Thursday, March 9, 2006

Do Phone Calls and Emails to Politicians Make a Difference?

I think they do, especially over time. Politicians need to be re-elected periodically, and contrary to some people's vision of America, corporations still do not have the legal right to actually cast ballots. Only humans do, which means that at some level, all politicians need to listen to and respect -- even if they don't agree with -- what their constituents think.

Exhibit A for this thesis is this article, printed last month in the Baltimore Sun:

WASHINGTON -- With Congress out of town, the halls of the Capitol are quiet this week. But inside the House and Senate office buildings - and in state and district outposts across the country - staffers are straining to answer a flood of phone calls about the prospect of a Middle Eastern company buying into port operations in six major U.S. cities, including Baltimore.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes has been inundated with hundreds of calls since the news broke.... The state's other senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, logged 250 calls from constituents in the first two days of the workweek. Conservative Republican Rep. Mark Foley, one of the first members of Congress to complain about the deal, has faced a similar deluge...

As the number of calls and e-mails rises, so does the involvement of elected officials....

Congressional staffers are accustomed to talking to constituents... All communication is carefully logged, and most politicians get at least a quick briefing on what voters in their district or state are thinking.

Ruppersberger's offices have handled about 40 calls this week, spokeswoman Heather Molino said.... "I would say it is a significant spike on what is percolating as both a national issue and a very local issue," said Jacobs, the Sarbanes spokesman, who added that many of the calls are coming from the Baltimore area.

Negative public opinion is Kryptonite to politicians. Why do they sell their souls to lobbyists and large donors? Not for the yachts and the trips to Scotland; most are wealthy enough to afford those things themselves. No: they solicit ugly money so they can use it to persuade voters to re-elect them. In the end it's the voters that still matter; the money is just a means to reach them. And when those voters scream loudly and in large numbers about something, politicians still need to pay attention, because the voters are the thing itself.

The article above contains two important kernels of information: (1) the importance of calls from actual constituents ("many of the calls are coming from the Baltimore area" in Sarbanes' case), and (2) the relatively small number of calls it takes to make an impression (the numbers cited above range from 40 to 250).

The Roots Project addresses both these points. Our focus is on empowering citizens to contact their own representatives -- invoking the power of constituency. And we generate large numbers of calls -- well over the range described above, according to my contacts inside Congressional offices.

It's something I hope you'll chew on if you're feeling discouraged about the Alito and Intelligence Committee votes and are wondering whether the work we do is useful. There's good reason to think it is, or will be, if we keep at it steadily enough.

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