I have to say that running for office was by far one of the most educational experiences and important life events I’ve ever had. One of the most important things I learned is that most of what I learned in civics and political science class is bullshit. It’s a much more gritty system, often run through networking and knowing the right people more than procedure. It’s a fascinating system too. It can be dirty and difficult, but there are also a lot of good, dedicated people who are really involved in politics for the right reasons. Sadly, there might not be enough of them, but they do exist.
It’s a perfect example of something that you can never really understand completely by reading about. It must be experienced and you have to become part of it to really get it. Just the same, I’ll try to relate, as best as I can, some of the biggest lessons and revelations.
I realize many readers are international, and these really apply directly to politics as it exists in the United States, but I am sure that many of these principles hold true elsewhere as well.
Here are some of the things I learned:
1. It’s more accessible than most would probably think – There seems to be a prevailing belief that the average person, without political background, fame or fortune cannot run for a high elected office. That’s simply not true. In fact, it’s surprising how accessible politics can be, if you really make an effort to get involved. I do not use the word “easy” because it is not easy at all, you really need to work very hard at it. Being established, from the right family, having money or otherwise being well known may help, but it is not completely necessary. What is necessary is tenacity, confidence and the willingness to work extremely hard for a long period of time.
A person who tries to run for an office like the US congress may not get a lot of attention or be successful their first time, or even their second. (although it’s not impossible that they will be.) However, it’s surprising how far you can get with just a lot of determination. It’s easier to start small, on the state level, for example, but that does not mean that one has to start small. Sometimes going all the way on your first attempt can have its advantages. If nothing else, it will show you are bold.
There is no gate keeper to the world of politics. The reason most people are not really part of the system of politics and politicians is that they don’t try. Most party committee meetings are open to the public. You can go to these, you can comment at these. You can talk to the politicians at them. You can become known to the parties and the be part of the process. That’s the first step, and anyone can do it. Just don’t be shy. Be confident and go for it. That’s all it takes.
2. All politics is local - The statement that “all politics is local” was made by former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil. It’s commonly repeated, but I never really understood just how true it was until I started in politics. The basis of all political support comes from local politics. People care most about what you can do for their community and want to get to know those who are running for office. Being solidly established in each town you want to represent is very important. Activism comes from the town leaders, and getting as many of them on your side as possible is very important.
If you want to get your foot in the door, the most important thing you can do is get a few local committee members and politicians on your side. Securing a nomination requires getting many more. Being able to effectively campaign in an area requires being established on the local level. Of course, this is a lot of work, but so are most things in politics.
3. Running for Office Is Lonely – I expected it to be stressful. I expected it to include letdowns. I expected there to be a lot of stresses and difficulties to deal with personally, but one thing I really did not expect was for running for office to be lonely. The loneliness of running for office is something that is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it. In fact, the first time I heard anyone else mention it was when I was talking to a local official about a first time running for office. He said “For one thing, it can be a pretty lonely experience.” My immediate thought was “WOW! This guy gets it! And I’m not the only one!”
The reasons it feels lonely vary. For one thing, you end up losing most of your social life, simply because of the amount of time spent on things. Most of your friends and family will not be able to identify with what it’s like, and generally are less supportive than they probably think they are being. In part, it’s just the amount of time it takes. People have a hard time being there for you for months on end, which is what it takes to run. Also, you are always surrounded by people but generally they are not personal friends and they are certainly not people you can speak openly to or have complete trust in. Since everything you say has to be professional in nature, its easy to feel there’s nobody who is really there with you.
In addition to this, there is a lot of time spent alone, doing very thankless tasks like stuffing envelopes, filling out forums and making calls. Don’t expect your friends to be too helpful in this regard. They may well do so once in a while, or at first, but people just can’t be expected to be there for the mundane tasks every time for such a long period of time. When nobody else will help, it falls to the candidate, especially in a grass roots campaign.
The other thing that can contribute to it, is not everyone will be very nice to the candidate. When making fundraising calls, a few will contribute, but most will not and some will be nasty. Doors are occasionally slammed in ones face.
I should probably be clear that the loneliness of running for office was never really crippling and never reduced me to tears or anything. I took it in stride, swallowed it and pressed on. I was too busy to feel bad about it. However, it’s something that I did not expect and I don’t think most people would. It is actually one of the biggest stresses of the process.
