Nature of Politics

The following essay is from the National Association for Gun Rights.


The Real Nature of Politics and Politicians:
America’s System Works, but Not the Way you Think!

Michael I. Rothfeld, President SABER Communications, Inc.


Few of the lectures I give  on political technology and campaigning make people as agitated as this one.

None is more important.

Simply put, politics is not  about the common good, appealing to men’s better angels, nor serving our Lord.   These may be your motivations.  I pray they are mine.  Occasionally, they will  be a politician’s motivation.

Politics is the  adjudication of power.  It is the process by which people everywhere determine  who rules whom.

In America, through a  brilliant system of rewards and punishments, checks and balances, and diffusion  of authority, we have acquired a habit and history of politics mostly without  violence and excessive corruption.

The good news for you and  me is that the system works.

The bad news is it is hard,  and sometimes unpleasant work, for us to succeed in enacting policy.

There is absolutely no  reason for you to spend your time, talent, and money in politics except for  this:  If you do not, laws will be written and regulations enforced by folks  with little or no interest in your well-being.

The following pages may  challenge everything you thought you knew about politics, and everything you  have been told about politics from your high school civics teacher to the lead  editorial writer in your local paper to the politics “expert” at a respected  organization.

But if you read carefully  and understand, you will become capable of leading a successful fight for your  values.



Politicians — Not Education and Not Public Opinion — Make Policy

The first mistake most  folks make when they set out on a good-faith crusade to do good is to completely  misunderstand their targets.

Sometimes, activists make  the local newspaper or media the target.  The thinking goes, “If we can just get  them to understand the problem, things will change.”  It is fortunate that this  is not correct, because the media in the U.S. is overwhelmingly committed to big  government, gun control, and the supremacy of state-controlled education over  parent controlled education.

The fact is newspapers cast  no votes.  The national evening news controls no elections.  If this were not  true, Ronald Reagan would never have been President.

An even more common mistake  is to believe that the key to victory is education.

The “education is the key  to political victory” theory claims that if we educate people as to the problem  and the solution, then the elected officials will fall in line.


Polls show huge majorities  of Americans in favor of parental notification before a minor has an abortion.   Yet the mere mention of the issue drives most politicians into fits of terror.   Similarly, three-quarters of the American people oppose forced-unionism and  favor Right to Work laws; however, such laws exist in only 22 states.

It is important to  understand the two reasons why the education theory of politics is a mistake.

First, the theory assumes  no opposing “education” effort.  This is rarely the case.

Polls showed a majority in  California favored education choice, yet the 1992 School Voucher Referendum lost  2-1 on election day.  Why?  Because the NEA-teachers’ union bosses and  pro-government-school-monopoly forces out-organized school choice forces, had a  more focused message, and spent a lot more money.

The second, and more  important, reason the “education is the key” theory fails lies in the nature of  politics and politicians.



Policy in the Margins: Why Grass-Roots Politics Works

What follows is a  generalized breakdown of voting in any given election:

People Percent for Victory
100%, all people 50%, plus 1
70% eligible to vote (excludes aliens, felons, and minors) 35%, plus 1
40% registered to vote (approximately 60% of eligible) 20%, plus 1
20% vote on election day (50% of registered voters) 10%, plus 1
7% almost always vote Republican
7% almost always vote Democrat
6% swing votes 3%, plus1

Three percent of the  populations plus one voter.  Here is where politicians live and die.

In some local and state  elections where turnout may be only 20 percent of registered voters, the margin  may be far less than three percent plus one.

The average politician  lives in constant fear of alienating any substantial portion of this three  percent plus one voter he needs in a hotly contested race to win re-election, or  to gain higher office.

What is the best way not to  alienate these voters?  Do nothing to make them mad, which almost always means  … do nothing.

This is why even when new  politicians are elected, little seems to change.  Inertia — or the status quo —  is the most potent force in politics.

