One of the gifts of living in a representative democracy is that voting is only one of the rights it confers. For ordinary people who want to make change — who in some way want to alter their neighborhood or town or state or even the nation — the promise exists that by dint of their own efforts they can do so. This is a precious gift.
But it is not an easy one to enjoy. Even in a democracy, bringing about significant change requires hard work — a level of intensity and commitment beyond the ordinary responsibilities of citizenship. You need a workable, achievable remedy that will correct the problem you’re worried about. You need patience and perseverance, and a specific set of skills and capabilities.
To begin with, you can’t make change alone. You’ll require the help of others. So you have to be able to listen carefully to people — and then identify the interest groups and individuals who can help you achieve what you want.
This means you also need to be able to look around you and understand the political lay of the land. How intensely will this or that individual or group support you? Will they actually help, or just pay lip service? What are they willing to do — and, just as important, not willing to do?
What about the lobbyists, the mayor’s or governor’s office — or the White House? What kind of reception can you expect from the media? And what will it take to get your allies to work in a coherent, coordinated way?
You also have to take responsibility for being the expert on your proposal. You’ll need to understand its weaknesses and strengths, its potential impact, and the arguments both for and against it. There’s nothing quite so challenging as appearing before a city council or congressional committee and answering questions from politicians who have their own agendas as they grill you.
You have to know what you’re talking about, and be willing constantly to update yourself on the facts. Facts drive the public dialogue, and you want always to be on the lookout for the most persuasive facts or developments that can support your proposal.
This is because you’ll also need to communicate constantly, whether you’re trying to build support one on one or before a gathering of hundreds. On radio, television, in print, online — it’s impossible to over-communicate.
And though amplifying the reach of your voice has value, so does retail persuading —plain one-on-one conversations that teach you which arguments carry weight and which don’t. Because although you might be starting with like-minded allies, inevitably you’ll need to broaden your coalition to include people who were initially skeptical or saw the issue differently from you.
Which is why you also should always be open to the idea that you could be wrong, that your proposal could be improved and strengthened, that others might have better ideas both on substance and on strategy. Part of the art of building coalitions is being open to proposals that alter or change your proposal. You may have put a lot of work into designing and drafting it, but one of the first things you’ll encounter is someone who’s got an amendment.
No one possesses all the skills needed to persuade, cajole, negotiate, and strategize his or her way to success. Especially when it comes to pushing a cause at the state or national level, it will take money: to communicate, to advertise, to travel. It takes resources to accomplish changes of consequence, which means raising money — and dealing with donors who want a role to play, with all the challenges that brings.
Fortunately, there is no single center of power in this country. It takes a complex effort within a complex system to make change, which is why it’s such a challenge and why many people get discouraged. It’s built into the idea of representative democracy that making change is difficult. But most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. Few things can exceed the satisfaction of helping shape the direction and success of your community or nation.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.