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The significance of grassroots activism

By Connie Marshner
web posted March 25, 2002

When Ronald Reagan was a candidate, thousands of citizens got activated and involved in the process of self-government on his behalf.

I remember 1980 as the year I rode on 99 airplanes, criss-crossing the country from Alaska to Florida, exhorting people to get involved in the process of governance and teaching them how to do it. And election night was sweet: before I had even gotten to the party, victory had been declared.

But it got better all evening, as state by state, the Senate returns came in.

By 1981, I had a box eight inches deep filled with index cards listing activists in every state. Most of them I had met in person. That was the way it was done in those days.

Many of them had been active in local school reform issues; some had been involved with stopping ERA. For some, abortion was the issue that got them out of the kitchen and into the arena. For others, it was Jimmy Carter's attack on Christian schools that had galvanized them. Some were flexing their political muscle because their pastor had inspired them to a concern about the nation.

In any case, they were there. That was twenty some years ago. During the intervening decades dozens, even scores, of conservative think tanks and pressure groups and lobbies and networks have sprung up, many of which have prospered.

But where are the grassroots activists?

The people who should be activists are launching their careers and their families and their businesses. Their conservative viewpoint is established fine. In one sense, they are better off than the previous generation, because they have the Internet and talk radio, so they are not the captives of a biased news industry. They are confident that conservative leaders in Washington are speaking for them.

But I am worried. Do they know how to walk a precinct? How often do they write a letter to their elected representatives?

Listening to Rush Limbaugh does not influence a single vote in Congress. Tuning in Dr. Laura does not register a single voter. Applauding Michael Reagan or Ollie North does not turn out any votes.

If our grassroots had been as strong as they should have been, John Ashcroft would have been confirmed by a comfortable margin. If our grassroots activists were doing what they should have been, campaign reform advocates would still be biting their nails instead of celebrating. And Judge Pickering would be on the federal bench now.

You see, Morton Blackwell's rule still applies: "in any given political contest, whichever side is better able to motivate and activate the greatest number of followers will win."

There used to be Members of Congress who literally weighed their constituent mail before deciding how to cast their vote on controversial matters.

Today, they count every constituent contact in the computer. But I still hear conservatives say "Aw, there's no point in writing a letter – they just send you a form reply." So what if you get a canned response? What matters is: your letter got counted!

And I still run into people who say "There's no point in talking to the press, they're all on the other side." After I recover my equilibrium, I wonder: don't you know a reporter does not have to agree with you in order to write a fair story about you? Don't you know how to work with the media?

Well, no, they don't. They don't know how to lobby either. And while they may vote, they probably don't know how to turn out all the like-minded members of their church and get them to the polls.

All of which adds up to a wakeup call for grassroots activists.

And I suppose it adds up to a commercial.

The Center for Conservative Governance is putting on a California training conference in Santa Clara, California, on April 6. It's a one-day, two-track event, very reasonably priced, an opportunity for anybody who is thinking of getting active to come and learn how to do it. Everyone will be taught the basics in the morning, then have a choice in the afternoon of campaign or lobbying training.

If you know how to do it, you're more likely to do it more often. And if elected representatives know that conservatives are watching them, they're more likely to pay attention when it's time to cast votes.

For more information, visit the website at www.freecongress.org. Do it today.

Connie Marshner is director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Governance.

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