However, by mobilizing and  directing voters rallying around a specific issue, you can change the political  environment for a politician or even a group of politicians.  One relatively  small group can make it more costly for the politician not to act than it is for  him or her to act as you want him to.

This is what I mean when I  say that policy is made at the margins.  Over time, the number and effectiveness  of activists determines political success or failure.

This is also why the  homosexual lobby, labor unions, and organized groups so often get legislation  they want.  They have groups of voters who can, and will, vote on their issue  alone.  And they often have workers and sometimes money to use against any  politician who crosses them.

By becoming a grass-roots  leader, you can, too.

That’s where the fun, and  the danger, begins.



How Politicians React to Pressure

In a better world, you  would mobilize, the politicians would immediately agree to do everything you  want, the policy would be changed, and we would all live happily ever after.

Of course, it rarely  happens that way.

When a provision harmful to  homeschooling parents was located in the 1994 Education Bill (H.R.6), Mike  Farris’ Home School Legal Defense Association directed some one million calls  and letters to Congress in a three-week period.  The amendment to strip out the  offending language passed the U.S. House of Representatives 434-1.  Another  amendment by Representative Dick Armey (R-TX) to positively protect home schoolers passed 374-53.

It was a rout.

The rout occurred not just  because the home schooling community was so mobilized (though they were) but  because they were mobilized for a very specific purpose, to which there was  virtually no organized opposition.

It was an easy decision for  members of the House of Representatives.

This is not the case for  most controversial issues.  It is certainly not true for any legislation  relating to the right to keep and bear arms or abortion or right to work.

So how will a politician  react to your organized pressure when he knows there is or is certain to be,  organized pressure against your position?

The first thing the  politician will do is try to make you go away without giving you anything of  substance.  If he gives you anything of substance, then those organized on the  other side will be mad.

So most politicians will  try to make you quit by intimidation, explanation, or buying you off.

Many politicians —  especially those used to being treated like royalty rather than public servants  — may try to threaten and intimidate.  Statements such as, “If you ever try  something like this again, I’ll vote against you for sure,” or “I’ll tell the  newspaper you’re a trouble-maker” are not uncommon.  A rudely spoken, “I don’t  know who you think you are, but that’s not how we do things here, and no one  will work with you again” followed by a slammed-down phone receiver is another  favorite.

Remember, you are not  running for office.  The politician is.  Then remember the three percent plus  one voter margin, and double your efforts to mobilize.

Before long, even this  politician will go to a new tactic.

Most likely, a politician  (whether or not intimidation is attempted) will seek to placate you by  “explaining” what he or she calls “the political reality.”  Sometimes the  explanation may be made by a surrogate for the politician; a member of his  staff, a lobbyist or even, in many cases, a well-known advocate for your issue.

The message usually takes  the basic form of, “I’ve been doing this for a long time and believe me, I share  your concerns but we just can’t pass that bill right now,” or “even if we could  pass what your people want, the Governor (or President or a judge) will kill  it,” or “It’s the best we could do,” or simply “We’ll lose.”

First of all, so what?   Rome was not built in a day, nor is major policy passed overnight.  Sometimes it  may take years.  But policy will never change if politicians never vote on it.

Policy is changed one vote  — one politician — at a time.

Second of all, the reason  this is often true is that politicians succeed in ducking difficult votes, thus  preventing voters from ever knowing exactly where they stand.

Your job as a grassroots  leader is to convey to the politician your supporters’ insistence on his or her  personal, public and on-the-record support for your position.

Of course, you do want to  pass your legislation (or defeat your opponent’s legislation), but first and  foremost, you want the politician’s complete public support.  As an aside, a  commitment in writing is better than a verbal commitment, and a vote on the most  controversial piece of the bill (not necessarily final passage) is better than a  written commitment.

Private promises are  worthless.

When you have insisted on  the politician’s support for your position, they will then try to buy you off.   Here is where the best grass-roots leaders fail.



Power, Access and Selling Out

Politics can be seductive.

