The three most basic rules of politics

Posted on October 24, 2019

The purpose of political action is to change public policy. Those of us who are involved in politics and policy are familiar with the legislative and electoral processes. But, do progressives really understand what to do? This is in question because our policymakers and advocates often ignore the most basic rules of politics. They are:

(1) Start by pursuing an achievable goal.

(2) Target people who need to be, and can be, persuaded.

(3) Create and deliver a message that persuades them.

Let’s discuss these three rules in turn.

(1) Start by pursuing an achievable goal

Advocacy groups have broad overall missions, like “reforming the juvenile justice system” or “reducing gun violence.” In contrast, an advocacy campaign is aimless without a specific goal that is achievable within a period of years. For example, keeping juveniles out of adult jails or mandating background checks for all gun purchases.

An advocacy campaign does not have to achieve its goal by enacting federal or state legislation. It may be more sensible to start by passing city or county ordinances or to seek policy change by regulation, or other administrative actions by a governor, mayor, attorney general, controller, auditor or independent commission.

The problem is, advocacy groups remain mostly on the defensive, failing to develop and pursue specific proactive policies. In a game where you don’t even attempt to score points, you can never win.

And yet, some advocates complain, there are many jurisdictions where the officials are so conservative that progressives cannot expect to enact any important policies. In that case, the goal is to use specific policy proposals to raise the profile of your issue so that it makes a real difference in the public debate.

Even if your organization is a 501(c)(3) charity, strictly forbidden from engaging in partisan election campaigns, you can:

  • Promote ideas that are favored by voters so that candidates will want to endorse them, or will attack their opponents for opposing them, without your group’s involvement.
  • Ask elected officials whether they support your policy or not and publicize their answers.
  • For elected officials who are clearly against your policy, provoke them to say something foolish or extremely unpopular in public, preferably on camera or while a news reporter is present. Publicize their gaffes.
  • Focus on recruiting and empowering activists in specific geographic areas so they can pressure candidates to support your policy, without your group’s involvement.
  • Hold press events in specific geographic areas that will raise the profile of your issue in those places.
  • Set up a separately-funded 501(c)(4) organization to engage the issue more directly.

There is very little point in spending time and money in an effort that lacks a practical goal. The whole idea of an advocacy campaign is to win.

(2) Target people who need to be, and can be, persuaded

Advocacy campaigns should not waste time or money on policymakers who have already made up their minds. They should instead focus on undecided officials. In order to do this efficiently, you must set up a targeting and tracking system and get continuous input from every person in your campaign who interacts with policymakers.

The targeting and tracking system is a spreadsheet or database which lists each policymaker, notes if a policymaker is on a committee that’s important to the advocacy campaign, and whether the policymaker is a committee chair, subcommittee chair, or in leadership. The heart of this record is a designation of where each policymaker stands on your proposal.

It is traditional to list policymakers’ positions on a 1-to-5 scale where 1 means the official is totally supportive of your policy and 5 means he or she is totally against it. Some of these ratings can start out with question marks or guesses, but as soon as possible you need to know where every policymaker stands.

While staying in touch with 1s, your campaign should overwhelmingly spend its time and money moving 3s to 2s and 2s to 1s. You can also spend a little time on the 4s, but they usually turn out to be 5s who were too polite to deliver a flat “no.”

Ideally, this system records in detail every time one of your campaign staff, volunteers or allies talks to any policymaker about your issue. You want to build up information about each elected official’s individual questions and concerns. This intelligence-gathering is the best way to figure out what it will take to persuade each policymaker, or if he or she is actually locked-in to support one side or the other.

Keep in mind that not everybody associated with your campaign is a skilled lobbyist. If a volunteer tells you that an undecided policymaker said that he or she is now in favor of the measure, have someone else—a paid campaign staffer or the sponsor—double check. And no matter who heard a policymaker commit to vote for a bill, it is always better to have it in writing—a letter from the policymaker to his or her constituent or a quote by the policymaker printed in the newspaper.

(3) Create and deliver a message that persuades them

Politics is the art of persuasion; we enact new policy by persuading officials to support it. But too often, progressive advocates act as if the only way to persuade policymakers is to educate them in all aspects of our issue. Progressives tend to think, “if they only knew what I know.”

For that reason, our side tends to drown policymakers with facts and figures. And yet, facts themselves do not persuade, arguments do. (Any policymaker who wants more facts will ask for them.) In an advocacy campaign, you use facts to illustrate your campaign’s talking points. And quite often, those talking points are not about policy specifics. E.g., “People are upset and demand action.”

With good messaging, you can gain the support of many officeholders even though they know few of the relevant facts and figures, even though they don’t particularly understand the overall issue, and sometimes even though they don’t actually like the policy. In fact, this happens all the time.

For a full and practical explanation, we recommend that you read our messaging book Voicing Our Values: A message guide for policymakers and advocates (4th Edition). Here are the key rules of persuasion for advocacy campaigns:

Begin in agreement with your listener(s)

In the course of an advocacy campaign, you can’t change people’s minds about deeply held assumptions or beliefs, and it is foolish to try. If you challenge those beliefs, listeners will engage their emotions instead of their intellects and reject whatever you say. You lose that vote.

So, start the discussion from a point of agreement, usually about the failure of existing policy or the overall purpose of your policy. Then show how your solution is based on something they already believe. You’re not trying to change your listeners’ minds, you’re trying to get them to realize that you’re on the same side—that they agree with you already.

Begin, for example, with: “We need to generate better jobs and a stronger economy.” Or “we’ve always been proud of our state university system.” Or “our criminal justice system ought to make us safer.” Or “residents really want us to clean up that parkland.” Or “our bridges and roads need a lot of repairs.” In other words, start with your shared goal rather than your solution.

Use values to stay in agreement with your listener(s)

As you explain how your solution achieves your shared goal, use values. Values are words and phrases that, in their own way, everyone supports. Freedom, privacy, equal opportunity, fundamental fairness, level playing field, security, safety, protecting children and the elderly—these are all values. Use data and anecdotes to illustrate that your particular solution is consistent with their preexisting values and beliefs.

Work around roadblocks, e.g., “Of course we have to ensure this doesn’t harm small businesses.” And perhaps most important, never say or imply “you’re wrong.” Your listener will simply stop listening. As Dale Carnegie explained 80 years ago in How to Win Friends and Influence People:

In talking to people, don’t begin by discussing the things on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.

It’s like fishing. You have to throw out a line with bait in order to reel them in. If they don’t like your bait, you’ll leave empty-handed.

Show your listeners how they benefit

Demonstrate to policymakers how supporting your issue benefits them—either by advancing their own policy goals or by helping them with their constituents. Show that you’re not asking for a favor, your policy is a win-win for them.

No policy passes entirely on its merits. If it did, you wouldn’t have to generate all those calls and letters! So, understand each official’s policy and professional interests and address those. Tell them about groups that endorse your legislation, cite public opinion polls, and explain why this vote will help in their next election.