“Our Voices & Our Ears—A Workshop on Desktop Lobbying & Listening Across the Divides
HFM: “Our Voices & Our Ears—A Workshop
on Desktop Lobbying & Listening Across the Divides”
Hanover Friends Meeting, March 12, 2017
Bob Schultz & Patricia Higgins
Patricia and I have two purposes this morning. I’m going to say a few things about getting our voices heard in this new political era; she’s going to help us understand better how to use our ears to listen to the hopes and fears of our fellow citizens with whom we are in disagreement.
Our 2 purposes constitute a challenge—a navigational challenge if you will. I’ve been thinking about sailors in the ancient story of Scylla and Charybdis, sailing north through the dangerous passage between the Italian mainland and Sicily; if they strayed too far to port, they’d founder on treacherous rocks; if they got too far to starboard they’d get sucked into a whirlpool. Our navigational challenge is not to sail too far toward harsh assertions of our truths that we lose our generosity of spirit toward those we oppose—but also not to sail so far toward sympathetic understanding that we lose sight of what we stand for.
What DO we stand for? In 1672, an early Friend, Edward Burrough, wrote this: “We are not . . . for this party nor against the other . . . but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation . . . . “
In OUR nation, 345 years later, WE are for the same things. But how can we, in the present climate (in the face of gale force winds) translate our faith into practice? To borrow a favorite term in George Lakey’s Viking Economics, how can we exercise our AGENCY? That is, get beyond treating politics as a spectator sport? There are many answers— organize, march, vigil, nonviolent direct action, sanctuary work, write poems, attend legislators’ town halls.
The answer I want to talk about for a few minutes is ‘desktop lobbying.’ I will assume (1) that public interest lobbying in the manner of FCNL is a good thing to be doing, and (2) that we don’t have to travel to do it. Desktop lobbying embraces two actions—one is communicating with the offices of our Representatives and Senators; the other is writing letters to the editor. A letter to the editor can be a ‘two-fer:’ if you write about legislation and include a legislator’s name, you can BOTH raise public consciousness AND lobby Congress. This is because Senators and Representatives assign aides to watch for mention of their names in the papers and to clip those references—they need to know what their constituents are saying—because they want to get re-elected.
Mostly I think of desktop lobbying as done with a computer. But our telephones are also tools of desktop lobbying. So are pen and paper and postage stamps. But if you choose to send a postal message, send it to a district or state office, not to D.C.; the anthrax screening will delay deliver and sometimes mutilate your mail.
There’s a powerful lot of help for desktop lobbying at www.fcnl.org. FCNL’s website has been improved lately. But I’ve been known to get lost on it—once I failed to get a message off because my time was short and I didn’t know how to use the website efficiently. So I created a guide to the website. It’s the canary yellow sheet on the table.
(1) The canary yellow sheet tells how to use the FCNL website to send focused emails to our Senators and Reps. When there’s specific legislation before the House or Senate, you’ll be able to find a draft message you can send right from the website that gives the name and number of the bill; and you can customize that draft to make it your own. If you add something personal, you show that you’re a real person with real concerns--someone, who, for example has had a healthcare experience that is motivating you to speak out for saving the Affordable Care Act.
This canary yellow sheet also tells you how to sign up for regular email action alerts--either on “the issue of the week,” or, if you wish, on your favorite issue whenever it comes up, e.g. climate, refugees, foreign policy, Native Americans, infrastructure. There’s also a white sheet on how to sign up to receive such up-to-date prompts.
(2) The other especially important handout is the goldenrod sheet with FCNL’s advice on how to write an effective letter to the editor. On its reverse side there’s a piece I found in Friends Journal that names some pitfalls to avoid in good LTE writing. You can also find there, for your convenience, the email address of the Valley News opinion editor, Dan Mackie, and his message to me welcoming our LTEs.
(3) If you choose not to use the website; the pink sheets provide specifics on reaching our NH & federal legislators, such as the locations and phone numbers of their offices, both in-state, and in D.C. They also point you to the useful information on these individuals that’s available at fcnl.org--like biographical info, committee assignments, names of staffers, how the member voted on key issues, bills they sponsored, and PAC contributors.
(4, 5, 6) If you want a refresher on Quaker policy positions, pick up the blue booklet, “The World We Seek.” If you want a reminder of the current top priorities we’ve assigned the staff, pick up the white sheet. If you’re wondering about some FCNL successes over the years, grab the blue sheet.
