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The Real Nature Of Politics


As many of you have heard by now, the new GOP majority is about ready to throw in the towel on requiring a photo ID to vote in North Carolina.  This is causing quite a bit of outcry and confusion in Tea Party circles, since this was one of the major issues that Thom Tillis and Skip Stam ran on last year and has overwhelming support.

Re-printed below is “The Real Nature of Politics” by Campaign for Liberty senior consultant Mike Rothfeld.  It is an overview of how our political process really works, why it works the way it does, and what motivates politicians.  It should provide an insight into what’s driving the sudden compromises our elected officials are suddenly settling for, even in the face of contrary public opinion and outcry from conservative activists.  It should serve as a sobering reminder of just what is required to hold politicians accountable.

— Adam Love


– by Mike Rothfeld

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 our system works.The bad news is it is hard, and frequently 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 learn this lesson, laws will be written and regulations enforced by folks with little or no interest in your well-being.  The following 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. Remember, these tactics are ideologically neutral.


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.”  Fortunately, this is not correct, because the media in the U.S. is overwhelmingly committed to big government, gun control, and undermining the U.S. Constitution.

The fact is newspapers do not cast votes.  The national news media does not control elections.  If this were not true, politicians like Ron Paul would never win a race for public office.

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 on the problem and the solution, then the elected officials will fall into line.


Politicians make laws despite public opinion, not because of it.  Polls show huge majorities of Americans in favor of parental consent before a minor has an abortion, and they oppose sex-selection abortions.  Yet the mere mention of the issue drives many politicians into fits of terror.  Similarly, over 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 there is 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 theory” fails is inherent in the nature of politics and politicians. Let me explain.


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

People                                                   Percentage for victory

100% (all people)                                 50% + 1

70% (eligible to vote)                           35% + 1

40% (registered to vote)                      20% + 1

20% (vote on election day)                  10% + 1

7% almost always vote Republican

7% almost always vote Democratic

6% swing vote                                       3% + 1 wins elections

Three percent of the total population plus one voter — that is where politicians live and die. Lower turnout elections (special elections, primaries, or low-interest state and local races) may generate far lower turnout, and thus much lower percentages.

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 on any controversial issue … 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.  A casebook study was the 18-month saga of the Obama Administration and huge Democrat majorities in the House and Senate to pass Obamacare in 2009-2010.  In theory, the votes were there in January 2009.  In reality, a tidal wave of liberty-minded opposition nearly killed the bill outright, forced massive changes, and is likely to lead to big political losses in the upcoming elections.


This is good news for you.  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 exactly what I mean when I say policy is made at the margins.  Over time, the number and effectiveness of activists determines political success or failure. This is also why the gun-control 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 money to use against any politician who crosses them.  By becoming a grassroots leader, you can too.  The bottom line is this:  UNLESS YOU ARE POLITICALLY FEARED, YOU WILL NOT BE POLITICALLY RESPECTED.

Let me repeat, unless you are politically feared, you will NOT be politically respected.That’s where the fun, and the danger, begins…


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 home-schooling parents was located in the 1994 Education Bill (H.R.6), Mike Farris’ Home School Legal Defense Association directed approximately 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 energized (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, cutting federal spending, protecting unborn life, 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?  After initially trying to ignore you (to see if you will just give up), the politician will 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.  Remember, any response is a clear sign your pressure is working.


How will a politician react to your organized pressure when he knows there is or is certain to be organized pressure against your position?  After initially trying to ignore you (to see if you will just give up), the politician will 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.

Remember, any response is a clear sign your pressure is working.

Discipline yourself to ask the following question when dealing with politicians, their staff and the swirl of lobbyists and insiders who serve them in a political fight: How does the politician and political class benefit if I act upon what he or his minions tell me?

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. Threats about calling the authorities or having you investigated also occur (but are virtually always bluffs).

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, even a decade or more.  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. Incidentally, this is why states with easy referenda processes (like California) usually have left-wing legislatures — because the only thing politicians vote on directly is how to spend money and regulate citizens and businesses, while all controversial issues go on the ballot.  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.


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 and recognized on the “hot” blogs, 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.

I will repeat again: Unless you are politically feared, you will not be politically respected.

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.


There is a great deal more I could tell you:How to recruit for your grassroots organization, how to communicate with politicians, differences in legislative strategies, and so on. I would therefore like to close with 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 the 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.

Then, and only then, can you win in the long run.


Michael I. Rothfeld is a veteran of direct marketing, political elections, & legislative campaigns.  He the President of SABER Communications and works closely with the National Right to Work Committee, the Leadership Institute, the Conservative Victory PAC, and Campaign for Liberty.

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