The chance to rub elbows  with elected officials, being looked up to by people in your community as  someone in the know, invitations to and recognition at special events, being  quoted in the media, helping to write “acceptable” compromise language, an  appointment to some committee or task force, or even a paid job in the  politician’s office or campaign — all this could be yours if you become a  grassroots leader.  These are the trinkets for which leaders sell out their  political agenda.

Of course, most everyone  thinks he is strong enough, smart enough, and committed enough not to sell out.   Few people are.

Before long, instead of  delivering to the politician the grassroots’ message to pass or defeat specific  legislation, you become the politician’s representative, telling grass-roots  activists what they must settle for.

Right now, today, decide  whether you want access or power.

Access is calling a  politician and having him take your call.  He listens to what you want, and may  or may not do it.  It is what most grassroots leaders end up settling for.  This  is the way most non-controversial (e.g. business accounting before Enron) and  high-interest versus low-opposition (e.g. farm subsidies) political business is  done.

Power is the ability to  tell a politician what you want, and either get it or deliver substantial pain  (maybe even get a new politician) at the next election.  This is the ONLY way  ideological, controversial legislation can be passed or defeated (e.g. abortion,  guns or homosexual special rights).

Again, I urge you to  remember the three percent plus one voter.

You and your grassroots  group may be able to single-handedly bring the politician down.  Or perhaps you  will be one of a handful of groups organizing at the next election.

No matter what, you will  make it harder for the politician to win re-election, costing him extra time and  money.

If the politician loses, every other elected official will fear you and your group.

If the politician wins, he  (and other politicians) will remember the  extra pain you caused him.  And he  will know you may do it again or  worse.  When you return to continue fighting  for what you believe in,  you will find him and his colleagues more willing …  and surprisingly,  sometimes more gracious (though do not count on the latter;  personal  pleasantness is cheap coin).

As the late Everett Dirksen  said, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.”



Winning in the Long Run


There is a great deal more  I could tell you.

  • How to recruit for your grassroots  organization.
  • How best to communicate with politicians.
  • The differences between offensive and  defensive legislative strategies.
  • Choosing a leader who is an elected  official (Hint: Be very careful).
  • When and how to use the media.
  • The best ways to raise money for the  short-term and the long-term.

But what I would like to  close with is the importance of taking a long-term approach to fighting for your  values.  If you remember from the  beginning of this article, I said the good news is that the system works.  I hope by now you see what  I mean.  Namely, the politicians are still subservient to the people who elected  them … to you and me.  However, most of the time,  a fight to really make a difference may take years.  This is especially true the  further from local politics you get.

It’s true Mike Farris and  the Home School Legal Defense Foundation won the battle for home schoolers in  the U.S. Congress in just a few weeks as described above.  But Mike Farris spent  years building his organization of home schoolers.  More importantly, as I  noted, there was little or no opposition to the mobilized home schooling force.

Since then, in fights to  pass any kind of school choice — much more, a full tax credit — the results  have been very different.  In fact, President George W. Bush easily abandoned  the conservative opposition to federalized education and passed the No Child  Left Behind Act with overwhelming Republican support.  The size and  effectiveness of the advocates of bigger government schools dwarfs those of  us who are committed to school choice.

When you first start out,  expect not to be taken seriously; especially if you insist upon principle and  refuse to compromise or to be bought off.

The key will be for you and  your grassroots activists to aggressively make politicians pay a price for their  failure to pay attention to their constituents (you and your group).  Every  year, every session of the legislature, you must return pushing for your  principles.  And every election, you must cause pain to as many politicians as  possible; starting with those who claim to support your cause, but vote and act  in opposition.

At the same time, you  should be continually recruiting more members, raising more money, and expanding  the areas in which you are active.

By doing this, you can win  in the long run.

Mike Rothfeld is a 24-year political consultant with a  national reputation for political confrontation and success.  He has taught  political tactics to thousands of activists and guided the formation  and growth of many gun rights organizations, including Rocky Mountain Gun Owners  and the National Association for Gun Rights.