Understanding a Politician's Mind

Walnuts - that look remarkably like human brains - laid out on a blue background.
Photo by Priyanka Singh / Unsplash

Should you find yourself with a spare moment one afternoon. And should you think to yourself, I will use this spare moment to watch a bit of C-SPAN. And should you happen to turn it on when there is a Tough Vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, you may notice something worth noticing.

There will likely be a gaggle of House Members milling around the well - the area at the front of the chamber below the Speaker's chair - watching the voting board. These Members are exhibiting that most familiar of human traits, known as I-Don't-Want-To-Stick-My-Neck-Out-On-This-So-I'll-Wait-And-See-What-Everyone-Else-Is-Doing.

Everyone Else is not actually Everyone Else. Likely Everyone Else is a certain faction the politician identifies with that's relevant to the vote. Maybe it's the Member's state party delegation (i.e. California Dems or New York GOP), the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Problems Solvers Caucus, their friends. Most Members are looking for some degree of cover so if there's pushback on their vote, they can say, "Well, Everyone Else in X voted this way." Safety in numbers.

We could both probably name a politician or two who loves to be the lone wolf howling solo. That's why we can name them: they gain notoriety by yowling at the moon by themselves. But the bulk of politicians are rank-and-file party members who want to win reelection without sticking out like a sore thumb.

So if you'd like your Congressperson or Senator, State Rep or City Councilor to do something - especially if it's something they haven't engaged on before - it helps to tell them about Everyone Else who's relevant that's also supportive.

  • "Bill is cosigning the Excellent Adventure Act; would you consider joining them as a cosponsor, Ted?"
  • "Fifty percent of the Maine Congressional delegation [that's two people, for the uninitiated] is signing this letter; I would be grateful if you would consider cosigning."
  • Or even, "Twenty-one neighbors and I agree: we need a lower speed limit on FastAsYouPlease Lane. Would you help us with this?"

How to find the relevant Everyone Else? Think about who would matter to the politician. Our good friend in this will be the politician's social media presence for clues about who they admire, partner with, see as an ally.

Let's get specific:

  • Key constituencies in the politician's district: this could be unions, colleges or universities, big employers, community leaders, folks the politician has supported – maybe cut a ribbon at the organization's grand opening 0r mentions positively on social media.
  • Relevant politicians
    • Other members of their Congressional state delegation (the U.S. Senators and Members of the House from that state), likely of the same party. Though in smaller states with smaller delegations - such as my own Maine with a whopping four-member Congressional delegation (two Senators, two Members of the House) - that may be less important.
    • Members they've worked with on other issues. This means there's an existing staff relationship, and it's no secret that staff do a lot of heavy-lifting in legislatures. [Quoth former Senator Tom Harkin, "A United States Senator is a constitutional impediment to the smooth functioning of staff."] Note: some issues make unlikely bed fellows, just because they work together on one issue doesn't mean they'll work together on every issue.
    • Other politicians they admire and elevate.
  • National or regional groups they've partnered with.
  • For local and state legislators, showing that a gaggle of constituents support it is a grassroots form of Everyone Else. A State Senator once told me five phone calls made something a Big Issue. A State Senator's Chief of Staff told me 10 phone calls could sway the boss's vote. Impact may be closer than we think.

And now for the easily overlooked piece of this: everything we do with a legislator or their staff signals if they can trust us. We'll get knee-deep on this another time, but if we do our homework and highlight Everyone Else who supports our initiative that would matter, we're signaling to the politician that we understand them and the world they move in, which makes them that much more likely to bend an ear to our cause.

This also means that even if our Absolute Favorite Human on the Planet Who Should Get a Nobel for Their Wondrousness supports our initiative, if that favorite human isn't relevant to the politician, don't include them. We'll come across as uninformed, which undermines trust.

There are as many ways to understand a politician's mind as there are politicians (with minds, so not all of them). But mind or no, plenty of politicians often like doing what their buddies are doing. You could help them do that.

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