need to change it from within. This is where you can have a hugely disproportionate voice. Have you ever wondered how delegates are chosen for the national conventions every four years? You know, the 2,472 people (or 4,763 for the Democratic Party) over whom candidates are fighting almost literally tooth and nail, because they choose the nominee for president? The people who also vote on the party’s official platform? It is not that hard to become one! Attend your party’s district, county, and state conventions and throw your name in. You may not earn a berth to the national convention — each state has their own ways of choosing, and some of it can be, literally, luck of the draw. But you can still influence your party’s platform on a large scale. One of the Gentleman’s Guide writers was able to hijack a county convention with a group of 15 friends to push through multiple new resolutions, elect their own members to party positions, and even sent two delegates to the national convention. Get registered, attend meetings, eat bagels and fruit cups, overthrow the powers that be.
More than five hours a week?
The sky’s the limit for you, bud. Maybe even run for local office yourself. If you have the conviction, you can do it. Start by deciding what you want to run for, assembling a team, and building a campaign plan. Resources abound to give you the help that the Gentleman’s Guide cannot. But know that we support your decision to take your passion into your own hands.
You will fail. Get used to that. Not everything in the political climate will bend to your will, even if you write the best letters the world has ever seen. You will fail a lot more than you succeed. And you know what? That’s ok. That’s the function of a democracy, to see that the will of the people is fulfilled. And even if after all the years, you have nothing to show for it, at least you can say you did what you could. That puts you well ahead of many of your peers (you know the ones, the ones who threw away their vote on Gary Johnson).
Were these ideas not enough for you? Here are some bonus tips to keep politicians accountable:
Mayor not addressing the points you made in your letter regarding the citywide ban on horse fighting? Trash local eateries on Yelp! and watch as he struggles to get re-elected in the midst of a crumbling local economy.
Many politicians are involved in the community and make speeches at public appearances. Throw your shoes at them in defiance of their authoritarian occupation.
Introduce a biological agent for which you own the only cure. Profit immensely as demand skyrockets, then use your ill-gotten gains to rebuild a new world… A better world… A world without pain or disease or coworkers who microwave fish. Of course we don’t recommend this course of action. If you have questions, review our handy flowchart!