All these handouts are about the practical things and HOW-TO guidance. Let’s shift now from the HOW to WHY this work matters.
If there’s one overarching reason WHY this work matters it is to prevent the ways of the current administration from becoming the NEW NORM in our democracy. Researchers have shown “THAT THINGS, SIMPLY BY BECOMING MORE COMMON, BECOME MORE ACCEPTABLE.”
Joseph Goebbels understood this: “The truth is the greatest enemy of the State;” [but] “If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.” Lenin knew it, too: “He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the press’ goes backward and halts our headlong course towards…. Socialism [meaning state communism]. The chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov noted that: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” The commentator who offered that Kasparov quote went on, “The real danger for us is that, inundated with ‘alternative facts,’ many voters will simply shrug, asking, ‘What is truth?—and not wait for an answer . . . In that world, the leader becomes the only reliable source of truth . . . Mr. Trump and company seem to be betting that much of the electorate will not care if the president tells demonstrable lies, and will pick and choose whatever ‘alternative facts’ confirm their views.”
OUR calling is to prevent what is becoming more common from becoming acceptable. As Friend Parker Palmer, put it, we are called to ‘healing the heart of our democracy’ by finding ‘the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.’
[Note: There are photocopies on the table, all on one piece of paper, of the “Normalization Trap” article and of two illustrative LTEs, one by Robert Spottswood, the other by Bob Scobie, my neighbor at The Woodlands.]
I want to finish by answering the skeptics--and we all probably have a little skepticism in our own heads about the power of our words to really make a difference.
- One skeptic will say: “But Bernie or Annie already agrees with me-- nearly all the time!—why bother writing or calling?” Answer: Our legislators are under tremendous pressure. For them to keep pushing for what we want, it helps a lot for them to know how many of their constituents care about this or that issue—they need to know we ‘have their back.’
- Another skeptic complains: “But I’ve written before and all I get is a form letter!” Answer: You may get a form letter, but there on that aide’s desk is the tally sheet of ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ from her boss’s constituents. And her boss will ask, “What are we hearing from home on Senate Bill 2340? Legislators want to get re-elected and they depend on knowing what their constituents care about.
- A third skeptic answers: “But aren’t the FCNL staffers doing this lobbying work for me? That’s what I send them my money for, isn’t it? Besides, they’re smarter than I am and more up to date”. Answer: Yes, FCNL staffers are doing fabulous work on our behalf. But there’s no getting around that they are paid lobbyists. Studies show that legislators know and respond differently to constituents who aren’t being paid to lobby them than to professional lobbyists. When we do in-person lobbying in D.C, in a little delegation of constituents, sometimes with an FCNL staffer heading into a Capitol Hill office, the citizen lobbyist always leads—we typically know less than the full-time pros, but we’re speaking from our hearts, from our faith, and the legislator knows we’ve paid our own way to get there.
- There’s a fourth skeptic who wonders: “But how much difference do mere words make anyway? Don’t legislators respond mainly to money and party pressures?” Answer: Yes, those are definitely motivators. But our words also matter. Consider:
(1) Through the centuries, there have been many variations on the maxim ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ One of my favorite variations is from Hamlet: “Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come hither.”
(2) The British playwright Tom Stoppard has written “Words are important; if you get the right words in the right order, you can change the world;”
(3) Or think of words you know that have moved the people to bend the arc of history toward justice: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ . . . Blessed are the peacemakers’ . . . ‘We here highly resolve that . . . government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth’ . . .’Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ‘I have a dream’ . . . ‘When they go low, we go high.’
- Finally, there’s this kind of skeptic—whom I encountered a couple of weeks ago in the person of Fritz Weiss: “Why ever, Bob, are you talking about NEWSPAPERS?! They’re so 20th century! Social media is where it’s at these days, especially with young people!” To this I have two Answers: (1) The Valley News has a lively opinion page and it’s clear that lots of people of differing political persuasions read it and contribute to it; (2) But Fritz is right. And the FCNL community is full of young people who live by and with social media. On fcnl.org, type in “Social Media Toolkit” and you’ll find out more than I’ll ever want to know about hashtags and Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. You can read there that 100% of Senators have Twitter accounts, and 90% of House members do too. My Quaker defense for using the newspaper opinion page as my platform is that we Friends believe in speaking from experience! But if you dwell on those social media platforms, more power to you: tell us all about it!
Let’s turn now to the other side of our calling—attending with generous spirit to our fellow citizens with whom we disagree. Patricia?