How to magnify your political voice beyond voting

How to magnify your political voice beyond voting
© Getty Images

In a representative democracy, so the theory goes, people get their way by voting for candidates who best represent their views. To get the change in policies that they want, people must identify the right candidate, vote for them — and hope others do, too. But people can struggle to find candidates for office who share their preferences. Elected officials also can change their minds, say one thing and do another, or simply be inconsistent voices for the ideas voters hold. 

There is an alternative way to make political change in a world of representative democracy: Work to make your issues popular, and it matters less who gets elected. 

Voting is one way to voice your opinion, but there are inherent limitations in how much it can accomplish. For example, people running for office want to be popular more than they want to be torch-bearers for political ideas. As Randall Munroe noted in his hilarious essay, “How to Win an Election,” a politician’s job is to get elected, and they get elected when they say and do popular things. This means that candidates may care less about change and more about being well-liked.

ADVERTISEMENT

And even if your candidate is elected, that person will  have only one vote among many in a lawmaking body. Citizens in my home state of Michigan can vote for one out of 38 state senators, two out of 100 U.S. senators, one out of 110 state House members, and one out of 435 congressmen. Electing one voice in each legislative body is insufficient to move policy by itself.

Even if most lawmakers are sympathetic to your views, there’s another limitation: a politician’s sense of how popular a position is. Lawmakers remain sensitive to their reputations after they are elected. After all, the wrong vote can affect their future electability. Even if they are term-limited or not running again, they still want to be held in high esteem. So even if the “right people” get elected, change doesn’t happen unless it’s popular — or at least perceived to be by those in office.

It is possible that majorities of Democrats get elected to Michigan’s House and Senate this fall, and this would mean that laws could be made without Republican votes. There is a list of policies that Democrats have spoken out against — the end of compulsory union dues, letting governments pay market rates for construction projects, and allowing for-profit companies to provide public education, for example. But the number of Democratic legislators does not guarantee that any of these policies would change. Instead, that would depend on how much people support the changes. 

This doesn’t mean that letting polls drive policies makes for good politics. There are trade-offs to policy changes that lawmakers must weigh, which voters may not recall during a quick interview with a pollster. People may tell pollsters, for example, that they want to end for-profit charter schools but get angry if their neighborhood school closes because of it. 

The intensity of public opinion matters, too. A candidate running on a position of strict gun control in northern Michigan likely won’t get elected, regardless of how popular his or her other views are. 

ADVERTISEMENT

In short, the popularity (and intensity) of various ideas sets the bounds for the Overton Window, the range of policies that the public can accept. The things outside of the Overton Window are too extreme for politicians in our system to enact. 

A policy’s popularity is not etched into stone. Being tough on crime used to be popular and now being “smart on crime” is. The switch didn’t happen because the right politicians got elected, but rather because people changed their minds on the issue. 

It took the work of academics, activists, interest groups and others to do this. It took education on the issue, compelling messages and research, stories of injustice, well-thought out solutions that addressed the opposition’s concern, and an enormous expense of energy and effort from reformers. 

Oh, and lasting change ensures that both Republicans and Democrats can support policies. The above groups tried to keep both parties from closing themselves off from considering the reforms they wanted to see enacted.

This is also how people can enhance their political voice. They can care about issues and to want to persuade others. There is no substitute for citizens united around an issue. 

We are beset with arguments about candidates. But if people care more about issues, then the people who run for office will, too. People’s political power extends beyond their vote, because popularity also matters in politics.

James M. Hohman is director of fiscal policy at Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute located in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.