A city councilor shouted at while walking to lunch. A school board member confronted at a restaurant during breakfast with his mother. A mayor experiencing repeated vandalism to his home. A legislator receiving actual death threats in response to a bill she’s sponsored.
Maybe you know what specific, real-life situation each of these stories refers to. And maybe you know of enough incidents that you’re not sure. Either way, you’re not wrong.
Over the past couple of weeks, bills have been heard, meetings have been disrupted, and several media organizations and community leaders have reminded us that harassment and violence towards elected officials – at the local, state, and national level – isn’t new, nor is it acceptable.
But here’s what activists don’t seem to understand when they try to intimidate, rather than persuade: real power isn’t about force, it’s about influence. No long-term policy strategy has ever been accomplished by threatening an elected official. Fear and respect are two different things. Influence is based in relationships. And no relationship has ever been built by deploying a megaphone, or picketing someone’s home.
Relationships are why one constituent with a personal story will always be more persuasive than a flood of form letters.
Relationships are the reason that the best lobbyists and organizers don’t wield checkbooks, they wield information. They know the issues, sure, but more importantly they know the person behind the election certificate. They have relationships based on years of working with elected officials, not threatening them.
Relationships are where trust is built. And trust is an enormous commodity in governing.
Some activists don’t know enough to know the difference. They see fictionalized accounts of demonstrations making a big change, and they (erroneously) believe that the louder they are, the more effective they will be. The more they frame their wants as demands, the more seriously they’ll be taken.
And then they find out that’s not the truth.
Even the big, loud rallies in the capitol rotunda don’t actually move policy. You’ll see this in the issues that are getting traction this legislative session – the demonstrations aren’t the motivating factor. The quiet, behind-the-scenes work, often taking years, is what really gets things done. Rallies and protests are good for raising awareness, for channeling feelings and for fundraising. But real change requires less in-your-face tactics.
Elected officials definitely have a role to play as well. They need to communicate ways for constituents to engage with their office and share opinions on the issues. They need to commit to following up or following through. Hold town halls or have an opportunity for public comment at meetings. Sometimes tactics escalate if people feel like they don’t have other options.
Intimidation is not OK, it’s not effective, and it makes our democracy a little bit worse. Those people who do step up to run, despite the chaos, are commended for their courage. But should they have to exhibit that kind of bravery, and assume that risk, to participate in public service?
If you want to make a change, try to start with a quiet conversation. If your message isn’t getting through, it doesn’t need to be louder, it needs to be better.
Shannon Watson is the executive director of Majority in the Middle.