Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Activists' Dilemma: My Party's Candidate and I Don't Agree!

A very conservative person (or perhaps a person who feels strongly about a particular issue ) often faces a dilemma. What are they to do when their party’s elected official or candidate is running for office but who advocates positions which are not consistent with the conservative citizen’s views? Vote for the Democrat? Or sit on their hands in protest and allow the Democrat candidate to win due to their inaction? I believe neither strategy is the best solution.

The choices legislators face are not always the ones they would like to face. In the State budget standoff currently, for example, we have a Democrat Governor and a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives. The choices basically are spending cuts, tax increases, a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, or in the event of no agreement, a government shutdown. If the Republican Senate insists on no tax increases as the solution and the Democrat House says no more spending cuts, a “game of chicken” occurs. Who is going to give? If neither, an extended government shutdown (or an extended period of “continuation budgets”) occurs. This reflects negatively nationally and globally as a place to locate or start a business.

Pressure mounts on the legislators to “do their job” and reach agreement. The legislators are expected to be “statesmen”, to give primacy to “the public good”, and to give up their individual preferences.

Choices between evils must be made by someone. Ultimately, more likely, some compromise is reached where all must accept something they regard as evil. Tactically, those who are forced to make these hard choices (i.e., to take the hard votes) are allocated by the respective Republican and Democrat caucuses in each chamber to those legislators who either are not going to run for office again or those legislators who are in “safe” seats. This scenario angers many of the voting public who feel strongly that their legislator has “sold out”, and many more are disgusted on how the process has played out due to the “political games”.

It is also helpful to better understand the mindset of an elected official, so that unrealistic expectations of elected officials are not created. Elected officials are faced with multiple, complex issues. Further, as much as single issue advocates would like to believe, there are few simple, controversial issues faced by a legislator, where a stand for principle must be made. Many such votes are not close, so a vote is easy as the vote really does not affect the outcome of the vote. If the vote is close, again, the “hard votes” are allocated by the party caucus to those who either are not going to run for office again or those legislators who are in “safe” seats.

Legislators seldom make the hard choices to take the hard votes until there is either a deadline or a crisis. That is why little was done to adopt a state budget until September 30 arrived. No one wants to give in. No one wants to take a hard vote against their constituents or vocal advocacy groups.

Do we like this situation? No, but that is reality. The saying that, “There are two things you don’t want anything to do with once you have seen how they are made – legislation and sausage” is all too true. However, we must deal with what is, while working to make things better.

Another factor to consider is that our elected officials make decisions in an atmosphere with much more information about an issue than most citizens have access to. What appears like a simple, black and white decision to some may be some shade of gray to the better informed. For example, on the climate change issue, I see that the weight of the evidence is that global warming is occurring and the man’s activities are causing the warming. But, I have been presented with disconfirming data and arguments that appear to refute that “consensus” opinion. What am I to believe? As an average citizen, I don’t have easy access to trusted experts to evaluate the credibility of the new information. Elected officials do. Now, whether the elected officials seek out that additional expertise or whether they have the intellectual capacity to digest the additional information is another question. Obviously some do and some don’t.

An activist with access to a candidate can attempt to persuade the candidate to change his or her position based on logic or new information the candidate may not have heard before. Or, promises of support (or veiled threats of withholding support) may be tried. Obviously, the ability to persuade will depend tremendously on the relationship you have previously built with the candidate, your credibility and the network of people you can deliver for or against a candidate. In the end, you must usually somehow appeal to “What’s in it for me?” from the candidate’s perspective to effectively persuade. Do they want to be right on an issue? Or do they simply want votes regardless of the correctness of their position?

For hints on how to bridge the chasm between the public and elected officials, see the Citizens or Experts: Who Should We Listen To? page on my Coming Together: Reaching Common Understanding website.

Want to see how your elected official is voting? You can track your US Senators' and Representative's votes by e-mail by signing up for the service at The Mackinaw Center for Public Policy publishes the “Michigan Capitol Confidential” that publishes voting records for state legislators. You can also search your state legislator’s voting record at

Comments? Suggestions?

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