In the political system embodied by my nuclear family, there are two distinctive civic-engagement tactics employed by the two constituencies with whom I regularly negotiate. Both involve currency, of a sort: in this case it is voice.
Specifically, my daughter invests large amounts of currency into every political fight, while my son uses a more strategic, grass-roots approach to his campaigns. Both are effective, but one is more likely to gain the attention – but not necessarily the sympathy – of the decision-maker. Guess which.
To illustrate the jockeying for political dominance in my household, consider a hypothetical scenario involving movie selection for the evening. The firstborn male constituency, which I will call the Enocrats, crafts a long-view campaign that involves building favor within the power system by crafting a compelling message about the merits of Movie A: The storyline is interesting, the actors handsome, the banter witty. This message is repeated multiple times throughout the campaign to choose the evening’s entertainment, and as often as not, attached to compliments about the decision-maker’s cooking, clothing, parenting skills and quality as a human. This is a quiet, respectable and fundamentally irresistible lobbying effort – when it exists in a vacuum. Alas, it does not.
There is another interest group at work here, the second born, female bloc known hereafter as the Clopublicans. Before continuing, it is important that I make some disclaimers: This example is not intended to hint at my opinion of the reasonableness of either my children’s approaches to influencing their governing systems nor to predict their future political alignment. It should also not be taken as evidence of my political leanings, though it may hint at them.
Anyway, returning to the point now, the Clopublicans’ approach to movie selection tends to go something like this: Representatives of this bloc do not engage in the discussion over options until Movie A has been identified, advocated for and more or less decided upon –with consideration from the decision-maker as to how the Clopublicans will likely feel about the film. At this point, the Clopublicans launch a full-volume, high-intensity attack on the decision-maker for never having consulted the opposition, for allowing the Enocrats to push their self-serving agenda through, and to have undue influence in the political process. The stakes are high for the Clopublicans, and they are willing to expend vast amounts of capital in asserting their position.
It usually works, at least in getting the party a seat at the decision-making table that they were previously uninterested in joining. While it is resource-intensive for the Clopublicans – they usually wind up exhausted and may or may not succeed in having their agenda enacted – they have quite effectively overshadowed the Enocrats’ low-budget, carefully conceived strategy and taken center stage in the debate.
All of this has relevance beyond what sort of mind-numbing entertainment we choose because the strategies these two parties employ are really no different than those we see in political systems from the local to the national levels. What happens as the arena broadens, though, is that the currency converts from voice to cash.
Leaving the dynamics of my household for the moment and looking to some countywide examples of this system, it is evident that the loudest voices – however late to the game they arrive – can be as influential in a process as those who quietly and diligently engaged in it through the long haul. La Plata County’s comprehensive planning process is one recent scenario in which this played out to dramatic effect, and there are signs indicating the long-awaited Climate Energy Action Plan will suffer a similar fate.
This effort resulted from an agreement between the city of Durango and La Plata County commissioners to pursue ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions locally, while ensuring that such actions are economically and societally beneficial. The city has formally recognized the document; the county has yet to do so. In the lead-up to a formal discussion of the CEAP, those opposed to such notions as addressing climate change – or even recognizing that it exists – have been growing increasingly vociferous. It will be interesting to see if that volume serves to drown out the quiet voices that informed the document’s drafting.
On both sides, there has been an investment – of time, voice, effort. One group gave small, frequent and sustained contributions, while another is writing a larger check in the campaign’s final phase, potentially influencing its outcome in the offing.
Writ even larger, this dynamic can and does have profound effects on national elections. While those who have contributed their voices – and, at this level, dollars – slowly, steadily, and modestly are perhaps the constituency to which elected officials are more sympathetic, in both their positions and their approaches, it is difficult to ignore the loudest voices and the fattest wallets. In fact, it is downright impossible – because the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the interchangeability of dollars and words, and because loud voices and big spenders are sometimes right, even if their style is irritating. What that does not mean is that they should always win.
Instead, it means that those with fewer vocal, financial or adversarial resources to invest must redouble their smaller-stakes efforts, while finding ways to gather support and harness more resources. It is easy to get demoralized and disengage when big money and loud voices seem to disproportionately influence a system, but that is all the more reason to stay involved. If not, we would all be stuck watching “Wizards of Waverly Place: The movie” when everyone knows “O Brother Where Art Thou” is better.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.