4. Asking for money is hard, but it has to be done, and it has to be done a lot - It’s surprisingly hard to ask people for money. I found I started off almost apologetic. One really has to swallow their pride to do it. But it’s absolutely necessary. Campaigns never have enough money and being self-financed is just not an option unless you are super rich. It’s also not fair to expect the candidate, who is already making a huge sacrifice, to also break themselves financially. It’s amazing how fast costs can compound.
One of the most important things to bare in mind is that people are not giving you a handout. They are contributing to the campaign and it’s not as if you can use that money for your own enjoyment. They’re contributing to a cause that the candidate has already given a huge amount of time, energy and money to, and they are contributing to the political future of their country and community. If they agree with your policies and want to see you win, it’s totally valid that they will help out.
A candidate cannot hesitate, cannot apologize, cannot act as if they are asking for a handout. They need to directly and frequently make it clear that their campaign, like all campaigns, only functions because people who believe in it will help out.
5. People are way less supportive and helpful than you can ever imagine – No matter how many times I was let down, I never seemed to stop grossly overestimating the generosity of people. There were a huge number of people who offered words of encouragement, a pat on the back or even a verbal offer to help, but getting them to fork over a half hour of their time or five dollars proved impossible more than 95% of the time. People just don’t want to be bothered, they don’t want to actually make a sacrifice, however small and they don’t want to have to put their money where their mouth is. I was shocked to find this even true for my friends and family.
When I first started out, I presumed I’d be able to get a few hundred dollars from my parents. After all, they are pretty well off (not rich, but upper middle class and certainly could afford a few hundred dollars) and they knew I really needed it. They have never been cheap and never refused to help me out in the past, when I needed it. However, they seemed to be completely unwilling to give anything. In fact, I had to lean on my father for months before he finally made a one hundred dollar donation.
This turned out to be true with almost everyone. My closest friends were very supportive, verbally, and they all could have thrown in $20, but very few did. Many people at events were willing to take donation forms and envelopes, but less than 1% of those I printed and gave out ever came back. Finding volunteers, even amounts people who said they would support me was nearly impossible and many many people crapped out for the most absurd reasons. I had one person offer to help with a petition drive (an absolutely vital function), and I was really really counting on her to do so. When I showed up at her door to pick her up, she did not answer. She then texted me that she was still in bed and didn’t feel like doing it because it looked like it might rain.
(Seriously, people crap out like this all the time, even on the most vital tasks.) People also say they will donate money and then either forget to or put it off indefinitely.
I don’t know why this is. Part of it is surely apathy. There’s definitely a procrastination factor too. Part it seems to be that people don’t think their contribution of time or money will make any difference (it really will) and a related part seems to be “diffusion of responsibility,” which is the social phenomena that results in inaction due to the presumption that someone else will take action. There seems to be an illusion that all candidates have millions of dollars in contributions and staff working for them. In fact, I repeatedly had people tell me as much “Why do you need fifty dollars from me? You’re running for congress! You must have millions.”
It is incredibly frustrating and often feels like trying to get blood from a stone. One of the most difficult things to deal with is the realization that people you have never met are usually the ones who offer the most generosity, and not friends and family or your most vocal supporters. Usually it’s because they have enough political involvement to truly understand how important it is.
That said, I had a few people come through and consistently and without question help out. You know who you are, and I cannot thank you enough.
6. There’s no such thing as a sure thing - There seems to be a belief that certain politicians, special interests or groups are untouchable and immune to being toppled. A politician who has been in office for many consecutive terms and has a lot of money in the bank seems to be hardly worth taking on. This is simply not true. They may manage to hold onto power *most* of the time, but they can fall, sometimes at the least expected times and almost overnight. Really, no matter how much power someone has, it’s always on the line, all the time.
The same could be said of Enron, WorldCom or the Soviet Union. Big, established institutions can and do come crashing down.
No leader is ever more than one election away from losing everything and the public is extremely fickle. The voting public can change their mind almost overnight, even after years of support. It only take a single misstep, scandal or well played hand by an opponent to turn things around. For this reason, nobody should ever feel too confident, although some do, and that can be their undoing. Also, never be afraid to take on a Goliath. Never presume the underdog won’t win.
Playing the odds does not always work in politics. If a politician has a 95% chance of getting reelected, that means that one in twenty of them will fail. It gets a lot higher when multiple election cycles are considered.
