By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Political professionals are often cynical people, so it was surprising to hear lobbyist and Republican consultant Bill Vickery make this idealistic statement during a recent banquet speech: “There has also never been a time in American politics where one individual can have more of an impact than right at this very moment.”
Journalists can be cynical people, too, so one might say in response, “Yeah, if that individual is Sheldon Adelson.” Adelson is a Las Vegas casino magnate spending a chunk of his fortune on Republican Party presidential politics, so candidates approach him on their knees with hat in hand. In 2012, the process became known as the “Sheldon Adelson primary.”
Can one average person make a difference? In some ways, this democracy is becoming less democratic. Today’s campaign tactics, media landscape and digital data miners have sliced America into distinct electoral blocs that the political pros can manipulate. Moneymen like Adelson, who can make virtually unlimited donations, have tremendous influence over the process.
It’s impossible for normal citizens to compete toe to toe with that, but they do have some powerful weapons these days – their own ideas, their own energy, social media. A YouTube video that goes viral can have more impact than millions of dollars in commercials. Vickery said an energetic Cleveland campaign volunteer for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign made such a difference in that city that her absence was felt when she was hospitalized. Vickery didn’t mention it, but four years earlier, how many volunteers would have been needed to erase Florida’s 537-vote margin between Bush and Vice President Al Gore? Not many.
In a democracy where the many are just grumbling and complaining, the few who actually act can have an outsized influence. In many counties, the tea party is composed of a small number of Arkansans, usually not bank president types, who together have far more sway than their neighbors because they are organized and involved. When a few hundred activists protesting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act lined the steps leading to the Arkansas House of Representatives, legislators who supported the bill found another route to the chamber, but they couldn’t ignore the crowd. The Legislature itself isn’t composed of members of the state’s elite. Instead it’s mostly average people who decided, “Why not me?” The powerful speaker of the House, Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, owns a berry farm.
The thing that ties a lot of these people together is that they stopped just griping about the government and instead engaged in practical politics. The Cleveland woman was volunteering for the Democratic nominee, not a fringe candidate. Tea party members write letters to the editor, contact their legislators and vote in every Republican primary. Sometimes a Martin Luther King does come along who totally changes the way a nation thinks. But you’re probably not the next Martin Luther King, so get involved where it can matter.
It’s worth noting that Vickery made his comment at Heifer International’s headquarters in Little Rock. The hunger relief organization was started by farmer Dan West, a member of the Church of the Brethren who did some relief work during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and decided that country’s poorest people could be helped more by giving them a cow instead of just a cup of milk. Since then, Heifer International has provided farm animals and other services to 22.6 million families around the world.
Life is about expectations, and so is politics. If your definition of “making a difference” is “remaking the world to my liking, by myself and without much effort,” then this message isn’t for you. Adelson poured $15 million into Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign, and Gingrich didn’t come close to winning, so you will not fix the national debt with one letter to your congressman. But if you and those like you organize around a common, attainable goal, use the modern tools you have available, and stay committed despite a few setbacks, you’d be surprised at what you might accomplish.
That’s especially the case in state and local politics. At the State Capitol, there’s sort of a little familiar club of legislators, lobbyists, state employees and journalists – and then regular people come in and upset the apple cart sometimes.
That can be you. You can get a lot done, but not by yourself. So, no, generally one person can’t make a difference. But a few one persons can.