After Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote elevated Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education, I received a short, pointed text message from a friend and fellow progressive: “Something tells me petitions and calls don’t mean shit.”
If progressives take no other lesson from DeVos’ confirmation, this should be it: Petitions, phone calls and the like don’t move the needle—especially if you aren’t a constituent of the elected official you’re trying to convince.
Legislators may listen when it comes to small matters that don’t go against their ideological grain. If you need help getting a non-ideological problem solved, a letter or call to one of your elected representatives might get you some action. But if you’re looking to convince a legislator to vote against his or her political ideology or party, you might as well ask a tiger to trade in its stripes for polka dots.
And all the happy talk on the left about impeachment is pure fantasy. This will not happen with the president’s party in charge of Congress. There have been two presidents in U.S. history who have been impeached, and in both cases their political opponents held the majority in the House of Representatives. (In neither case did the Senate ultimately convict and remove the impeached president, which requires a two-thirds majority, though Andrew Johnson just barely escaped this fate by one vote in 1868.) It doesn’t matter how many calls you make, letters you write, petitions you sign or marches you attend. Short of death or resignation, the current occupant of the Oval Office isn’t going anywhere before January 2021.
Of course, there are people on my side of the aisle who don’t want to hear this. They were brought up on Schoolhouse Rock, and they know how the Schoolhouse Rock version of government is supposed to work, dammit! They are wedded to the notion that if they are loud and persistent enough, their voices will be heard, and those in power will be forced to listen.
But they won’t.
There’s only one way to get elected officials to do what you want: Elect people who will do what you want.
There are a lot of people who don’t like hearing that, and that’s in part because they want immediate action. They don’t like hearing that the useful work that needs to be done (starting right now) may not bear any fruit at all for two or four years, and perhaps not even then. So they keep looking for ways they can get action immediately.
The other side has the votes, and the power, right now. It can—and will—do what it wants, and it doesn’t care what you think or how you feel about it. The only way to stop Republicans is to deprive them of power, and that means winning the next election.
Some Democrats understand this fundamental truth and are trying their best to make that very point.
Sen. Al Franken spoke the truth when he appeared last Friday on Real Time With Bill Maher. “I know everybody wants a bit of a quick fix, but this is going to be a marathon,” Franken said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama and one of the Democratic Congressional leaders who engineered his party’s takeover of Congress in 2006, is not popular in some progressive circles today due to his fight with the city’s teachers’ unions and other decisions that he has made as mayor. But he also got it right on this particular issue when he spoke at Stanford University on February 6 and said that success will not come immediately and that long-term persistence and work will be needed to bring about victory.
Emanuel, in his comments reported by the Chicago Tribune, also made the key point that this columnist continues to hammer away at: winning elections is the only way to get what you want in politics.
But the midterms are 21 months away. Does that mean you should just go home and wait?
No. There is plenty to do right now. Get like-minded people involved, registered to vote and motivated to vote. Help with registration drives. Find good candidates for office. Talk to your friends, family members and colleagues.
And by all means, attend rallies, marches, and Congressional town hall meetings. Even if they achieve nothing in terms of persuading unpersuadable legislators, they do serve the purpose of letting like-minded individuals know that there are many other people who share their views. The congressional town hall meetings that Tea Party members disrupted in 2009 and 2010 energized their movement and helped them put Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives at the end of that two-year election cycle. Even more importantly, that energy helped downballot, as the GOP took control of many key governorships and state legislatures in time to draw most of the lines when redistricting occurred in 2011.
But remember this above all: the people who have the power will wield that power as they see fit unless and until they are deprived of it. There were so many phone calls opposing the confirmation of DeVos that Congressional switchboards were almost hopelessly jammed, and yet, nobody who wasn’t already against her was persuaded to switch. The avalanche moved exactly zero votes; the two (out of 52) Republican Senators who opposed her had stated their positions well before the phone blitz got rolling. Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against DeVos for their own reasons, but not before reportedly consulting with the rest of their caucus to ensure that their “no” votes would not ultimately derail the nomination.
Stop hoping Republicans in Congress will “see the light.” Stop counting the days until impeachment, which isn’t going to happen. This is going to be a long battle, not a quick hit. But if Democrats can ride a wave of public frustration and anger in 2018 to a net gain of at least 24 seats in the U.S. House (a figure that is smaller than the average midterm gain by the “out” party), they can block the president’s legislative agenda for the remainder of his term, as Republicans did with President Obama after 2010. And with enough gubernatorial and state legislative victories in 2018 and 2020, Democrats can be in position to redraw many legislative districts in 2021.
Get real. Get mobilized. Get on with it. The results won’t come right away, but the work needs to start right now.
Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.