Keep your local flacks busy

Just got back from visiting (Republican) Senator Cory Gardner‘s office Denver with some other constituents from Boulder. Some reflections from that meeting.

1. You’re not surprising or upsetting any work going on in the office. Perhaps call ahead to make sure the office is open or to set up an appointment. We walked in and had a meeting within 15 minutes. Your tax dollars pay for staffers to be in these offices to listen to constituents’ concerns. There is a process and space and staff dedicated to this: office staffers won’t be surprised or upset by it. But don’t show up with 50 people with placards and brass instruments (though there are times and spaces for this) if you actually want to talk with someone: go in groups of 4-6.

2. Make sure you go with others. I was nervous and it’s so helpful to have other people there who are nervous or experienced as well. You can talk through a general plan beforehand and then debrief afterward. But most importantly, you’re not in a room 1-on-1 with an someone whose sole expertise is defending and dodging (see point 3). There’s safety in numbers so the staffer is in the minority and is listening most of the time.

3. You’re going to talk to a flack. This is a staffer whose livelihood and aspirations depends on expertly deflecting and dodging issues. They’re going to be much, much, much better at it than anyone you tussle with on social media or your cranky relative over the holidays. You have a day job doing other important things but you’re going up against an aspiring press secretary, policy advisor, or future candidate who is potentially a true believer, but more importantly has been doing this day in and day out for months or years. They almost certainly consume more news and social media than you—because it’s their job.  You’re also not going to change their mind: this is a weird and elaborate performance of controlled confrontation for both of you. You’re going to walk out and 15 minutes later think of the perfect retort to the flack’s provocation. You’re also going to get better at this and will be more prepared the next time you go. (See point 6)

4. Prepare your own talking points and stay on script. This flack is going to push buttons or recite stupid talking points. Your fight-or-flight will kick in, but you are not here to win the war in a single meeting with a staffer. They have not only heard all your talking points before but they have counter-points ready to go to. Try to get a step ahead and anticipate their retorts, but see Point 3: they’re going to be much better than you at this. Cite specific facts from authoritative sources wherever possible so you don’t get into he-said-she-said pissing matches. Ask for clarifications on your Rep’s position and actions they intend to take beyond issuing statements. Bring personal stories about how this is affecting you. Bring different kinds of people: veterans, business people, working class people, immigrants, people with pre-existing conditions, etc. whose lived experiences do not make this meeting a bunch of hypotheticals. Maybe bring a small inexpensive item symbolizing something about your concerns to be given to your Rep as a gift so that it can’t be easily filed away like a letter, voicemail, or email.

5. Be polite and start from common ground. Acknowledge any of the good things your Republican congresscritter has done, however minor, as examples of courage. Encourage your rep to show more courage like that. You are engaging in politics so speak in political terms: both with the carrot of high ideals, common values, and lasting legacies but also with the stick of polling, fundraising, and elections. Make sure to thank the staffer who’s really just paying his or her dues and hoping to get tapped to jump up to the real game in D.C. rather than doing this objectively unenviable job. Save your righteous energy for your Saturday protests.

6. Make a plan to go back and bring others. It’s nerve-racking going in but feels really empowering afterward: you went into the lion’s den and came back out. Your Congresscritters and their staffers work for you. Make sure they’re doing the work.

The Winds, They Are A-Turbulently Flowing

This may just my bubble talking, but it feels like something shifted after Trump’s attacks on scientists today.

That rather heaping disdain on the already-marginalized, he began to assault people most Americans aspire to be.

That we always accept heroic scientists’ politics because we see them as scientists first.

That politics has always been guilty entertainment where lies and violence make for great drama, but realizing The Apprentice shenanigans and Walking Dead villains are creeping into the impenetrable — but important — work being done in those labs you see on Big Bang Theory or hear on Radiolab.

That your co-worker’s brilliant, but too busy to keep up with your woke politics, friend is suddenly and severely worried that she can’t do her like *real, actual, Pasteur quadrant science* about cancer treatment or weather forecasting because our “isn’t that just awful, but there isn’t anything I can do about it so I might as well look” political circus is spilling into sacred secular spaces. Once the 94.9 million Americans who didn’t vote in this election expecting the serious scientists to bail us out at the end — like Scottie, R2D2, Lucius Fox, Tony Stark, Abby Sciuto, Samwell Tarly always do — instead hear those scientists saying “we won’t make it this time”… now people want to get off the ride.

Corvus magnam

Remember, remember, the eighth of November. Like so many other people in my filter bubble, I registered my snide remarks assuming the inevitability of Clinton’s win that evening and came home before 6pm to watch the east coast results come in and see a 10pm acceptance speech.

Indifference that Ohio and Florida were too close to call in the first hour: “To be expected.”

North Carolina and Pennsylvania much closer than anticipated in the second hour: “Noise from early precincts.”

Widening short-falls in Michigan and Wisconsin by the third hour: silently re-configuring decision trees to find a new path to 270.

Nausea and palpitations by the fourth hour: the happy clicks of refreshing feeds filling a painfully somber void.

Waking up from a short night of fitful sleep with the emotional hangover: Who should I be mad at?

Myself: I was a reluctant supporter of Hillary — at best. I held my nose and cast my mail-in ballot. Then I returned to tweeting my daily snark and assumed other fellow sober citizens would do the work to extinguish the dumpster fire.  I didn’t lift a finger to donate or volunteer when I had the resources and skills to do so. I did not in fact do everything in my power to stop this from happening.

Others: Too bad no one bothered to show up to vote. 7 million fewer ballots cast in 2016 than in 2012. Democrats refusing to show up to save GOP supporters from themselves. Registering disaffection with a broken political system by re-electing almost every incumbent. Rewarding naked cynicism and bigotry with control of all three branches of government.

Systems: A GOP that profits from gridlock and flourishes under voter disaffection. An electoral system that has twice in less than two decades disenfranchised the will of a majority of Americans. A media so enamored of its objectivity it marinades in false equivalences. A party apparatus hell-bent on a painless coronation rather than a fair competition.

Denial sets in: I won’t bear the burden of Obamacare being repealed, state security forces occupying my neighborhood, my religion becoming criminalized, or violence against my body normalized. Sure, my quantitative social science research agenda has just spectacularly failed one of its most prominent and important tests, but I can eat that crow for the rest of my professional career. At the end of the day I’m a straight, white, male college professor: I’ll be comparatively fine under a Trump administration. After all, things have been going pretty great for people like me since 2008! Ok, more like before 1492.

Bargaining begins: Maybe there’s something to be salvaged from his proposed policies? Maybe crazy will moderate itself once the gravity of the office sinks in? Maybe his brand of populism will still fracture the coalition of teahadists, chickenhawks, and culture warriors? Maybe this is an opportunity for Democrats to get their own house in order and pursue an “aggressive progressive” agenda for once? Maybe this sets up a huge wave election in 2020 when we can dismantle the gerrymandering of 2010?

The earth hasn’t yet made a full rotation, so I’m a long way from getting through the depression or acceptance stages of grieving. But I will redouble my efforts in the next four years to support organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NAACP, and RAINN to limit the damage a Trump administration is poised to inflict on our democracy. And while the 2018 mid-term election is already poised to deliver a super-majority to the GOP, I will dedicate myself until then to fighting for once instead of cynically screeching from the sidelines. It’s time to take our country back.