For many people (who are not in political office) politics is a spectator sport. They enjoy discussing which party/candidate/policy is better in the same way they enjoy discussing which team/player/offense is better. They don’t, however, really expect to have any impact on who gets elected or what laws are enacted any more than the typical sports fan really expects to influence what players are drafted or who wins the world series.
There are a few of us, however, who follow politics to make a difference rather than for the entertainment factor. Below are some tips for anyone who considers themselves to be in this category.
There are three ways that you can make a difference in politics without actually holding a political office. The first is communication. This includes everything from putting up a yard sign to volunteering to man a phonebank to sharing your views in the coffee shop (or on the internet). The second way is by donating money either to a candidate or to a political organization. The third way is by voting.
With communication and donations the key to making a difference is to have a little humility or, if you prefer, self awareness. H.L. “Bill” Richardson founded “Gun Owners of America” and did a tremendous amount for his country as an activist.. He wrote in his book Confrontational Politics that his friends were often shocked when they discovered that he didn’t have much of an opinion on who the next Republican presidential candidate should be. His reason was simple. He didn’t figure he could have any significant influence on that race so he didn’t put much time into following it.
Neither your $20 donation to Mitt Romney’s campaign nor your Ron Paul sign in your front yard is going to have an impact on who is elected or what laws are enacted. It might make you feel better or it might make a statement about who you are (like your NDSU Bison flag) but it isn’t going to influence the election any more than your Bison flag is going to influence the outcome of their next game.
Your $20 donation or your yard sign may well make some measurable difference, however, in a race for the next city councilman from your ward or even the next state representative from your district. If you use your resources on a local race you will not have the satisfaction of feeling connected to something big enough and important enough to be on national television every night but you will actually be making a difference.
If you have the resources to make some difference in statewide races then by all means please do so. For that matter, if you have the resources to make a difference in presidential politics I don’t want to discourage you. It is probably better to err on the side of doing something even when there is no difference made rather than on the side of inaction when there might have been a difference. But if you have strongly held opinions about who should be the next president and you can’t even name the three state legislators from your district it is unlikely that (beyond voting) your strongly held political convictions are having any impact at all on who is elected or what laws are enacted.
When it comes to voting the first key is to do it. Only a little more than half of the people in your ward/district/state/country will get that far. Unlike donations and communication every person gets the same opportunity to make the same amount of difference here (at least if everything is done legally). If you’re interested in making a difference in politics this is an opportunity you can’t pass up.
The second key is to remember that you change things in politics by winning, not by losing. No one has ever changed the laws of the country in their direction through the loss of the candidate that was closest to their views. If candidate A wants the federal government to spend $4 trillion and candidate B wants the federal government to spend $6 trillion and you want the federal government to spend half a trillion dollars it does your position no good whatsoever for candidate B to win. The victory of candidate B will not bring candidate A (or his party) closer to your views, if anything it will bring them closer to the views of candidate B. The historical record (and common sense) could not be more clear on this.
If you want candidate A and/or his party to move closer to your views the only way to accomplish this is by supporting an electable and more conservative candidate in the party primary and then supporting that candidate through victory in the general election. Only winners can change the direction of their party just as only winners can change the direction of their country.
In 2008 I told several friends that if Rudy Giuliani was the nominee (remember that was once the conventional wisdom) I would vote third party in the presidential race because of Giuliani’s conviction that about-to-be-born children should not have equal protection under the law. I have since realized what a mistake that would have been. Giuliani would have been on the ballot against a man who has fought vigorously to force employers to purchase for their employees insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs. As revolting as I may find Giuliani’s position on an equal right to life (or lack thereof) our current President has managed to take up a position even more revolting. It would have done the pro life movement (and the children it seeks to protect) no good whatsoever for Obama to have defeated Giuliani. You make a difference in politics (no matter how infinitesimally small the difference is) by winning, not by losing.
So if you’re not a politician and you’re not going to become one but you want to make a difference in politics here is the summary of my advice. Educate yourself about local races and donate/communicate on behalf of the candidate’s who are in races where your donation/communication can make a difference. Vote whenever you may legally do so and vote for the candidate who might win who is closest to your views. None of this will be as fun as focusing on the big national races and only voting for candidates you consider suitable. But this isn’t Sioux hockey, and you having fun isn’t supposed to be the point.