7. It’s more personal and less professional than I ever would have imagined – When I first became involved, I started out with the mindset that this was a professional pursuit and that I should not let it get too much to me on a personal level. I make it a point not to hold grudges when someone does not endorse me or judges the other candidate as being worthy of support, because it’s not a personal thing. When I lose something or things don’t go right, I don’t assume it’s an insult to me and I don’t let it get me down. I try to keep things in perspective, avoid acting out in anger and always remember the importance of the long term.
Of course, I’m right in this regard. It *is* better to keep things professional, avoid grudges and not melt down over things that go wrong politically. What is surprising, however, is that not everyone seems to get this, even amongst experienced politicians. I would have thought that senators, congressmen, party chairs, mayors and state representatives would be extremely professional people capable of handling themselves. This is not always the case.
I’ve seen well known politicians who hold petty grudges that do nothing to help their cause and ultimately hurt them. I’ve seen high ranking party officials and politicians get into nasty personal arguments to the point of shoving each other. I’ve seen them break down and start making threats that could get them in trouble. I’ve seen them bicker like children. Some of them are just divas, completely incapable of dealing with letdowns or always expecting to be coddled, which, of course, is often not the case. Many let their personal problems enter the public arena.
On a couple occasions, I’ve had some big mishaps, and, rather than letting it get to me, I’d start to get upset, then take a step back and remind myself not to get emotional so that I can keep going forward. When this happened, I received a few comments about how well I handled it even from experienced people. That surprised me. Isn’t that how everyone is supposed to handle it? Perhaps, but many do not.
8. There is incompetence at all levels – You would think a major political party would not make really stupid mistakes, like not following basic procedures at a convention or failing to realize that the way they were running a banquet was stupid and resulting in them getting fewer contributions. You’d expect that they would not repeatedly put the wrong info on a website. You’d expect that well funded candidates with many high paid advisers would not make mistakes so obvious that even I could spot them a mile away. Yet it happens, more often than you might expect.
Of course, more professional organizations do this less frequently than less professional ones, but none seem to never do it. This might explain why our government is run the way it is.
9. Parties are powerful for a reason, and it’s hard to counter it – People often wonder why the Democrats and Republicans are so powerful in the US. People are fed up with both parties, at least to a large extent, but they seem to always have it all over the rest. It’s hard for third parties and independents to get a foothold. However, there’s a very natural reason for this, and it explains why party sponsorship is so important.
Every city and town has a Republican Town Committee and a Democratic Town Committee. When a candidate walks into a town as a Republican or Democrat, they know exactly where to go to find their most important supporters. They have allies already and there’s a pre-existing framework to start getting support. The parties have chair people in every town, so when you go to a town, you’re not starting off blind – you already have local people who know the area. Additionally, there are the College Republicans, College Democrats, Young Republicans and there are other affiliated organizations.
An independent does not have that structure to start off with. They enter a town or city as a loner and it’s very hard to even know where to start to gather support. It makes a huge difference.
10. You can tell what a politician will do and what they are loyal to by the PAC money they accept – This was a HUGE revelation to me. Like many, I believed a politician could accept money from anyone, and that didn’t mean they were in any way obligated to them. For example, if the clean coal lobby offered me a few thousand dollars, I could certainly take it. Why not? It’s not like I have to sign a contract saying I’ll support their policies.
It turns out that’s not the case. A politician who accepts money from a cause must be reasonably accommodating and loyal to that cause. Just how accommodating and loyal a politician must be depends on factors like how much money they accepted, how the PAC operates, how specific or general its aim is and other such things. But a politician could NEVER go directly against the wishes of a major contributor. For example, if a politician accepted a very large donation from the “Widget Association of America”, they might be able to get away with voting on legislation that the Widget Association was just a tad bit unhappy with, but if they sponsored anti-widget legislation, then their political career would be over. (In reality, replace this with someone taking a lot of NRA money and then supporting extreme restrictions on gun ownership or from the Corn Ethanol Association and then voting to get rid of all ethanol subsidies.)
Their political career would be over for a very simple reason: they would never again get any PAC money at all. PAC’s take great offense to being double-crossed like this and some of them are known to do things as extreme as supporting a political opponent they do not even like, just as a way of “making an example” of what happens to politicians who will cross them by accepting donations and then legislating against them. But worse, they will make sure the word gets out to all other PAC’s and organizations about what you did, and that will assure nobody will donate to you again.
