Even in this age of social media campaigns, carefully choreographed events with coordinated shirts and banners, and a broader, firmer commitment to keeping the message short and consistent, there is nothing more helpful to advancing one’s cause than being present each and every day that there is public debate and decision-making.
In my current capacity as president of an association of small non-profit colleges, I spend plenty of my working hours wandering the halls of the State Capitol in Topeka. On most days, I’m not there giving testimony on behalf of the colleges. And I’m certainly not taking legislators to fancy dinners. In fact, on most days, I don’t even have scheduled meetings with any legislators at all. I sit through committee hearings on issues that might have some effect on education, small communities, or non-profits and I find a place to sit or stand in the hallways where I might have the chance to observe what’s really going on in the legislature that day. I talk to others who I’ve come to know who work on issues unrelated to my own. I have opportunities to get to know legislators, their hard-working staff assistants, their interns, and even sometimes their spouses.
And, most of all, I’m present. And because I’ve been present, I’m seen by those who I wish to influence (i.e. legislators). And because I’m seen each day, the legislators remember my name, remember the issues on which I’m particularly passionate, and seek me out for dialogue and debate and insight. That makes it much easier to make my case on issues I care about. Simply put, because I “show up” every day, I have more opportunities to achieve my goals and those who I wish to influence are more amenable to my message.
“Showing up” in this way is not glamorous and it is rarely exciting. There are no dramatic backroom plots like you might expect if you think “House of Cards” is a good depiction of the halls of politics. Despite its lack of glamour or excitement though, just being present can be physically and emotionally exhausting. And it sometimes can take weeks, months, or even multiple years of “showing up” before you have the relationships and respect to influence real action on your issues. I’ve only been in this role for three years. Other hard working folks have been working in the Capitol for 30 and 40 years. Imagine what that sort of “showing up” has permitted them to achieve!
Unfortunately, the power of “showing up” has a direct connection to American cynicism about the political process. That’s because not everyone can be consistently present, day-in and day-out. Most Americans have jobs, and families and commitments that have nothing at all to do with politics or the issues on which they feel most passionate.
Last year, for instance, during the debate on public teacher tenure, there was a rush of teachers wearing red t-shirts, singing, and chanting, and showing their strength in numbers. This went on for several days. Eventually, however, those teachers had to go back to doing what they cared most about – teaching! And in so doing, the potency of their individual stories faded. Meanwhile, others who might not share those teachers’ views on the issues were able to maintain a day-in and day-out presence in the statehouse.
One solution is to hire lobbyists to be your delegate and to “show up” on your behalf. Successful lobbyists are quite competent at the act of being consistently present. But not everyone has the resources to pay for such services.
And this is where cynicism often emerges. For most, you cannot spend all your time attending legislative meetings and hearings so as to influence action on issues you care about because you have a life. Neither can you afford to hire someone to do this for you. So the cynic can easily and understandably start to feel frustrated by the iniquity of such a system. If showing up matters so much, and if it looks and feels like the political process is dominated by those who can afford the time or money to show up – and thus their issues and views are embraced – then why engage at all?
The Path Forward:
Sadly, there is no simple solution to this dilemma. Public challenges and issues grow ever more complex, making it even more important to be present, and ever more difficult to do so for the average citizen.
Technology can provide a few useful tools. Video of legislative committees could be streamed on the internet, for instance. A bi-partisan group of Kansas legislators has been trying to make this possible, so far unsuccessfully. Some state legislators are personally active on Twitter and often will engage in healthy debate with followers who inquire respectfully. But these are nibbling around the edges of the trickier issue.
If I could see one big change, it would be to see more individual Kansans make it an annual commitment to go to Topeka and “show up.” Meet with your legislators and others who share your interests and values. Talk about why you care about the things you care about. See how the political process truly works and contribute beyond a staged and well-publicized event. Be present, be seen, and do it more than once in your lifetime. Change may come slowly, over many years. But if Woody Allen’s thinking was correct, if enough Kansans “show up” over many years, more Kansans would start to feel optimism rather than cynicism about the workings of politics and policy.
Matt Lindsey is the president of the Kansas Independent College Association & Fund, where he coordinates a range of programs designed to strengthen Kansas' private, non-profit, colleges through collaboration, governmental advocacy, and public engagement and to support the ability of college students to choose and afford an effective, high-quality college education that fits their individual goals. Lindsey previously worked as the Executive Director for Kansas Campus Compact and as an adjunct faculty member with Kansas State University's Staley School of Leadership Studies. He also worked in Washington, DC as the Senior Associate for Freedman Consulting, where he advised non-profits, philanthropies, and civic groups on public advocacy strategies.