This might seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, if you double-cross the NRA, why would that make a pro-gun control PAC not want to donate to you? Wouldn’t they want to donate to you more? Actually, no. All PACs want the same thing, really. They want to be confident that the politicians who take money from them will return the favor by representing their interests. If a politician does not do this for a PAC that has supported them (ANY PAC) then they gain a reputation that basically states “This guy is willing to take your money but won’t do what you want.” That is the kiss of death.
It’s easy to see how this can create a very bad situation, where politicians end up owing a lot of favors and deep-pocketed special interests gain a lot of influence. Lobbyists do have the valid and important job of representing sectors and interests to politicians, but I would not argue that their influence may have gotten out of hand.
I try to maintain good ethics and avoid being in a conflict by only reaching out to PAC’s whose interests I can already, in good conscious, support. I would have no problem taking a lot of money from pro-nuclear PAC’s, because I am already supportive of their cause and am willing to be generally strongly pro-nuclear in office. I’d also be willing to take a lot of money from PAC’s that are fiscally conservative, support government-sponsored science and so on. I’d be willing to take *some* money from a PAC run by a defense contractor or by a PAC that stands for low taxes, because I am generally receptive to keeping up the military and I prefer taxes that are low rather than high, but I would not accept a lot from such a PAC, because I can easily see how there might be times where I would not be entirely on their side. On the other hand, I would accept no money at all from a PAC supporting the coal industry or wanting more religious-based policies of government, because I absolutely oppose where they stand.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the PAC’s I had a lot of enthusiastic support for blew me off (well, one in particular) while the ones that I could not, in good conscious accept the support of were extremely eager to give it. A politician with less vested interest in doing what they feel is right and more in getting funding might not be so willing to stand their ground.
If you want to know what you can do about this, there is one thing: Donate money to candidates you can really support. I hope that means me, but even if it does not, donate to others whose platform you can get behind. The reason is that the more money a candidate gets from individuals and grass roots support, the more empowered they are to decline the support of special interests they don’t fully stand behind. A candidate who is getting a lot of contributions from supporters is in a strong position when it comes to PAC’s, but one who is in debt and getting no contributions is in a very weak position to turn away PAC money.
One final thing:
Many will be fast to criticize the system. It certainly has many bad aspects, although there are good things about politics as it exists well. I’m not defending anything about politics in the US, I’m only stating it as it is. This is how things operate and you have to play the game to have a shot at changing it.
If there’s one thing I want to express it’s my encouragement that readers get more involved. You can make a difference and you might be surprised at how much. A few committed people can make a difference, if they really try. You do not need to run for office, either. Just get politically involved and get to know local leaders and talk to them and give some input. Learn how things work in your area and where you might be able to make a difference.
The best place to start is by finding out when your local Democratic or Republican Town Committee meets. Don’t assume that because you lean left you need to go to the DTC or because you learn right go to the RTC. The town committees are much smaller than the national party and many are not entirely in line with the national committee platform. For example, several of my local RTC’s are very opposed to how socially conservative the RNC has become. If in doubt, try attending both. See which one seems to offer the better opertunity to make a difference. It can depend on which one has more seats in your area or which one is more receptive to outsiders joining in the discussion.
You can also go to non-partisan things, like town committees or hearings, but really, you’re going to have to go with one party or the other as your primary outlet, or neither will help you. Being truely bi-partisan is great and you can reach out across party lines, but really it helps to be established with one or the other.
There is an important networking and social aspect to this. The first step to getting involved is just getting to know the people in your area who are involved. Talk to them after the meeting, get coffee if you can and work your way into local politics. Become a familiar face to local politicians. (BTW: it also has its advantages for you personally. Being on a fist name basis with your mayor or police commissioner can come in VERY handy.)
You can also contribute to campaigns you support and volunteer at events. Volunteering is not only a great way to help out, but will help connect you to candidates and politically active groups in your area. It can also be great for your resume, especially if you can get a substantive position in a campaign.
If you do not like how the system works, don’t like politics in general or find you don’t agree with everything, that’s no excuse for not getting involved. The system can only be changed from within. Also, not all worthwhile pursuits are pleasant.
Here is my pithy quote on the issue: Many people don’t get involved in politics because they don’t like politics. Well, most people don’t like going to the the dentist either. If the same logic that everyone seems to apply to politics were applied to dentistry, all our teeth would be rotting as badly as out country is.
This entry was posted on Sunday, October 14th, 2012 at 12:54 pm and is filed under History, Misc, Politics, personal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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